Tag Archives: The plant collector

Plant Collector: Kalmia latifolia “Nipmuck”

Kalmia latifolia “Nipmuck”

Just when all the spring flowering trees and shrubs have passed over and we move into early summer, the kalmias open. They look as if they belong in the spring group and they like to grow in similar conditions to rhododendrons and camellias but their blooms take us into December. This one has the rather odd name of “Nipmuck” and is the darkest variety we grow. I failed to find out how it came by its name but would guess it may derive from the indigenous people of America.

In leaf, these slow growing, evergreen shrubs are pretty anonymous. But when the buds appear, they look like piped icing such as often adorns wedding cakes, opening to little cups, chalices maybe. The backs of the petals are white with just the red shading through from the inside.

Kalmias are native to North America, though only to the east coast where they stretch from Canada to as far south as Mexico. Locals call them the Calico Plant or Mountain Laurel. Most of the prized garden selections are forms of latifolia which is hardy. In other words it won’t be harmed by cold winters of the type we get in New Zealand, even inland, southern areas. They belong to the ericaceae family.

There is nothing rare about kalmias but they are very difficult to propagate from cutting so you may find them hard to source. When you do find them for sale, be prepared to pay a decent price for one. Cheap plants are cheap to produce so difficult ones should command a higher value.

From 2009, Kalmia Ostbo Red.

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

Plant Collector: Ananas sagenaria

Ananas sagenaria - hardier than a tropical pineapple

Ananas sagenaria – hardier than a tropical pineapple

My photograph of a ripe pineapple attracted considerable comment last week and I am pleased to report that it was tasty and sweeter than usual when it came to eating. We have had this pineapple growing in a warm spot against a brick wall for over 50 years now. Its productivity is closely linked to how much care we give it and that is negligible most years. It wants maximum heat, good drainage and plenty of compost but it will survive on benign neglect. It is fiercely prickly.

Pineapples are bromeliads and Felix Jury received A. sagenaria as part of a collection of bromeliads that he imported from Florida back in the late 1950s. It originates from large parts of central and eastern South America and is from the same family as the commercial pineapple – which is usually A. comosus. It is not as good to eat as the tropical pineapple, but it is hardier.

Ananas sagenaria was marketed widely a few years ago, but not by us. We had a wry smile as we watched a Northlander come in, brashly confident that there was a gold mine in it which we had failed to realise. He advertised it widely as the red pineapple and described it as hardy. To us, hardy means it will grow in Christchurch and Invercargill. All we would say about A. sagenaria is that it is hardier than the tropical varieties.

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

Plant Collector: Acer Senkaki or A. 'Sango-kaku'

Acer Senkaki, as it is commonly referred to in NZ

Acer Senkaki, as it is commonly referred to in NZ

These vibrant red branches belong to what is commonly known as Acer Senkaki, or the coral-bark maple. I will go with Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society’s note that in fact, the correct name is Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Sango-kaku’. I wonder if Senkaki is the anglicising of Sango-kaku? The RHS gave it their prestigious Award of Garden Merit.

This is one of the Japanese maples with finely cut leaves (which explains the dissectum bit of the name), in five lobes or fingers (hence palmatum). The leaves are pale green tones throughout most of the season, colouring to gold in autumn. However, mostly one grows it for the glorious winter bark. It is a tree, albeit a smallish one. Over time it will get maybe five metres high by three metres wide.

I photographed this specimen in a country garden, Puketarata, where it stands as a splendid feature all on its own on a hillside, so it is able to viewed in its entirety. It really lit up a bleak winter Sunday afternoon.

Most maples need to be out of the blast of winds because their foliage is soft and relatively fragile. If the roots dry out over summer, the plant shows stress by burnt edges to its leaves. So positions which are well sheltered and moist all year round without getting waterlogged will give the best results. Grown well, the Japanese maples are lush and lacy in appearance and give superb autumn colour.

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

Plant Collector – Pennantia baylisiana (they don't come any more endangered than this ONE was)

Pennantia baylisiana - just the one single plant has ever been found

Pennantia baylisiana – just the one single plant has ever been found

If ever there was a strong argument for putting plants into commercial production in order to save them, it is this rare, native tree. Along with our native climbing Tecomanthe speciosa, only one plant of each has ever been found in the wild. In fact both the tecomanthe and pennantia are from Manawa Tawhi, the Great Island of the Three Kings group, where goats threatened their very survival as a species. Both were found around 1945-6. Duncan and Davies Nurseries succeeded in growing the pennantia from cutting and distributing the plants. Our plant dates back to that – probably in the early 1960s. It is still only a small tree, maybe 4 metres tall, with handsome, large, shiny recurved leaves. Being a subtropical plant from a mild climate, it needs to be largely frost free.

The problem with there being only one known specimen and reproducing it from cutting is that no matter how many plants you distribute, they are all identical clones so lacking any genetic variation. However, the original plant finally set viable seed in 1989 and there are now seedling grown plants in existence which should strengthen the genetic base. Penanntias are dioecious which means there are male plants and female plants. Fortunately the last known plant on the planet was female and occasionally, female dioecious plants can produce a little pollen and therefore self pollinate and produce seed. Our tree has set seed but as there appears to be a plant of Pennantia corymbosa in the neighbourhood, most of the seedlings have proven to be hybrids between the two, which is not what we are after at all. Mark was thrilled to finally get one seedling which seems to be true to P. baylisiana.

