Tag Archives: autumn flowers

The autumn camellias

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King in prime position

When Mark returned home to Tikorangi in 1980 bringing me and our first baby bump, the name Jury was synonymous with camellias. These days Jury = magnolias, but not back then. There is a whole chapter in the family history that is headed ‘Camellias’ but it is largely in the past now. Changing fashion, changing focus and the dreaded camellia petal blight has seen to that.

But every autumn, as the sasanquas come into flower we both derive huge delight, particularly from the Camellia Crimson King by the old mill wheel, which is just out from our back door beside the driveway. It is a picture of grace and charm.

Crimson King rests more on its merits of form and position than the beauty of individual blooms

Sasanquas are the unsung heroes of the camellia family, seen mostly as hedging plants, so utility rather than glorious. But if they are allowed to mature as specimens and gently shaped down the years, they stand on their own merits. Mark declared yesterday that it is the autumn flowering camellias that interest him now, not the late winter and spring varieties. For these autumn ones do not get petal blight whereas the later varieties are now a mere shadow of their former selves, faced by the extreme ravages wrought upon their blooms by blight. Our camellia trip to China in 2016 had us concluding that our mild, humid climate with high rainfall means that we suffer worse from petal blight in Taranaki than pretty much anywhere else, really. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates.

The history of camellias from the middle of last century onwards has some parallels to the history of tulips – all about show and showy blooms. So it was predicated on the quest for the new – extending the boundaries of flower form, size and colour, prizing breakthroughs even when the results were more novelty than meritorious. Camellia societies had enormous flower shows where the staging of individual show blooms was the focus. It didn’t have much, if anything, to do with garden performance let alone longevity as garden plants. Sasanquas didn’t fit this show bench mould. They flowered too early in the season, individual blooms are often quite small, lacking rigid, defined form and falling apart when picked.

But fashions and conditions change and these days it is the softer look of the Japanese camellia family member, the sasanquas, that makes us stop and take notice more than the later flowering japonicas and hybrids on which the earlier family reputation was forged. The light airiness and grace of the sasanquas fits our style of gardening far better than the solid, chunkiness of many of the later varieties and the autumn flowers serve as another marker of the change of season.

The earliest of the sasanquas here – all named varieties

I did a walk around to see how many different blooms I could pick but it is still a little early in the season and some have yet to open. Some plants we leave entirely to their own devices, some we will clean up the canopy from time to time -to take out dead wood and create an umbrella effect, two we clip tightly once a year to a cloud pruned form. With their small leaves, the sasanquas clip well. It just pays to do it soon after they have made their new growth after flowering. Leave it until late spring and you will be clipping off all the flower buds set for next autumn.

Camellia Mine No Yuki

It takes a few decades of growth to get sufficient size to shape as we shape ‘Elfin Rose’ and ‘Mine No Yuki’ but these specimens now function as distinctive shapes within the garden all year round, rather than melding into the background as most camellias do when not in bloom.

Late Bloomers – the tree dahlias in autumn

Tree dahlia 'Orchid', bred by Keith Hammett

Tree dahlia ‘Orchid’, bred by Keith Hammett

The last clarion call of the autumn flowers here are the tree dahlias, wildly impractical plants to grow but I absolutely love them. There is nothing like their over the top blooms soaring skywards in late autumn.  At least we are lucky in this country that we get clear blue skies with strong light all year round. Otherwise they might be soaring up to the gloom of lower light levels of other climates.

For problem number one is that these are frost tender plants which is not surprising when you consider they originate from Central American areas like Mexico, Columbia and Guatemala. We are not actually frost free in Tikorangi. We have areas of the garden that are so protected now by overhead cover that we can grow the most tender material, but out in the open we still get sufficient frost to require placing tender plants carefully. We may only get three visible frosts each winter, but the air chill on a calm night can get low enough to wreak havoc. And because these tree dahlias don’t start flowering until May and continue into June, they can get hit late in their season.

Left to right: 'Chameleon" , 'Orchid' (both Hammett varieties), D. imperialis and an unnamed Hammett variety.

Left to right: ‘Chameleon” , ‘Orchid’ (both Hammett varieties), D. imperialis and an unnamed Hammett variety.

A hint to the second problem lies in the name – the ‘tree’ part. These are not trees. They have nothing to do with trees. They are a fully deciduous herbaceous perennial but their rapid growth in summer and autumn sees them take on tree-like proportions. It is nothing for them to be 3 metres high, sometimes 4 or even 5 metres. Being dahlias, they are plants for sunny, open positions but they also benefit from some support and shelter from wind which can knock their brittle stems over. They have the hollow stems that are typical of dahlias. Some we grow against sheds or to the side of frames already in place for runner beans and frost protection frames for the bananas and sugar cane.  Some we fence in with heavy duty bamboo cross bars – hitching rails, Mark calls them.

Below ground, they have big, chunky tubers which mean that they are difficult to grow amongst other plants and they take up quite a bit of space for their six weeks of glory.

Not many gardens have both the space and the conditions that suit such particular requirements, along with a tolerance for their scruffy off-times. But if you have and can, they are as easy to grow as your more modest dahlia but with more spectacular results.

New Zealand plant breeder, Keith Hammett, has done a lot of work with dahlias, including tree dahlias. The orange starburst variety which he named ‘Orchid’,  with its twisted petals is more compact than any of the others we grow. It only reaches about 2 metres maximum though that is 2 metres high  and 2 metres wide. We have it by a big mandarin tree whose fruit are ripening as the dahlia blooms. It is a lovely combination.

Dahlia imperialis, my personal favourite

Dahlia imperialis, my personal favourite

My favourite is the simple Dahlia imperialis species and it is the most commonly available plant. When it first comes out, it looks like a clematis from a distance. Yes the blooms are a little floppy and the petals are larger and soft, so easily damaged, but I like the somewhat pendulous form and I think the lilac pink colouring is pretty.

Dahlia imperialis Alba - soaring skywards as winter descends upon us

Dahlia imperialis Alba – soaring skywards as winter descends upon us

Being a species, there are a fair number of different selections of D. imperialis. Our late season double white is Dahlia imperialis alba plena. ‘Alba’ of course means white and ‘plena’ means full and is applied to fully double flower forms. This one towers above a shed and puts on a wonderful display with its shaggy blooms but usually gets cut back by the cold when still in bloom in early June.

While tree dahlias can be grown from tubers in the same way as their smaller dahlia cousins, they are also commonly propagated from cuttings which are easier to handle than their oversized tubers. I admit I have yet to try it – there is a limit to how many tree dahlias we can place here – but the advice is to cut the stems that flowered in autumn, making sure that you have at least two nodes per cutting. Lay it flat because the new roots form from the nodes and cover to a depth of about 10cm. Or you can take spring cuttings from fresh growth. It does not appear to be difficult. I may report back on this because we are taking cuttings this year. We have a newly available position where a large tree fell, opening up what looks to be an ideal space for a tree dahlia or maybe two.

022 - CopyFirst published in the May issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Flowers from an early autumn Easter weekend

???????????????????????????????It is indubitably autumnal, but no sign of the leaves colouring or dropping yet as we gently drift into the cooler seasons. I shall do a survey of the plants that take us through autumn, I thought, and headed out to the garden with snips and a basket.

We love flowers – lots of flowers. Simple blooms, common varieties, oddities and curiosities, anything and most things (though not everything) across the colour spectrum. Some gardeners, presumably of more refined sensibilities, prefer to be restrained and to preach the value of form and foliage. We are happy to value form and foliage but we want the added appeal of flowery fluff softening the austerity.

