Tag Archives: The plant collector

Plant Collector: Strelitzia reginae

Strelitzia reginae or the bird of paradise

Strelitzia reginae or the bird of paradise

Is there anything more exotic, more tropical in appearance than the bird of paradise plant? In fact it is native to South Africa which is not the usual “Tropics”, though it is now grown widely throughout the temperate and tropical world and is not as fussy as one might think. In its homeland, it is commonly called the craneflower because of the resemblance to cranes – which are heron-like birds.

It is a very curious bloom, almost two dimensional. The actual petals are the blue centre to the flower and it is this that holds the pollen and the nectar which is what attracts the birds to achieve pollination. The leaves are like paddles with very long stems (technically called petioles) and are heavy textured.

There are about 5 different species of strelitzia but this is by far the most common and therefore probably the most adaptable variety. It is never going to like heavy frosts and wants some warmth but is not too fussy. Looking at photographs, I think it must flower more profusely in hotter, drier climates but it is a pretty low fuss perennial in coastal areas of the North Island and some protection from frost will extend its range inland. For us it reaches about 120cm in height. Mark tells me he has the giant Strelitzia nicolai waiting to be planted out. That apparently reaches closer to 10 metres. If it only flowers on top, we will be wanting to plant it down a slope somewhere if we are to see the blooms.

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

Better in theory than practice – planting street berms in edibles

Street plantings of orange trees in Cordoba

Street plantings of orange trees in Cordoba

I have been following with some interest the debate about Auckland’s road berms and the transfer of mowing responsibilities to the closest house occupants. I can’t think that I have ever lived anywhere with road berms that Council mows so my sympathy is limited for those who are railing against having to take responsibility. Road berms are community spaces that stop our urban areas from being too grey and congested.

The debate about alternative uses was more interesting. I was amused by the wit who suggested that a creative approach could solve the lack of new housing space in Auckland. Indeed, if you look at contemporary Japanese domestic architecture, I feel sure there is potential for space-saving apartments to be constructed on some of the wider berms. Though I can already hear the cries of protest from the adjoining landowners.

Often I hear the claim that berms should be planted out as community vegetable gardens and that all street trees should be fruit trees for the benefit of residents. It is so easily said and on the surface it sounds such a good idea but there are reasons why this is not so popular with powers that be.

Starting with the vegetable garden berm idea – how are you going to stop every passing dog from urinating on your plants? Or worse. Just watch a dog being taken for its walk and you may lose enthusiasm for growing vegetables out in a public space very quickly. Is the berm to be fenced to keep out wandering dogs? This rather defeats the whole notion of common space when ownership is claimed by way of a fence.

Unless your berm is at the end of a very quiet cul de sac, there are issues with automotive pollution, not to mention road splash. Okay, the lead content of our petrol has dropped dramatically from where it used to be, but I am not too sure about wanting to eat plants which are grown with full exposure to petrol and diesel fumes. And road spray on wet days is likely to be introducing more contaminants.

Then there are all the issues of ownership of the produce when it is on public land. How happy would you be if somebody came along and harvested your entire potato crop just as it hit its peak – or worse, before it has? And if one or two key individuals do not take ownership of the garden and manage it, soon it will descend into an unsightly mess which is a great deal worse than a bit of rank grass.

Vegetable gardens on the berms are not that easy. This is not to say it can’t be done, but it is not a universal panacea and it will take a lot more individual effort than mowing.

Plums - more likely to feed the birds than the human populace

Plums – more likely to feed the birds than the human populace

So, fruit trees as street trees? I really do not envy any Council staff who are faced with decisions on street trees but I applaud their valiant efforts to plant up our urban areas. Street trees have to be able to grow in exposed conditions, sometimes highly polluted. They need to have small leaves which decompose quickly so they don’t block all the drains. Their root systems are vitally important (don’t want to break up sewers or sealed areas but they need to be sufficiently well rooted not to blow over) and so is the ultimate shape of the tree. They need to be more upright than wide spreading. On top of that, if they are too desirable, they are vulnerable to theft when young and they need to be able to grow with a minimum of attention and no spraying.

That is a pretty big list already and that is just off the top of my head. There are probably more criteria than that. So tell me which fruit trees match those sorts of criteria. If it was easy, I am sure we would see it done more.

I have seen oranges used as street trees overseas – table oranges in Sorrento in Italy (tourist town, though, so maybe less inclined to be nicked) and bitter Seville oranges on the streets of Cordoba in Spain. The ones in Cordoba were harvested commercially, I found out. Citrus are not high maintenance trees but they still need spraying with copper and they are vulnerable to borer.

Feijoas! Definitely an option for road verge plantings

Feijoas! Definitely an option for road verge plantings

The best option I could come up with here is feijoas. They require next to no care and are reasonably wind tolerant. The fruit is peeled before eating so street pollution is not such a problem. Apples, pears, plums – all need care and are more utility than attractive. They are not even utility if they are uncared for and don’t crop. Plums are more likely to feed the birds than humans.

I think street trees are street trees. It is not a situation that lends itself to an ill-thought out philosophy that they should all be fruit trees in suburban areas as a matter of principle. I can only see it working where an adjacent householder takes responsibility for the trees and that includes dealing with theft and vandalism. It’s a nice idea in theory.

I admit, however, that I yearn to live somewhere with street plantings of oranges.

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

Plant Collector: blandfordia (February bells here)

Blandfordia - Australia's Christmas bells

Blandfordia – Australia’s Christmas bells

Christmas bells is the common name. Apparently in their homelands of Australia, these bulbs flower around Christmas. They are somewhat later here but the flowering lasts many weeks. It is not that there are large quantities of blooms, just that they come in succession and each trumpet lasts for a long time. These ones are on stems about 30cm high. The foliage is small, anonymous and grass-like at the base.

