Glory be, but I do love spring. This month subtropical bulbs and orchids shout out to be noticed.
We have extensive shade gardens. It is an inevitable result of a large, mature garden with many evergreen trees dating back as far as 1870. We do a lot of what we call lifting and limbing – taking off lower branches and keeping areas open to the light, for there are not a lot of plant options when it comes to deep, dark shade. Beneath the mighty tree canopy, it is dry but frost-free with dappled light. Over the decades there has been much trial and error to find what will thrive in these conditions and the plantings have become increasingly complex.
By this time in spring, we are over peak season for cymbidium orchids but the Australian dendrobiums are a delight. These are much smaller and more mounded or clumping in appearance and they take care of themselves. We have found the Bardo Rose group to be particularly obliging and free-flowering in woodland conditions. Ours all came from the local Orchid Society, an organisation that we have found combines generosity with superior technical knowledge.
Pleione orchids do not last as long in bloom as many of the other orchids. Their flowers are soft rather than waxy but oh my, they make such a pretty carpet. It is easy for them to get swamped so we try and keep the area around them open but beyond lifting and dividing every few years, we just leave them alone. In our experience, the lovely yellow varieties do better in a climate where they get more winter chill. I think all our yellows have died out now but we have plenty in shades of lilac, purple and pure white. Most of our successful varieties came from the late George Fuller, orchid expert and former curator of Pukekura Park, and seem to have formosana in their parentage. If you want to build them up, a single bulb will usually set 2 offsets each season so you can double them every year.
The calanthes are ground orchids and we have big clumps now because these obliging plants can just be left to quietly increase in size. These are fully evergreen and somewhat frost tender but they are a delightful sight through spring and they combine very well with clivias, ferns and even hostas.
Hippeastrums are a plant family that has been much hybridised but I am not entirely convinced that has been to their advantage. It is two species that we rely on, both South American. It was by chance we found they settled happily into woodland conditions. In full sun, they were ravaged by narcissi fly but in high shade they are fine. Apparently nazi flies, as they are often called, don’t like shade. H. aulicum is one of our early to mid spring mainstays, flowering consistently year in and year out while multiplying most satisfyingly. To me, they look like beautiful Jacobean lilies in the woodland.
Hippeastrum papilio has been a more recent acquisition for us and it is certainly spectacular, looking more like an orchid than the butterfly for which it was named. It is offered for sale but be prepared to pay a lot for a single bulb – maybe $30 if it is flowering size – because it takes several years to get to that point. I can’t think that we would have started with more than just one or two bulbs at that price. I see with a bit of dividing and replanting we now have about sixty but not all are flowering size yet. Mark has done some hybrids of aulicum x papilio to increase numbers and get some variety, but they have yet to bloom.
I will have to leave the arisaemas, trilliums and the Paris polyphylla for another time but will finish with Scadoxus puniceus from South Africa. Many readers will be familiar with the summer flowering red S. multiflorus ssp. katherinae, especially in the Auckland area because it was, and maybe still is, much beloved by landscapers. It is a mainstay of our summer woodland, but in spring it is the lesser known S. puniceus that is the showstopper. Growing from large bulbs which are slow to increase, the foliage is lush and the large blooms are curious rather than beautiful. S. puniceus is not widely available, but if you can find somebody with it, it is easy enough to raise from fresh seed as long as you are willing to wait quite a few years to reach flowering size.
The rewards are there for patient gardeners.
Text first published in the October issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission