Tag Archives: agapanthus

Along the verges – midsummer on North Taranaki roadsides

Blue hydrangeas – a common roadside plant

We are very blue along our Taranaki roadsides in midsummer. I meant to get out with my camera a few weeks ago to record the roadside hydrangeas flowering in our area. Many are now passing over so I had to make do with the verge planted by our neighbour across the road. It has been bringing me pleasure for many weeks now.

Basically, hydrangeas are blue in Taranaki. This is to do with available aluminium in our acid soils.  In our warm, temperate climate with adequate summer rain, they can just be planted and left. The many, many roadside hydrangeas will have been planted originally (seeding is minimal) and then left to their own devices. I don’t think anyone ever prunes them. This means that they are generally smothered with smaller flower heads. Pruning controls the size of the shrub and increases the flower size but lessens the number of blooms. Plants can survive quite happily with no pruning at all.

Weed or common wildflower? Agapanthus

It is the season of agapanthus. They are EVERYWHERE in this area, although they generally start from a deliberate planting and they are most often seen as amenity, road verge plantings rather than garden plants. They are controversial here on account of their seeding ways and the fact that they are resistant to the most common weed killer. But our roadsides would be so much the poorer without them.

Thumbs down to woolly nightshade

My definition of a noxious weed is a plant that invades and displaces more desirable native plants and I don’t think the roadside agapanthus are displacing anything more desirable. The seed is not spread by birds and generally falls close to the parent plant so is localised. I would be far more worried about woolly nightshade – Solanum mauritianum – than about agapanthus. It has no redeeming features and is highly invasive. Curiously, by this plant, I saw a small plant of Verbena bonariensis on the verge. As it is at least two kilometres from my garden where it is flowering, I don’t think I am responsible for this plant making its way to the wild. Most of our wildflowers start as garden escapes and this verbena is so light and airy in form, while being popular with bees and butterflies, that I am not convinced that it is going to be a problem in the comparative wasteland of road verges.

Chicory – not as common as I would like it to be

Chicory is another pretty blue that I wouldn’t mind making its home around here. It is a member of the dandelion family and is also used as stock food overseas so I can’t think it would do much harm here. I found this one growing on railway land when I stopped to photograph the red hot pokers.

Kniphofia in Lepperton

Like the hydrangeas, kniphofia generally start from a deliberate planting. Though some forms seed more freely than others in a garden situation, I have never seen them as a weed when on road verges. I once wrote about them – if you want to know why Father was a red hot poker and Mother was a blushing violet. I liked this scene of kniphofia and an old gateway between the state highway and the railway line in Lepperton this week.

Crocosmia – commonly referred to as montbretia

I wrote about crocosmia in my earlier post today. If we are not blue, we are carpets of red around here – or sometimes blue and red. They are just too happy in our conditions though they do look very pretty interspersed with the long grasses on some road verges.

Common fennel

Into the yellows, we have fennel, fennel and more fennel all around the district. I really like it, so much so that I have used it in the summer borders. I like the airy grace of those yellow umbellifers and the fine, ferny foliage. The insects like them too. There is a bronze form more commonly used as an ornamental but I am not willing to spend money buying a fennel and nobody has given it to me yet.

Evening primrose

I am also fond of the wild evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which is common enough here and certainly common in wilder areas of our property. It doesn’t seem to do any harm and the bees like it.

Thumbs down, also, to convolvulus

Not all of our wild flowers are desirable. Mark keeps out the convolvulus, be it pink or white, though there is so much of it around, I can only conclude that others are less vigilant. It is a smothering plant, hellishly difficult to eradicate once it gets a foothold. This one is climbing up the Bertram Road swing bridge over the Waitara River but will very soon dominate the whole bank and bridge if not kept under control or taken out.

The wasteland of the sprayed road verge

Not all of our wildflowers are noxious weeds. But neither are all of the weeds wildflowers worth tolerating. On the other hand, is there anything much worse than this sprayed wasteland of a road verge? A practice that remains common around here.

Agapanthus a-plenty 

And sometimes agapanthus and crocosmia – one starting from a deliberate planting, the other entirely self-introduced

On the verges

Agapanthus with the dreaded convolvus - the latter is pretty in flower but we do not need it

Agapanthus with the dreaded convolvus – the latter is pretty in flower but we do not need it

As you drive around the countryside in January, ponder this: does a sprayed roadside with dead grass and roadside litter look better than wildflowers? And are garden escapes (which takes in most roadside plants and flowers) environmentally worse than repeated application of weedkiller? Maybe it is time we reviewed our attitude to weeds.

