Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

Blooms to sweeten a winter’s day – luculia

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

Here we are, a mere three days from the winter solstice and outside my window, rain is pelting down while thunder and lightning is keeping the dogs safely in their beds by the fire. So I bring you winter sunshine, in the form of luculia, with photographs I took just yesterday when the sun shone and the daytime temperature was around 18 degrees Celsius.

I am very fond of luculia with their heady fragrance and their balls of flowers. Perhaps they are a bit like the wintersweet equivalent for mild climates. These are not particularly hardy plants even though their original homeland is declared as the Himalayas and Southern China. Think not of high, snowy peaks but more of temperate, protected, lowland forests and by the time you reach southern China, it is distinctly tropical. Luculia are okay with cooler temperatures and a degree or two of frost but that is all. The will not survive much beyond that.

There is not a huge range of luculia – there are only five different known species and, as far as I know, named cultivars are species selections, not hybrids. We grow gratissima and pinceana, grandiflora is also widely grown but I have not seen intermedia or yunnanensis except on line.

I am not a massive fan of L. gratissima ‘Early Dawn’, which is a smaller growing species. That sugar pink flower is very… sugary. Also, when grown in full sun or high light levels, the foliage can take on autumn tones which are not a great foil to sugar pink. Too often, ‘Early Dawn’ is clipped into obedient, rounded stature. Let it grow as it wishes in woodland conditions and the foliage stays bright green giving clean contrast to the pink, while the shrub becomes willowy and graceful. That is when it looks best, to my eye, although it won’t flower as prolifically in shadier conditions.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

‘Fragrant Cloud’ is a different species, being L. pinceana. It is larger growing with considerably larger flowers in pretty almond pink, a stronger fragrance, more rangy and open in its growth and if you prune it too hard, it is highly likely to die on you. If you like tidy, contained shrubs, this may not be one for you. ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is one we named, another L. pinceana selection that came to us as a seedling from our colleague, Glyn Church. It is much more forgiving than its pink sibling and will take harder pruning. Left to its own devices, it will be just as rangy.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’

We used to grow ‘Fragrant Pearl’ commercially and it was one of the quickest turnarounds we had. Most of the trees and shrubs we grew took 3 or even 4 years from taking the cutting before becoming saleable. We could get ‘Fragrant Pearl’ through in 15 months. We would take the cuttings from nursery plants as soon as the new growth had hardened in January. They rooted really quickly and with a high percentage in the propagation beds. We would pot them from root-trainers to finished bag size in late winter or early spring, stake and shape them in January and sell them in bud in March and April. ‘Fragrant Cloud’, the pink form of the same species, was nowhere near as easy to handle as a nursery plant and the reason we don’t have L. grandiflora is because it was not that easy to propagate from the cuttings Mark tried and we don’t want it enough to go out and actually buy a plant.

I can not advise on how to make the flowers last longer when cut. Sometimes they have held reasonably well, other times they have gone limp and flaccid within hours. This probably has more to do with the time of the day they were cut than whether the stems were crushed or sealed by burning. But we heat our house to such a degree in winter that there is no point in trying to keep cut flowers in a vase.

Left to right: gratisima ‘Early Dawn’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud

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More on belladonnas

Needing a break from a garden task, I wandered around with my flower basket, curious as to how much variation there is in the belladonna flowers still in bloom, given that ours are all seedlings. A fair amount, it turns out, in colour and size. This was not an exhaustive survey into the average number of blooms per flower spike, variations in flower form and length of time in bloom. There are limits to how interested I am in this particular genus.

Paler hues – 3rd from left has quite a sweet picotee edging. The one on the hard right was a noticeably different colour verging on more apricot tones – presumably the yellow throat bleeding colour further into the pink

There were a few interesting breaks – the palest form with pink picotee edging, the one which appeared to be developing apricot tones rather than shades of sugar pink, a big deep cerise one with an attractive white star within the trumpet. Some plants have noticeably larger blooms but, as with many plants, this can make the flowers more vulnerable to weather damage and often with fewer flowers to the truss. There is always a trade-off in the plant world.