There are four different species of blandfordia and they have been given a family all of their own. They are hugely variable in colour and flower size, ranging from all red to all yellow, which makes identification difficult. We think this one is most likely to be Blandfordia grandiflora (so-named because it has the largest flowers) which is native to New South Wales and Queensland. There is a slight hesitation, however, between that and the Tasmanian form B. punicea. Unless an Australian botanist arrives at the right time, we may not get a definitive identification.

You don’t see blandfordias around often, or used in cut flower production, because they are slow to establish. Really slow, in fact. The references say up to 7 years to get to flowering size. In our case, maybe add another 7 before we started getting consistent flowering. Ours appears to be largely evergreen, keeping some foliage year round. Blandfordias need excellent drainage but not dry and baked in arid conditions.

blandfordia (2) - Copy

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

Plant collector: Eryngium planum

The hazy blue of Eryngium planum

The hazy blue of Eryngium planum

I thought it was going to be easy to write up eryngiums but it transpires that there are a whole lot of different ones from various habitats and climates. So I will confine my comments to the ones we are growing here. I love these ethereal thistle or teasel-like flowers in the prettiest hazy blue. We have had what I think is Eryngium variifolium in the rockery for a number of years. Despite its decidedly prickly habit and its location too close to the path, the flowers are always a summer delight. When I tried to move it back from the path, I found it had a phenomenally long and tough tap root so it defied my plans. That one has never set seed for us. Some eryngiums are propagated by autumn root cuttings so we plan to try that.

Eryngium planum is taller so needs staking in the garden. It flowers earlier in the season and grows easily from seed. We ordered it through Kings Seeds and this is the first summer we have had a good sized planting of it. I am hoping it will set seed because I think I can use lots of this plant in the summer garden. It doesn’t take up much space so can grow through other plants and the flowers last a long time. Both forms we have are perennials. E. variifolium disappears entirely in winter but neither of us can remember whether E. planum does too or whether it retains a smaller rosette of visible leaves.

Eryngiums belong to the Apiaceae family (with carrots!) not the thistle family. They are often referred to as sea holly but that should more correctly be ascribed to E. maritimum which we have seen growing wild on the coast of Cornwall.

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

Plant Collector: Hydrangea serrata “Preziosa”

Hydrangea "Preziosa" - generally colour stable in all soil conditions.

Hydrangea “Preziosa” – generally colour stable in all soil conditions.

In the world of summer flowering shrubs, hydrangeas are surely king. There are many others beyond the common macrophylla types and the serrata family from Japan and Korea are perhaps a little more refined. Certainly they are smaller growing and perfect for semi shaded positions. “Preziosa” is a hybrid but predominantly of serrata lineage. It is a smaller moptop – the pompom type of flowers. Two factors set it apart from many others. Its colouring is not affected by soil type and its flowers change colour as they age so you get a range of different colours on the one bush. They open green, changing through yellow tones to cream, fading to white with pink tinges on the petals, then deepening to pink shades and ending up dark cherry red. It also has attractive red stems and the foliage is often tinged red.

“Preziosa” is a not happy in full sun and it particularly dislikes hot, dry conditions. I moved these plants from an area where there was too much root competition from surrounding trees and they perked up enormously in well dug soil with plenty of compost added but still in open shade. They reach about 150cm in height and a metre wide, making them a good option for smaller, town gardens.

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

Plant Collector: Hydrangea indochinensis

Hydrangea indochinenis - an evergreen lacecap

Hydrangea indochinenis – an evergreen lacecap

The vast majority of hydrangeas are deciduous and not many people realise there are a few evergreen ones. H. indochinensis a relatively recent introduction and has been collected from areas of Vietnam and southern China. It is quite variable but the form we have has lovely pointed leaves with dark maroon on the underside and attractive blue and white lace cap flowers. In these types of hydrangeas, the fertile true flowers are the little ones in the centre whereas the outer layer of larger petals are mere sterile ornamentation.

We have found it quite difficult to grow well and this plant is much happier having been moved to a more hospitable position with plenty of compost. It is not rated as hardy which means that it is unsuitable for cold, frosty situations and gardeners in inland areas will need to find a favoured, sheltered position to grow it. Our plants have never reached much over a metre tall and maybe 50cm wide.

H. indochinensis is available in New Zealand but you will probably have to find a hydrangea specialist because it is not a standard garden centre line.

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

Plant Collector: Cardiocrinum giganteum

The three metre flower spike of Cardiocrinum giganteum - worth the wait of up to 7 years to bloom

The three metre flower spike of Cardiocrinum giganteum – worth the wait of up to 7 years to bloom

If any bulb were to be the king or queen of wow, it is this giant Himalayan lily in full bloom. That is because these flowers are on a hefty stem that is around three metres high. Add to that the fact that it takes somewhere around seven years to flower and each bulb only flowers once. It then sets large amounts of seed and forms offsets around the base of the original bulb, each of which will take another five to seven years to flower. That life cycle must offer a metaphor for something. In the interim years, it just forms a seasonal clump of large, luscious, heart-shaped leaves reminiscent of an arum lily. This is a plant for cool, open, woodland conditions with soils which never dry out and are rich in humus. It does not perform in warm regions and won’t take much wind because of that great height in flower. We grow the plants in a cold, south facing border.

Cardiocrinums are very fragrant but the flowers are a fair way up in the air so to get the full impact of the scent, one possibly needs a veritable grove of them to walk through. The scent is stronger in the evening.

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