???????????????????????????????Despite that slight sense of mournful decay that can characterise the autumnal garden, there was so much flying the flag for flowers that I had to group them. It is still early for the autumn bulbs. There is a whole lot more to come but the nine in bloom at least indicate that not all bulbs belong to spring. Starting with the white flower at the top of the photo, going clockwise, these are: Crinum moorei, belladonna, Colchicum autumnale, one of the autumn crocus (could be C. serotinus), Moraea polystachya which is an unsung star amongst the autumn bulbs, Cyclamen hederafolium both pink and white, the dainty little Leucojum autumnale, the earliest of the oxalis (hirta, luteola, massoniana and lobata) and the first of the nerines that will become the rockery stars over the next few weeks.
???????????????????????????????Climbers can be a little bothersome to place. Too many are strangling, invasive things, smothering their host as they scramble to the top, or, like the Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, seeding down in perpetuity. Others are such retiring little dainties that they can be difficult to keep going. Flowering for us at the moment are the bougainvillea (very much in the rampant camp) and one of the more garden-friendly jasmines at the top but we have lost track of which one it is. It has good fragrance, flowers pretty much all the time and is strong growing – bordering on rampant – but not as aggressive as the weedy jasmines. It is planted on the corner of the bedroom once inhabited by our daughter of the same name. Immediately below, the purple flower like a mini streptocarpus is on a soft vine, but its name escapes us at the moment. Well, I have never known it and Mark thinks he raised it from commercial seed but has yet to recall what it is. To the right are the lapagerias – Chilean bell flowers – with their wonderfully long blooming season and obliging habits. Sure it can take several – many, even – years to get a vine established but once there, these are rewarding plants for the shaded side of the house.
???????????????????????????????The flowering shrubs and trees are not so numerous at this time of the year. Top row left, we have Radermachera sinica (more on this below), Hydrangea Immaculata which is still at peak rather than that fading over to dusky spent flowerheads, next row down is the fragrant osmanthus (though not sure which one) and the so-called African butter knife plant or Cunonia capensis. Then comes the white flowered tibouchina which seeds down far too freely here but does compensate by flowering pretty much all the time in semi woodland conditions. Fuchsias are not a strong point for us, but the one on the left has been here forever it seems, surviving even falling over, splitting apart and drought. The one on the right is the attractive but dangerously weedy Fuchsia boliviana. Second row from the bottom is a sampling of vireya rhododendrons – have enough of these around the place and there are always some in flower, 52 weeks of the year. In the bottom row are the first of the evergreen azaleas embarking on their marathon blooming from early autumn right through to mid spring and the first camellia.
???????????????????????????????Camellia sinensis will no doubt be of interest to some. It is always the first to flower though with such insignificant blooms that they are easy to miss. This is the tea camellia, and yes, sometimes we do harvest the young leaves to make green tea. White flowered tea camellias are more common and we have a plant somewhere – in the “plant out” area, I think, waiting to get out of its pot.
???????????????????????????????I was pretty thrilled by the Radermachera sinica when Mark alerted me to it in bloom. It has a divine and heady fragrance. The trouble is that it is sub tropical to tropical so treated as a house plant in the temperate world. But it is a tree and ours is shooting skywards. Besides, we don’t do houseplants so we are yet to decide what to do with this plant besides enjoying its current flowering.
???????????????????????????????Finally there are the perennials and annuals still in full bloom. In brief in the yellow tones, we start with a damn big yellow salvia at the base and head around clockwise: kniphofia species, one of the gesneriad family whose name we have currently forgotten but which makes an excellent woodland plant, datura, dahlias, simple little autumn zinnias (none of the over-bred, bushy, compact, modern hybrid bedding plants), a handy yellow ground cover which flowers for a very long time and whose name will come back to us at some point, Hibiscus trionum and the common wildflower oenothera which is remarkably rewarding when it comes to blooming on and on.
???????????????????????????????In the pinks and whites, we start at the top with the under-sung white plumes of Actaea racemosa (syn Cimcifuga racemosa) whose fairy candles light up a woodland area, a simple dahlia seedling, the annual Amaranthus caudatus which is self sown, the lovely wind anemones, assorted daisies, streptocarpus (bit of one-upmanship here – we use these as permanent bedding plants in frost-free locations), one of the saponarias, a really old, self-maintaining strain of impatiens that has naturalised in our woodland, a self-seeded abutilon which should have been amongst the shrubs and some rather large and resilient begonias.

While others may find that buxus balls and refined plantings soothe their souls and give order to their lives, we like vibrancy to gladden our hearts. Besides, with flowers we get butterflies, bees and birds to enrich the scene further and we take delight in gardening to sustain a lively eco-system. That said, I gathered these flowers across a few acres, not from a few square metres in a back garden. I might feel differently with a more limited area. In the current situation, I can satisfy any need for more restrained style indoors.
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Postscript: Many of these plants have more detailed articles from earlier writing. Rather than clutter up the post with multiple links, if you want to know more about most, type the plant name in the search engine box on the right of the screen.

Plant Collector: Nerine bowdenii

Nerine bowdenii - the last of the season to bloom

Nerine bowdenii – the last of the season to bloom

When other nerines have long since passed over, the tall, sugar pink Nerine bowdenii are looking remarkably elegant in full bloom. They flower before their foliage appears and they are happy in congested clumps, though it takes a few years to get a clump this size if you start with a single bulb. Each head has about 10 individual flowers held up on a good strong stem so it doesn’t need staking. They can bend a little in our torrential downpours but don’t flatten. N. bowdenii has particularly long stems, 80cm or even taller at times.

These South African bulbs like to have their necks out of the ground so are planted at a shallow depth only. They are best in full sun; clearly they thrive on being baked in summer when they are dormant. As with all bulbs, good drainage is critical. The strappy foliage follows soon after flowering and will hang on until late spring. This means they can look a bit tatty in the spring garden but who can complain when they cheer up an early winter day with their splendid display?

N. bowdenii only comes in shades of pink and is often grown as a cut flower. Nerines last well in a vase, though I admit we leave ours in the garden. When a bulb only puts up one flower spike, it seems mean to cut it off in its prime. You can grow them from seed (make sure the seed is fresh and sow it immediately) but you will be waiting several years for them to get to flowering size.

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

In the Garden – May 10, 2012

A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Sasanqua camellias do not have to be white - pink Elfin Rose

Sasanqua camellias do not have to be white – pink Elfin Rose

We are grateful that we live in such a mild climate where we don’t have to put our garden to bed for winter. Instead we can have plants flowering all year round and continue active gardening, even in the coldest months. At this time, the autumn flowering sasanqua camellias are in full flight. One of my particular favourites is pretty “Elfin Rose”. Too often, people get hooked on white sasanquas but strawberry pink is very cheering on a grey day. “Elfin Rose” also has a long flowering season and wonderful forest green, fine foliage. By contrast, our “Mine No Yuki” looks magnificent for a week, or until we get some heavy rain which turns the pristine white blooms to a disappointing brown mush.

We have vireyas in flower all the time. If you have plenty, there are always some blooming because these rhododendrons don’t have a set flowering season. However, they don’t tolerate more than a degree or two of frost, so you need protected sites. We also have bromeliads in bloom looking wonderfully exotic while the late autumn bulbs continue to delight. Somewhat to our surprise, the first snowdrops appeared in mid April. Maybe our disappointing summer means winter will bypass us this year? The impatiens, which are fully perennial in our woodland area, will continue in flower until the worst of the winter chill cuts them back. While we wouldn’t mind being a degree or two warmer overall, it seems churlish to complain about the colder seasons here.

Bromeliad in flower now

Bromeliad in flower now

Top tasks:
1) The winter and spring bulbs are well on the move and many are through the ground. We need to ensure that they don’t get completely smothered by a build up of autumn leaves and to keep an eye out for marauding slugs and snails.
2) Sadly, it is time to put the outdoor furniture away for the season. It lasts a lot longer if we don’t leave out to the elements when we are not using it.
3) Continue the autumn clean up round on scruffy perennials. We make hot compost so we can put seeding plants through the compost heap but it is not to be recommended if your compost never gets hot enough to kill the seeds and any mildew or blight.