The deepest coloured forms – cerise almost getting to red – tend to be later flowering and are  the only ones that we have ever had picked by passersby. But that was years ago. These days our road verges are so steep that there is nowhere safe to stop and nowhere to walk so the flowers are safe. It is an ill wind, I guess, though we would prefer more hospitable road verges and slower traffic.

There is only one single species in this family of Amaryllis belladonna but clearly that species is variable within itself. I am not sure that there is a great future for them other than as casual clumps on road verges or in wilder areas of the garden. Lovely though they are on their days, their blooming season is brief, they form large clumps of large bulbs and hang onto their foliage for a long time before it dies off untidily. They don’t lend themselves to the flower garden where they will swamp anything around them and take up a lot of space for their 10 days or so of glory.

  • From the Cape Province of South Africa.
  • Known as ‘naked ladies’ because they put up their flower well before the foliage appears.
  • Summer dormant.
  • Prefer to grow with their necks above ground so they can bake in the summer sun.
  • Thrive on benign neglect and can be left undisturbed for many years.

Plant Collector: Backhousia citriodora or the lemon myrtle

The graveyard specimen is in completely open conditions and looks happier for that, despite it originating from rain forest areas of Australia

A friend posted a photo of Backhousia citriodora on Facebook, asking if anybody knew what it was. I was promptly reminded of my plant and rushed out to pick some of the leaves to flavour the batch of kombucha I was just preparing. For it has one of the strongest lemon scents of any plant I know – eclipsing even grated lemon peel  – and is edible.

It is an Australian tree, the lemon myrtle. Its natural habitat is tropical rainforests of central and southern coastal Queensland but it is also an important commercial crop, grown for its very essence of lemon. Fortunately for us, it is not so tropical that it needs to be grown in frost-free conditions though it is presumably happier in milder areas of this country. Apparently it can reach 20m in height though that may be it stretching itself to reach the light in forest locations. In a more open position, ours is hovering around 3 metres but I do cut it back from time to time to keep it more compact. It does not seem to mind being trimmed.

There are more distinctive trees, if I am honest. We used to grow both B. citriodora and its relative B. anisatum (now Syzygium anisatum) and the less popular aniseed flavoured myrtle had the more attractive foliage. But at this time of the year, the lemon myrtle is in full flower and I came across this specimen in the Te Henui cemetery yesterday. It was alive with bees and a wondrous sight and sound. The fluffy clusters of flowers and stamens have their own charm, in a gentle sort of way.

Covered in flowers and alive with bees at this time of the year

I have used the lemon scented leaves to flavour milk-based dishes that lemons would curdle and added it to my fresh harvest of green tea. The kombucha won’t be ready for another five days so I can’t comment yet on how strongly lemon flavoured it is but I see no reason why it will not be effective. I have not tried drying the leaves but the ever-handy internet tells me they retain their lemon aroma when dried. Indeed, Wikipedia gave the following helpful advice: “The dried leaf has free radical scavenging ability”. So now you know.

It appears that lemon myrtle is particularly vulnerable to the dreaded myrtle rust in Australia which has implications for commercial growers and for the plant in its natural habitat. It remains to be seen whether rust-resistant varieties appear but I have not heard reports of it being spotted in NZ yet. Mind you, it is not a common tree here but it is worth growing one in the edible garden alongside the more common but dull bay trees – Laurus nobilis. Unlike the bay, which gets thrips, I have never seen anything much attack the backhousia and I find I need lemon flavouring way more often than I cook with bay leaves.

Plant Collector: Jade Cascade

Meet ‘Jade Cascade’. It has an appealing name though, to be honest, there is nothing jade about it. It really is a plain, somewhat dull green though it has attractive long ribs running the length of the leaf. It does at least cascade, or maybe it fountains, from its central point. And it is simply a terrific and eye-catching performer in the garden.

