Tag Archives: Macleaya cordata

Elegia capenis

Elegia capensis in the new Court Garden

I lost count of the number of times we were asked about Elegia capensis during our recent open days. I have used it extensively with the grasses in the new Court Garden and it is looking rather splendid.

Its common name is the horsetail restio and the entire restionaceae plant family hails from South Africa. There are plenty of them but E. capensis  is the most common in ornamental gardens. It is not too fussy on conditions as long as it never dries out entirely and is not subjected to very cold winters.

Most visitors described it as looking like a bamboo but with feathery growth, which is apt. The new shoots come up in spring like narrow bamboo shoots, first developing brownish sheaths at points up the stem before growing the fine foliage in tiers. The stems last about three years before dying off.

When you look at the seed head, it is just as well that seed is not viable here

Our plants have never set viable seed. Whether that is because they are all one clone and they need other clones to set seed or whether it is the lack of smoke from bushfires, we are not sure. They may even be fully dioecious – needing both male and female plants to set viable seed. These are plants that have evolved to deal with frequent fires (they sprout afresh from underground rhizomes). PlantzAfrica says: “The seeds react well to treatment with smoke or with the ‘Instant Smoke Plus’ seed primer. Without this treatment the germination rate is poor.” I have never even heard of Instant Smoke Plus before.

We used to produce a few to sell in the nursery but the death rate in production was high. I have only just discovered why. We assumed that they would be similar to other plants like hostas and rodgersias that grow from rhizomes. In other words, we would lift the plants in winter, separate the rhizomes and repot them ready for spring growth. Then I read somewhere that they should be divided in February – late summer – so we tried that and it was not particularly successful either. What I have since discovered is that their roots are very sensitive, making the plants difficult to propagate by division. They are evergreen and not overly hardy so they are in growth all the time, unlike plants like the aforementioned hostas which have a dormant period. Commercially, they are more commonly raised from seed.

Where we have been successful in dividing this elegia, it has not been by taking apart the rhizomes but by cutting off large chunks of the original plant and putting the entire chunk into the new location. When I say cutting off large chunks, this requires a strong person, a very sharp spade and sometimes an axe, to take off blocks that are about 20 cm across which need to be replanted straight away. Brute strength, not high-level skill.

I see BBC Gardeners’ World describe this plant as invasive, which I think is wrong. It doesn’t seed readily – or at all here. Nor does it run below the soil surface so it is not invading. It is, however, strong growing and can make a large clump in the right conditions and that large clump is not easy to reduce or eliminate because of the solid nature of the rhizomes.

The maceaya is the poppy foliage amongst the elegia

What is setting out to be genuinely invasive is the Macleaya cordata, commonly known as the Plume Poppy which is interplanted with the elegia. We have it in a shade garden where it certainly ‘ran’ below the soil surface but not in a particularly problematic manner. In full sun in the Court Garden, it is not so much running as sprinting – in every direction including into the pristine new paths. Attractive it may be, but it is a worry. I may just have to leave it in the shade garden and find a less determined plant option for the sunny, grass garden.

Terry’s restio, as we refer to it here.

We have another restio that I picked up from Terry Hatch at Joy Plants in Drury but I am not sure where – or if – I kept its species name. It is not as vigorous as the elegia so better suited to the perennial borders where I have it planted but lacks the immediate visual charm of the deep green colour and tiers of feathery foliage up the stem. There is no such thing as a perfect plant for all situations.

Glitter gardening (may not be quite what you think)

Two weeks and the foundation plants are all in the new Court Garden

“Now you can add the glitter,” Mark said when I proudly announced that I had finished planting the new Court Garden. It has been something of a marathon effort on my part. “What glitter?” I replied defensively, telling him I had put in assorted flowering plants. “Flowers like echinaceas and narcissi,” he said. After all it is to have a prairie look (albeit a prairie on steroids, somewhat styled into waves).

This was food for thought. I rejected the idea of echinacea. The Court Garden is flanked on one side by the twin, herbaceous borders and on the other by the lily border and the unromantically- named caterpillar garden. Over a glass of wine last Friday, Mark declared: “We don’t have garden rooms. We have galleries.” He was taking the mickey, of course. We certainly don’t have garden rooms but I wrote down the galleries because I feared the wine may dull our memories. It seemed a good description of this new garden – a main area with side galleries.