It is often said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place, though I see Sara Stein is attributed with the extended statement, “A weed is a plant that is not only in the wrong place, but intends to stay.” After all, even weeds are native to somewhere and one country’s treasure can be another country’s problem.

Toetoe beside the new Waikato expressway

Toetoe beside the new Waikato expressway

A disclaimer first: our native bush and forest are precious and vulnerable to takeover by invasive and aggressive imports. We do not need another old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba) and perish the thought that Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) ever gets a major foothold here. If you are lucky enough to live adjacent to near-pristine native bush, that brings an obligation to be very careful with what escapes your property and colonises roadsides. It also behoves us all to have some awareness of what is on our Regional Council banned and watch lists.

But most of us live in heavily modified environments and I suspect a preference for weedkiller over wildflowers arose from our farming heritage and feeling of obligation that “weeds” should not be permitted to invade precious farmland. Nowadays, when farming has become much more industrialised – a green desert, often, lacking even shelter belts – based entirely on imported grass and feed species, I don’t think that argument holds.

The ugliness of the sprayed  verge

The ugliness of the sprayed verge

Each time we visit Britain, we are entranced by their hedgerows and natural roadside vegetation. Apparently, after major clearance in decades past, there came an awareness that hedgerows contribute a great deal to the eco-system and grants were made available to reinstate them. There is not widespread mowing of road verges, let alone the ugliness of spraying. Would that we had such an enlightened attitude here. In vain do we protest that repeated spraying creates a vacuum into which unwanted weeds move first (notably the invasive, yellow bristle grass in Tikorangi), but it also prevents the ground from absorbing rainfall. Instead, the surface water is funnelled down drainage ditches, washing with it weed spray and any petrol residue from the road into waterways. How much better to have a growing roadside which filters the run-off?

Crocosmia - weed or woldflower?

Crocosmia – weed or woldflower?

Roadside vegetation is more interesting visually too, offering flowers and seasonal colour. Add to that a wildlife corridor role and we argue that they can make a significant contribution to a healthy environment. If you are worried about using imported ornamentals, you can encourage native re-vegetation. The native plantings alongside the new Waikato Expressway feature an abundance of toetoe which is wonderfully sculptural and interesting, especially silhouetted against the sky.

But we like the random mix of plants and colours we see. I look for the point where wild hydrangeas on the Otorohanga bypass change from blue tones to pink tones. I guess that marks the transition to limestone country. All our hydrangeas in Taranaki are blue as blue and they thrive on roadsides in a climate where we get summer rainfall.

005The white Japanese anemones that flower in the long grass around the country corner where we live make me smile every autumn. Orange-red crocosmia – earlier referred to as montbretia – feature large around here. So too do red hot pokers, fennel, arum lilies and cannas while further north the ox-eye daises, yellow vetch and wild carrot feature more.

012And agapanthus. There is a plant that is a great deal more revered overseas than here. It is controversial, actively discouraged and some forms banned in northern regions. Some folk hate it with a passion and it cannot be sprayed out with glyphosate. But truly, our roadsides round here would be the poorer without the summer display. In its defence, we have not seen this tough plant seed down any great distance from its parent in our conditions and it is also very good at stabilising clay banks.

I recall two English garden visitors a few years ago who asked what were the “giant bluebell and what looks like a lace-cap yellow hydrangea” flowering on all our roadsides. The yellow lace-cap was fennel but the giant bluebell had me absolutely stumped until I next drove out. It immediately dawned on me that they were referring to agapanthus. It is not cold-hardy in large parts of Europe and the UK and is a prized garden plant. No wonder they failed to identify it growing wild in abundance here.

abbie 20 10 2015 copy

Fennel, not lace cap hydrangea

Fennel, not lace cap hydrangea

First published in the January issue of New Zealand Gardener. 

Garden lore: The Agapanthus Conundrum

???????????????????????????????Overseas gardeners find our attitude to agapanthus perplexing. These plants are much more prized elsewhere, whereas we largely consign them to roadsides. It is much rarer to see them used as garden plants in New Zealand, even though there are some very good named cultivars which are sterile, so don’t set seed. Their future is sometimes under threat as they are seen by some to be noxious weeds. And they are very difficult to get rid of if you no longer want them.

But I think our summer roadsides would be dull without them. While they set prodigious amounts of seed, these do not appear to spread far and certainly the birds are not expanding the range. But such is the concern, that we try and get round to removing the spent flower heads and we feel obliged to stop them from encroaching on the neighbours’ boundaries.

???????????????????????????????This leaves the problem of what do with the seed heads. While we make a hot compost mix, it is not always hot enough to destroy viable seed. In the past, I have been guilty of putting seed and noxious weeds out for rubbish collection but we now think that sending even very limited amounts of green waste to landfill is not justifiable.

This year Mark has set up large barrels into which unwanted seeds and bulbs are put to soak in water until they rot down. It would give a valuable liquid fertiliser but liquid feed has not been part of our routine so it is more likely to all end up in the compost heap eventually. Allow at least a month for the rotting process to take place.

If you want to get rid of clumps of agapanthus, most people will have to get digging. The most common weedkiller, glyphosate (Round Up) is largely ineffective. To spray, you have to resort to heavier duty, controlled brush killers like Grazon and few people have access to these. It may be the difficulty of eradicating existing plants that puts most people off the plant, more than their seeding ways.

Blue sky gardening rather than feeling blue

Weeds maybe, but pretty on summer roadsides - agapanthus

Weeds maybe, but pretty on summer roadsides – agapanthus

There I was, having decided to write about blue flowers this week, when I opened the latest issue of NZ Gardener and Lynda Hallinan had beaten me to it. But that’s all right. She was mainly looking at annuals with just a few perennials and one shrub.

It is the sight of the blue jacaranda in full flower which makes me fall in love with blue blooms all over again. It is the first thing I see out the window every morning and I sit and drink my early morning tea admiring it and reflecting on how much I love the colour.

Where we live, blue is the dominant colour of the roadside flowers in summer. I know agapanthus is a weed and difficult to eradicate but our verges would be the poorer for its absence. Plants have to be tough in that situation and the agapanthus is a showy survivor. Beacons of summer, here.

The simplicity of chicory

The simplicity of chicory

The wild chicory is pretty as a picture with its soft blue daisies. In the garden we grow blue asters with a similar flower but in long grass, the simplicity of the chicory is more fitting.

We are blue hydrangea territory, being acidic in soils. With regular summer rain and mild, humid conditions, the blocks of blue flowered hydrangeas tend to mean we take this plant for granted. Go to more alkaline territory and they turn pink as readers may have noticed in other areas, but they add to our blue palette here. As we fluff around our garden hydrangeas, pruning each year to tidy them up and promote good flowering, it is interesting to reflect that those roadside wildflowers are never touched yet bloom faithfully. As a general rule, if you don’t prune a hydrangea, you get more flowers but they are smaller.

Impressed by the garden performance of the You-Me hydrangea series

Impressed by the garden performance of the You-Me hydrangea series

When it comes to the garden, those big blue moptop hydrangeas (the macrophyllas) are okay as a backdrop but they lack refinement as garden plants. We have been most impressed with the more delicate appearance of the recent introductions from Japan in the You-Me series. We collected several from hydrangea expert Glyn Church a few years ago and have lost the names but they are all quite similar so I’m not sure that any one is better than the others. Look for them branded under the You-Me group and they carry individual names like “Forever” and “Eternity”. If you can’t find them in your local garden centre, then you can get them on line from Woodleigh Nursery. Be warned, however, that they are apparently not colour stable so if your soils are more alkaline, they won’t be the pretty blues we have here. Presumably they will be pretty pinks instead.

What is it about blue? For me, I think it is that the blue as blue skies are such a mood enhancer. It may have something to do with the dreaded holes in the ozone layer (though I hope it has more to do with our isolation and low population) but we have a clarity and intensity of light in this country that most of us take for granted until we travel overseas.

I have commented before on the fact that we treat green as colour neutral in the garden. All those monochromatic garden schemes are in fact bichromatic because they are one colour plus green.

Nigella damascena - a personal favourite

Nigella damascena – a personal favourite

Blue is not colour neutral as such, but it sits happily in any colour combination. So if your garden bed is hot colours of reds, yellows and oranges, blue will sit in that mix quite happily. In you have gone instead for pretty pastel pinks and whites, blue does not shout when included. Of the primary colours, it is the easiest to blend. It can lift a tightly controlled, colour managed garden out of the blandness that sometimes afflicts them, by adding just a little zing.

I don’t understand why “feeling blue” is a reference to feeling sad. In my books, you can never have too much blue in a garden and lifting one’s eyes to the blue sky above is a celebration of life.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Agapanthus -the blue (and white) stars of our summer roadsides

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

Our summer roadsides would be the poorer without agapanthus

We have a bit of a love-hate relationship with agapanthus here in Taranaki and in warmer areas of this country. But as you drive around the countryside at this time of the year, most would agree that our roadsides would be the poorer if they were gone. They resemble giant blue harebells growing, well, growing pretty well everywhere if we are honest.

Agapanthus all come from South Africa and from relatively limited areas of that country. Don’t be misled by the common international name, the Lily of the Nile. They are neither a member of the lily family, nor do they grow anywhere near the Nile. Nor does Agapanthus orientalis come from the Orient. That descriptor merely means eastern, so the natural habitat of A. orientalis (probably more correctly known as A. praecox ssp orientalis) should be on the eastern side of South Africa, assuming the original plant collections and recording was done accurately.

The name comes from Greek. Agape is love and anthos is flower but whether this means the flower of love or lovely flower is unclear.

So are they a weed? These matters are rarely as black and white as they appear. On the debit side:
• Most agapanthus set seed freely and the seed germinates readily.
• Agapanthus grow well in a wide range of situations including inhospitable clay banks and shaded areas. They form a dense cover which prevents other plants from germinating – particularly desirable native regeneration. They have the potential to colonise bush reserves, national parks and native bush.
• The common agapanthus are resistant to the world’s handiest weedkiller, glyphosate (formerly known by its original brand name: Round Up). While you can take them out with stronger brush killer sprays, most of these require you to hold a spray licence.
• Digging out well established clumps takes quite some physical strength and determination because the plants cling on for grim death and the clumps can be formidable. Because they have roots which are rhizomes, if you don’t get the whole plant out, what is left behind in the soil will re-grow.
• There is no way this plant would ever be permitted into the country now. Mind you, the same thing could be said about kiwifruit.

There is a credit side and a degree of resigned acceptance by the authorities in this country which sees agapanthus treated as a surveillance pest plant rather than the hard line decision to ban it outright.
• While it seeds freely, the seeds are not dispersed by birds at all so in most cases, the seedlings pop up close to the parent plants. The big problem comes with plants beside waterways because the water can do a very efficient job of spreading them much further.
• They are a significant plant for cut flower producers and there are dwarf and sterile forms available for home gardeners which pose no threat at all. There is a large international market and agapanthus occupy an established niche in our nursery industry. Many of the named hybrids have parentage which includes one or more of the species other than praecox and this reduces the weed problems.
• They make a significant contribution to our summer landscape as a flowering plant and will tolerate harsh, roadside conditions so are favoured for amenity plantings.
• They are evergreen, tidy and suitable for using to stabilise slip-prone areas.

Basically Biosecurity and most northern regional councils would love to ban it outright but pragmatism triumphs so the aggie lives on to flower another day. Auckland has banned the larger growing forms of A.praecox (the common form), still allowing the production and sale of dwarf forms as a compromise position. The sensible position for the home gardener who lives adjacent to native forest or to waterways, would be to remove them entirely. As a back-up position, being industrious and thorough about dead heading would reduce the problem. For the rest of us, it probably doesn’t matter and they make a huge contribution to our summer gardens and landscape.

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

Agapanthus Tinkerbell - no weed potential here

By no means are all agapanthus thugs. Little Tinkerbell is common in gardens though probably more noted for its very clean white and sage green variegated foliage than its flowers. It is distinctly shy on flowering, as a rule. It also has a significantly large root system for a plant without a great deal on top but it is a useful addition in the garden border. Other named hybrids are often more amenable than thuggish and have their place in the garden setting.

This is a plant family which is a great deal more highly prized overseas than here. In harsher climates, stronger growing plants are valued for their ability to survive the conditions and most of Europe and the US have much harder conditions than we have. Toughies that stay in leaf as well as put on a lovely summer flowering display are harder to come by, especially in blue. Because they don’t tolerate extremely cold conditions, additional measures are often required to get the common agapanthus through winter.

But in this country, you can’t even give away common agapanthus. Which is why we were genuinely shocked by a section in “A Green Granny’s Garden”, by Fionna Hill. I reviewed this before Christmas and I have to admit I did not read it cover to cover or that review might have been a little tougher had I come across the following paragraph referencing her attendance at a Hollard Gardens’ workshop here in Taranaki:
“Workshop participants have been invited to bring seed and other plant material to share. We pulled lots of agapanthus plants from Maggie’s New Plymouth garden that day and (we thought) cheekily we’d take the opportunity to leave a wheelbarrowful. We give the barrow to some helpful children to wheel back to the meeting shed, while we speed off down the road. I think it might not have been welcome, at that time, believing them to be a pest.” (sic). The page of self justification that follows does not mitigate the action for anybody except the author, who concludes: “I shouldn’t feel so guilty about that wheelbarrowful that Maggie and I have left as a contribution – at UK rates, the barrowful was worth about 300 pounds.” I don’t think so, dear. What you did was to furtively leave your friend’s weeds for Hollards’ staff to dispose of. You should be feeling guilty and embarrassed.