When we used to grow hostas commercially, we had maybe 40 different varieties in production. ‘Jade Cascade’ was over-shadowed by the showier members of its family and it did not sell well. Most customers did not want to buy a plain green hosta. No, they wanted the big, showy, variegated ones and the new releases. I would counsel that it is the plainer hostas that show the fancy ones off to better advantage and that planting a whole mass of striking variegated ones looks a mishmash. My wisdom was not totally ignored – customers would buy the solid coloured gold or blue ones but green varieties? Rarely.

When we went out of production, I planted many of them out in the garden and that is a very interesting exercise. Some, like ‘Jade Cascade’, have romped away and gone from strength to strength. But not that many. Of the newer varieties we had in the nursery, many have just quietly languished, doing very little. The greatest disappointment of all was ‘Great Expectations’. Aptly named, Mark says. We had great expectations of this showy, variegated variety though we had decided it was too slow to be commercially viable for us, even in optimal nursery conditions. It became Unfulfilled Expectations before transitioning to Disappointed Acceptance. Despite being given optimal conditions (well cultivated soil, plenty of compost and humus, little direct competition, summer moisture and semi shade), the plants have languished. They are still there after many years but have failed to do anything of note, let alone increase and thrive.

Pot culture in nursery conditions is one thing. Hostas are a really easy nursery crop to get looking large, lush and enticing given the controlled conditions of a production nursery. We came to the conclusion that in the quest for the new and the novelty, hosta sports were being separated off and trialled but only in nursery conditions. Garden performance is very different. We have seen the same thing with hellebores and have even bought some which looked simply terrific in the garden centre but failed to replicate that performance once put into garden conditions. Consumers can’t generally tell whether the plants they are looking at in a garden centre have been rigorously trialled so it becomes a case of win some, lose some. Were we ever to go back into business, I think I would sort out a range of tried and true performers.

‘Jade Cascade’ would earn a place close to the top of such a list. Plain green it may be, but it has a most graceful form, good slug and snail resistance and a robust disposition. In its quiet little way, I find it draws my eye every time I walk past the area where it is growing. That is a good plant.

Jade Cascade now occupies a similar amount of garden space to the established vireya rhododendron behind it

Plant Collector: Malus ioensis ‘Plena’ – (Betchel Crabapple)

My first sighting of a juvenile plant in a Taranaki garden last spring

When I first spotted this pretty, young tree in a local garden last spring, I could not identify it but it sure was a charming sight. In Canberra a couple of weeks ago, there were SO MANY of these trees in bloom that I felt I had to track down a name. It is a flowering crabapple, a malus. The nurseries that supply Canberra are clearly making a killing on producing this cultivar (along with the pretty dogwoods). It is being used widely as a street tree on suburban road verges, it was strongly represented in the gardens at Parliament House that we visited and was featured in many, many (many) gardens.

It is a pretty blossom tree though it does flower as its fresh foliage has broken dormancy, so the display is not on bare branches. Crab apples fit a similar niche to flowering cherries (prunus), though many varieties will flower a little later. Unfortunately, with ‘Plena’, you don’t get the bonus of coloured crab apples later in the season, although it can be used as a pollinator for the fruiting varieties.

Malus ioensis ‘Plena’ , not a prunus as I initially assumed

I have not looked closely at the plants in New Zealand to see if they are cutting grown or grafted. The Canberra plants were grafted, usually onto a rootstock that had an attractive, smooth pale grey bark. The problem with the plants in the Parliament House gardens (no photos allowed so I can’t show you), is that the lower grey bark of the root stock for the first metre or so was not particularly compatible with the graft so the union – where the grafted variety meets the rootstock – was already a bit lumpy and not attractive. They were not as bad as the linden shown here, but neither were the plants mature so they may well get worse. If you like your trees to last the distance over many years, just be cautious about buying plants that have been grafted as standards well above ground level. The closer the graft is to the ground, the less obvious any incompatibility will be.

It is a very pretty tree and one I expect we will see become as popular in this country as in Canberra.