Our pennantia does not appear to be deep rooted - or it didn't appreciate recent strong winds

Our pennantia does not appear to be deep rooted – or it didn’t appreciate recent strong winds

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

Plant Collector: Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus “Pandora”

The first narcissus of the season - N. bulbocodium citrinus 'Pandora'

The first narcissus of the season – N. bulbocodium citrinus ‘Pandora’

Always the first little narcissi to flower in winter, these lemon hoop petticoats are pretty as a picture at the moment. I guess they gained their common name because they resemble those wired underskirts from times past. The bright yellow bulbocodiums flower later in the season. In contrast, the citrinus are very early, coming out with the snowdrops. These are easy bulbs to grow. In fact this clump is naturalised in hard conditions where our gravel driveway meets an elevated concrete path – which is why the flowers show some splash and wear. There is no mollycoddling involved with them but they do need good drainage and full sun. N. bulbocodium is native to the south of France, Portugal and Spain so will occur naturally in relatively hard conditions. Given that the foliage is distinctly grassy in appearance, you just need to make sure you are not mowing it off in the early stages.

Daffodils go far beyond the common big King Alfred types and we like a range of them so we can have them in flower for many months. We prefer earlier flowering ones overall because they are generally finished by the time the dreaded narcissi fly is on the wing. It lays its eggs in the crown of the foliage and each bulb becomes home to one fly larvae (big, fat creamy grub) which spends a year sustaining itself by eating the bulb from the inside out, only to metamorphose and repeat the cycle. A breeder told me that narcissi only need 65 days of growth to build up strength in the bulb for next year’s flowering so you can remove foliage early if you need to beat the fly. We also favour the littlies, the dwarf varieties, which are much more compact and showy in the garden.

Bulbocodiums increase readily by division and some will set viable seed.

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

Plant Collector: bilbergia

Bilbergia flowering in the winter woodland

Bilbergia flowering in the winter woodland

On a chilly mid winter day, there is nothing more exotic than a bilbergia flowering in the garden. It is a bromeliad, in case you can’t recognise it, and bromeliads can flower through winter when they look impossibly out of context and wonderfully bizarre.

Easily the world’s best known bromeliad is the pineapple, introduced to Europe from South America by none other than Christopher Columbus. All bromeliads are native to the Americas from Virginia south to the northerly reaches of Argentina, with most bilbergias coming from Brazil.

We have never had names on our bromeliads. This one may be Bilbergia distachia – although equally it may not. There are a fairly large number of species and named cultivars to choose from. Bilbergias often have quite a deep cone of foliage and their flowers are pendulous. The downside is that the flowers usually only last a few weeks instead of the months of some other types.

We like them through our evergreen woodland areas which remain frost free. Most are epiphytic, holding water in their vase shaped leaf rosettes and they are a really easy care plant. In more shaded areas, the foliage tends to become more muted but a plainer green backdrop highlights the exotic flowers wonderfully well.

Collecting bromeliads can become quite addictive. If you get keen, there are two comprehensive books on the topic by NZ author, Andrew Steens. Bromeliads for the Contemporary Garden will get you started, then you progress to Bromeliads, The Connoisseur’s Guide. We have a strong preference for using them in mixed plantings so there is not a whole stretch of just bromeliads looking spiky and alien. We find they combine well with clivias, ferns, orchids and other lush shade loving plants which provide a foil to show off their exotica.

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

Plant Collector : Luculia gratissima “Early Dawn”

Luculia gratissima 'Early Dawn'

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

To be honest, this is not my favourite luculia but it is the one that you are most likely to find offered for sale and it stays somewhat smaller than the other types we grow.

Do not let the fact that this winter flowering shrub hails from the Himalayas lull you into thinking it is hardy. It does not like frost at all and much more than a few degrees will cause short term damage to the foliage and possibly take out the winter blooms for the year. A heavy frost may kill it. However, you can learn a lesson from the fact that it is a forest tree in the Himalayas. If you have areas of the garden with good overhead cover from larger, evergreen trees, you may succeed with this plant, even in frosty inland areas. And it looks a great deal more attractive, in my opinion, when grown as a woodland plant.

The common practice in this country is to plant Early Dawn in full sun in the open and to keep it hard pruned and therefore more compact. It then covers itself in its rather harsh candy pink flowers (which are at least sweetly scented), shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” Its foliage develops a red tinge in cold temperatures and if an untimely frost catches it, you then have this rather unsightly, little shrub with shrivelled leaves. The plant we have in our woodland, however, is tall (2.5m), willowy, graceful and the sugar pink flower heads contrast well with all the greenery. It is a very different picture to the one we have in the open. Get it into woodland, is my advice, into ground rich in litter and humus. Then it may cheer up a bleak winter’s day.

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

For my preferred luculias, check out the white Fragrant Pearl and the pretty almond pink Fragrant Cloud (scroll down to the photo).