Lots of miscanthus – magical in autumn when back-lit. All our miscanthus descend from a single specimen which used to live in the Iolanthe garden.

In planning the new plantings, one of my ruling principles has been to use different plants in the different areas so they don’t all look the same over time. And echinaceas are a big feature in the twin borders so I didn’t want to repeat them. At this stage, there are only two plants that feature in both the borders and the Court Garden (miscanthus and the giant Albuca nelsonii) and I want to keep it that way. Nor did I plan to plant bulbs through the Court Garden. My vision is big, bold, immersive and generally low maintenance.

My restraint and resolve lasted precisely the two weeks it took to plant the Court Garden. Keeping to about 26 different plants may not seem restrained by some modern landscapers’ standards but it is extremely restrained by ours. In this we are not alone. Mark pointed out that Piet Oudolf’s planting plans can be astonishingly complex when you see his plant lists.

I am figuring that the Court Garden will be looking well furnished by next summer and autumn and starting to hit its peak by the following summer. Having looked at the grass garden at Bury Court, I also expect that over time, the grasses will dominate and crowd out the flowering plants. And I am fine with that. It will be survival of the strongest which means that at least some of the flowering options are short term only. This is not an area for choice treasures that need nurturing and attention to keep them going.

After all, what is lovelier than Lilium formasanum with a backdrop of miscanthus?

But in the interim, I decided that there is no reason why I can’t add plants that will perform and delight even if it is only for a few years. Yesterday, I added some of the autumn flowering Lilium formasanum because it looks so lovely flowering against miscanthus. And a daisy that I am told came from Bev McConnell’s meadow. Now I am wondering about adding dwarf narcissi. We have some trays of bulbs that are already well represented in the wider garden so these surplus are meant to be going down into the park meadow where they may, or may not, thrive.  Maybe they could flesh out the Court Garden in its early years instead. They can be the glitter Mark was envisaging.

I used to feel a bit defensive about loving ornamental plants. First we saw the native purist wave – “I will only plant natives. That is not a native, is it?” (said sniffily). Then there was the edibles wave. “Everything in my garden has to be edible or medicinal.” Or worse – and this is what I actually heard proclaimed by a doomsday prepper in Egmont Village – “In this day and age, anybody who plants a tree that is neither fruit or nut or plants that are not edible is a fool.” Apparently hard times and food wars are coming sooner rather than later. But what about feeding the soul with the beauty of a magnolia in full bloom, I wanted to say.

Now we know that the ornamentals are what feed the bees that we need to pollinate food crops. We understand far more about the need to maintain healthy eco-systems. A row of brassicas and a mandarin tree may feed the stomach but their contribution to the health of the environment is minimal. It is not just aesthetics – although a dwarf apple tree is never likely to ever take your breath away with its beauty.  It is about working with nature, furnishing the environment, feeding not just the birds and the bees but all other lesser appreciated insects and animals of a healthy eco-system. And it is about feeding the soul.

Good gardening is about a whole lot more than just feeding the human body, creating pretty pictures or improving real estate investments. It always has been but it has probably never been more important than it is now.

We have plenty of Macleaya cordata but my best photos of it are from Bury Court. Sadly, we lack oast houses here at Tikorangi.

 

For any readers who like plant lists, below is the initial planting from the Court Garden.

Key grasses and others planted in waves:

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’

Chionochloa rubra

Calamgrostris ‘Karl Foerster’

Stipa gigantea

Elegia capensis

Astelia chathamica

Chionochloa flavicans

Albuca nelsonii

Other foundation plants:

Curculigo recurvata

Doryanthes palmeri

Austroderia fulvida (North Island toe toe – the only plants I needed to buy in)

5 different phormiums in red and black (‘coloured flaxes’ as we call them in NZ) Only two still had labels on them – ‘Black Rage’ (who named that one?) and ‘Pink Delight’ though all will be named forms.

A random large growing reed

Flowering perennials

Not so much glitter as flowering thugs difficult to accommodate elsewhere but worth a place where they can compete on more or less equal terms

Foxgloves in white and pale apricot

Nicotiania (sylvestris, I think it is)

Verbascum creticum

Fennel

Verbena bonariensis

Salvia confertiflora, and two other very large salvias that I have yet to find the correct names for

Macleaya cordata (plume poppy)