Being thankful for gardening in a benign climate

We tend to take it for granted that our gardens are green and lush all year round

We tend to take it for granted that our gardens are green and lush all year round

As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, it is easy to lose sight of quite how benign our climate really is. There is a tendency to take our bright, clear light for granted and the fact that we can sit outside for morning coffee all year round on sunny days comes as a surprise to those from harsher climates. Of course it means we have to keep mowing the lawns, though the interval between cuts will stretch.

True, down the southern half of the South Island, it is cold enough to stop growth (and therefore stop mowing lawns in winter) but at least they keep the bright light which is a hallmark of both this country and Australia. I recall visiting London one December. Quite aside from the fact that darkness fell soon after 3.00pm, when the sun did struggle above the horizon, it was a poor watery thing. On that visit, we headed out to Leeds Castle which has a notable garden designed by famous English gardener, Russell Page. It had been put to bed for winter. Literally. There was only the formal structure to see. Beds were smothered in straw to protect the plants below. Some plants were wrapped up in their own padded sleeping bags – layers of straw, sacking and insulating material and that was just for echiums which are clearly prized a great deal more there than here. It is altogether a different way of gardening.

Autumn cheer in the earliest azalea flowers

Autumn cheer in the earliest azalea flowers

Here we may moan about miserable winter days, whinge about winter wind and stress over storms (enough alliteration!), but the bottom line is that we are green and verdant with flowers all year round. For most of us, temperatures are high enough to be out in the garden in fine weather, even in June and July. Autumn is recommended as the very best planting time for trees and shrubs because it gives plants a chance to settle in over winter and start getting their roots out before the spring flush. Similarly, many perennials can be dug and divided throughout winter. In cold climates, this is a spring and summer activity only because the plants can rot out when dormant in their cold conditions. The timing of pruning is a great deal more critical in colder climates. This applies to deciduous plants like roses, hydrangeas, wisterias, as well as evergreens such as hedges. Pruning can force plants into growth and, when carried out too early, the tender new growth gets burned off by frost and cold.

In cold climates where you only get to view your garden through the window in winter, design, shape and form become all because that is all you see. Most cold climate gardens have a large quantity of deciduous plants, punctuated by a few hardy evergreens such as buxus, conifers, or laurels. Even if the design is good and strong, it can be a bit bleak.

But unless you live in a really cold winter location by our standards (National Park, Ohakune or the like), it is reasonable to expect to look around your garden and see flowers and fresh foliage for twelve months of the year. Sure you may get frosts. Anywhere more than five kilometres from the coast can expect frosts, even in Northland. But we can still grow winter flowering plants.

The gordonias are opening. This is an unidentified Vietnamese species

The gordonias are opening. This is an unidentified Vietnamese species

The sasanqua camellias are opening now and will take us into winter when the early flowering japonicas open. Early season evergreen azaleas are flowering. I see flowers on the gordonias. These look like big, white camellias on steroids but they are only very distant relatives. The first of the luculias is in flower and we always have sub tropical vireya rhododendrons blooming, no matter what the season. These last two plant types are more problematic if you have hard frosts, but in favoured positions or closer to the coast, they are a delight. In the depths of winter, the Magnolia campbellii, michelias and rhododendrons will be opening. None of these flowering trees and shrubs are particularly viable in cold climates. Even the utility camellia can be hard to grow in colder parts of Britain.

There are plenty of autumn bulbs still in flower. Hot on their heels are the winter bulbs, already rocketing through the ground and some showing the first flowers. The earliest narcissi are opening. Most of the dwarf and miniature types flower much earlier than the classic daffodils. In so doing, we find they are less susceptible to narcissi fly which lays its eggs in the crowns of bulbs later in the springtime. Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus “Pandora”, the pale lemon hooped petticoat type, has its first flowers out. The peak display of our dwarf collection is in the depths of winter. The earliest of the lachenalias will be opening soon. The first to flower here is the easy to grow red L. bulbifera which has naturalised happily around tree trunks.

In some places, our common NZ pongas are so highly prized, they are lifted from the garden and moved under cover for winter. True. I have seen it done in the north of Italy. It really does seem churlish to complain about colder seasons here.

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