Tag Archives: Hippeastrum papilio

Exotica in the shade

Shade gardens we have a-plenty

Shade gardens we have a-plenty

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.

Dendrobium Bardo Rose

Dendrobium Bardo Rose

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 in the woodland

Pleione orchids in the woodland

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.

Calanthe orchid - CopyThe 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 aulicum, one of our woodland mainstays

Hippeastrum aulicum, one of our woodland mainstays

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.

Hippeastrum papilio

Hippeastrum papilio

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.

The lesser known Scadoxus puniceus

The lesser known Scadoxus puniceus

Text first published in the October issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission 

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The late spring bulbs


Left to right: Gladious carneus, a dainty allium, Romulea rosea, camassia, Phaedranassa cinerea, Stenomesson miniatum, Gesneria cardinalis, calanthe orchid, Albuca candadensis and spiloxene.

When spring bulbs are mentioned, most people think of daffodils, bluebells and tulips. But when they have been and gone and all that is left is the scruffy foliage, there are the late spring bulbs coming into flower. Most of these are less well known and certainly less celebrated in literature and art. For all that, they are often more interesting, maybe because they are unexpected.

We love bulbs here and with bulbs I include corms, rhizomes and tubers. More than any other type of plant, they seem to mark the passage of the seasons and to create the smaller, detailed pictures that add layers of interest to the garden. Maybe because the perennials and annuals are coming into their own at this time, the late spring bulbs are often ignored and therefore harder to source.

I headed out to the garden to see what was coming into flower. Discounting the earlier bulbs which are still flowering but well past their peak (veltheimias, the late lachenalias, Hippeastrum aulicum and the like), I found about 20 different types of bulbs coming into their own and that is by no means complete. There is little which is duller than endless lists and plant descriptions so I lined a number up for photographs.


Clockwise from top – Soloman Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum), tritonia, babiana, Satyrium odorum (orchid), rhodohypoxis, Watsonia brevifolia, tulbaghias – probably comminsii and possibly simmleri

I featured the rhodohypoxis in Plant Collector a fortnight ago. These are relatively common and form attractive carpets in pinks, whites and carmine red with their mass of star flowers. There is nothing rare or exclusive about Soloman Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) either. It was common in the gardens of grandparents and is perhaps undergoing a surge of discovery amongst newer generations of gardeners. It is particularly handy for semi shade positions and, after battling a near impenetrable mass of entangled rhizomes, I decided it may well have some merit as a natural stabiliser for an eroding bank. I will report back in three years about the success or otherwise of this venture but as it will grow pretty much on top of the ground and grip hard, I am optimistic. As a bonus, the foliage turns golden in autumn – an unexpected source of autumn colour for us.

Hippeastrum papilio

Hippeastrum papilio

For sheer exotica, it is hard to beat Hippeastrum papilio which is just opening. Papilio means butterfly though I think it is more orchid-like really. This is a spectacular bulb from Brazil which is offered for sale from time to time. It is more expensive than rare. We had to try a couple of different places in the garden before we found a spot where it was happy but we now have it thriving in open woodland conditions.

Scadoxus puniceus

Scadoxus puniceus

While on the big bulbs, Scadoxus puniceusis one of our showiest but I won’t dwell too long on it because it is rather too frost tender for inland areas and rare in this country. Its cousin, Scadoxus katherinae, is a better bet for frosty areas because it is dormant in winter and doesn’t start moving until spring, flowering in summer. Similarly, our love affair with the arisaema family (sometimes called snake’s head lilies though they aren’t lilies) is of limited value because our showiest ones are Mark’s hybrids which we have never sold so they can’t be seen anywhere but in our garden. Given time, we may put them on the market but that is a way off. Most of the arisaema family hide their flowers below the foliage but Mark has managed to breed with varieties to bring out the desirable trait of holding their flowers above the leaves, making them much showier as well as being easy garden plants. You may, however, find Arisaema speciosum which is easy to grow and Arisaema ringens is relatively common. If you have a bank that you look up to, the flowers are little more obvious without having to part the leaves to see them. We describe A. speciosum as the closest thing to a cobra you would want in the garden.

If you are getting frustrated trying to find more unusual plants, there are good reasons why. Many if not most of the specialist nurseries throughout the country have closed down over the last decade as have most mail order nurseries. Treasure the ones that are left because there are few new plant businesses opening. However, bulbs are perhaps a little easier than trees and shrubs and I occasionally look at the bulbs section of Trade Me and see some interesting and less common material offered for sale there. Beyond that, you may have to start haunting your local horticultural society or keen gardening groups where there are likely to be one or two people who know their bulbs from their onions.

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

Plant Collector: Hippeastrum papilio

The exotic looking Hippeastrum papilio

The exotic looking Hippeastrum papilio

Papilio is Latin for butterfly, though it would be a pretty spectacular butterfly to rival this lovely bulb from Brazil. I think it is more orchid-like in its markings and colouring of burgundy, green and cream. In fact it is positively exotic and is a showstopper if you can get it flowering in the garden.

Hippeastrums are often misnamed as amaryllis. They belong to the Amaryllidaceae family but that does not make them amaryllis – that would be like saying parsley is the same as carrot because they come from the same botanical family. H. papilio is a species (which is as it occurs in the wild) although much hybridising has been done within the wider hippeastrum family to get spectacular named cultivars for showy pot plants. It grows from large bulbs and there are usually two flowers to each stem, each bloom being about 18cm across and held up well, without needing support.

The biggest problem here is the dreaded narcissi fly which lays its eggs at the base of the leaves. The larvae hatch and burrow down, eating the bulb from inside out. For this reason, we grow H. papilio as a woodland plant in a raised bed rich in humus. The narcissi fly seem to prefer the sunshine. The raised bed means excellent drainage which solves the other problem which is the bulbs rotting out in wet and cold winter conditions. We find it is largely evergreen here, keeping its foliage all year in normal conditions.

The bulbs are large and slow to increase so best left undisturbed for several years. H. papilio is sometimes offered for sale in garden centres but be prepared to pay a fair amount for it because it can take several years to get the bulb to flowering size.

The other hippeastrum species that we have great success with in the garden here is the beautiful winter flowering H. aulicum, also from Brazil.