A very pretty and presumably well behaved street tree in Canberra

 

 

 

Plant Collector: the good and the bad of nandina

There are not many plants that I actively dislike but the dwarf, coloured nandina is one. You can tell I do not care for it because I gave no loving attention at all to taking this photograph of a plant on a random street frontage in town. Yet this plant is everywhere. One of those bullet-proof, easy-care plants which is alleged to have ‘year-round interest’ with its coloured foliage so a perfect fit for non gardeners who merely want plants to act as low or no-maintenance soft furnishings in the garden.

The taller version – Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ seen here – has sufficient aesthetic merit to justify a place in the garden

Mark was as surprised as I was when I told him I had looked it up and there is only one species of nandina and that this boring little coloured mound which is rarely above knee height is the same species as the far more graceful and attractive Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ that we grow. I can only assume that the common name of heavenly bamboo was initially applied to the more graceful, taller type of selections like ‘Richmond’. I guess, at a pinch, one could claim it has a bamboo look to it, though probably only to those who have never actually looked at the real thing. It is actually a member of the beriberidaceae family (think berberis). Apparently nandinas only berry in warmer climates and ‘Richmond’ is self-fertile so will berry without needing the pollinator that most others do. It is worth growing – easy, reliable and low maintenance yet with a grace and elegance to it, as well as seasonal interest with its berries.

The institutional look of utilitarianism

The dwarf forms lack all of these more desirable attributes except utilitarianism. The more you have, the more utilitarian your garden will look. I have photos of a private garden which has planted a score or more of them but it is too easy to identify the place from my photos and I do not want to upset the owners.  I can, however, offer you this photo of it being used in a public garden. It will not look much different in your garden at home. But it will be easy-care.

The dwarf forms seem to be available under a whole bunch of different cultivar names with some variation in leaf tones and berrying capacity. You can tell it will be a dwarf form by the descriptions of it as clumping, compact or dwarf with projected heights of 60 to 75cm. The red berries, if you get a berrying variety, will never be as showy on a 60cm mound with coloured leaves as they are on their taller sibling with its green leaves and the panicles of berries displayed prominently at eye level or above.

In the interests of disclosure, I will admit that we have one of the dwarf nandina in our garden, though not in a prominent position. Its days are numbered. Probably in single digits since I worked out how much I actively dislike it.

A colchicum is not an autumn crocus

Crocus to the left, colchicum to the right

It is that time of year, dear Readers, when it is time to remind some of you, that the larger bloom to the right is NOT a crocus. Not at all. It is not even a relative. It is a colchicum. The left-hand flower is an autumn flowering crocus, probably one of the C. serotinus group, maybe salzmanii.

Colchicums come from the family of Colchicaceae and the order of Liliales.

Crocus belong to the subfamily of Crocoideae, family of Iridaceae and order of Asparagales.

That is the botanical explanation. The lay explanation is that crocuses are much smaller and daintier and bloom at the same time their fine foliage is coming through. Many of the 90 or so species flower in spring but some will bloom in autumn.

Colchicums flowering now

Colchicums, on the other hand, bloom well before their foliage ever appears and have much larger chalice blooms – and more stamens if you can be bothered counting. Compared to the crocus, they look as if they are on steroids but in fact it is the product of colchicine which is extracted from them. Colchicine’s main use was – or is – as an anti-inflammatory for the treatment of gout. Not one to try yourself at home, however, because it is highly toxic in the wrong hands. When the foliage appears much later, it is large and lush all winter until it dies off, untidily, in mid spring.

Because they flower before the foliage appears, colchicums are sometimes referred to as “naked ladies” (even “naked boys” I found somewhere on the internet though I have never heard that), but that is merely confusing to those of us who understand belladonnas to be naked ladies.

Crocus, but probably serotinus, not the saffron crocus

Crocus, on the other hand, give us saffron. Well, the saffron crocus does but we failed with our efforts to grow it here despite starting with a fair number of corms. They did not reappear after the first season. Too wet and humid, I think.

Colchicums are a better bet when it comes to naturalising bulbs in a meadow setting, being somewhat tougher and showier in such circumstances.