Tag Archives: The plant collector

Plant Collector: Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Caespitosa’

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Caespitosa' is a little honey bun of a plant... after 50 years

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Caespitosa’ is a little honey bun of a plant… after 50 years

I can’t help but think that if conifers had user-friendly common names, they might have staged more of a revival as desirable plants. There is nothing easy about this name. Even the pronunciation of ‘Caespitosa’ is problematic. But it is the cutest little honey bun of a plant. We once produced a line of these to sell. After about 7 years, they measured no more than 10cm across. It is difficult to sell tiny gems like that. After 50 years or more, the ones in our rockery are about 40cm high and 50cm wide. They are like dense mushrooms and have never been clipped or shaped in any way. I sometimes clean out some of the dead debris in the middle and I clip off the occasional larger leafed stem but that is all the care these plants get.

The reason I clip off any odd looking foliage is because this is a bit of a freak seedling derived from what was a timber tree in its native Japan – commonly referred to as the Hinoki Cypress, though it would be more correct to refer to it as the Hinoki False Cypress because chamaecyparis are known as false cypress. It is obviously highly variable and prone to throwing sports because there are a host of different named selections. Such sports can revert to larger and stronger growing forms which is why it pays to clip out any peculiar, larger foliaged branches on a dwarf like this.

This is such a wonderfully tactile plant. The instinct is to pat it as you pass and it completely dense and firm. ‘Caespitosa’ was raised from seed before 1920 in England so it has been around for a while. It is still seen as a gem for alpine gardens. Cold climate gems that also tolerate the mild humid conditions that have here are not common.

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

Plant Collector: Picea albertiana 'Conica'

Picea albertiana 'Conica' after a mere 20 years

Picea albertiana ‘Conica’ after a mere 20 years

“So how old is the small Picea albertiana ‘Conica’?” I asked. “Not very old,” he replied. Then we worked out that this little specimen, under 2 metres high, is in fact over 20 years, whereas the big one (a scaled up version about 4 metres high) is 60 years old. Time can fly in the garden.

When conifers fell from grace after their heyday in the 70s, we threw some babies out with the bathwater. P. albertiana ‘Conica’ is a dwarf sport from the timber tree, Picea glauca. Glauca just means blue, and the fine foliage of the dwarf form retains a blue-grey hue. P. glauca is commonly known as the white spruce growing naturally right across from east to west of the northern states of USA, Canada and even Alaska. It is a valuable timber tree. You would be waiting a long time to get any timber out of P. albertiana ‘Conica’. In fact it is such a slow grower that it is a favourite candidate for bonsai. Our two specimens are in our rockery and the perfect icecream cone shape that gives them a wonderful silhouette. The leaves are fine, short needles, densely packed. I always want to put stars on top of them at Christmas.

That said, they may be on borrowed time. Coming from a very cold climate, they survive here because Mark is willing to treat them each year for red spider. These are two of the only plants in the garden he still sprays. If we get much more purist in our quest to garden without chemical sprays and fertiliser and shun treating even these, they are likely to kark it over time. We know this because the one in our park that he didn’t get around to spraying died. I would miss their tight cones.

Plant Collector: Nerine bowdenii

Nerine bowdenii - the last of the season to bloom

Nerine bowdenii – the last of the season to bloom

When other nerines have long since passed over, the tall, sugar pink Nerine bowdenii are looking remarkably elegant in full bloom. They flower before their foliage appears and they are happy in congested clumps, though it takes a few years to get a clump this size if you start with a single bulb. Each head has about 10 individual flowers held up on a good strong stem so it doesn’t need staking. They can bend a little in our torrential downpours but don’t flatten. N. bowdenii has particularly long stems, 80cm or even taller at times.

These South African bulbs like to have their necks out of the ground so are planted at a shallow depth only. They are best in full sun; clearly they thrive on being baked in summer when they are dormant. As with all bulbs, good drainage is critical. The strappy foliage follows soon after flowering and will hang on until late spring. This means they can look a bit tatty in the spring garden but who can complain when they cheer up an early winter day with their splendid display?

N. bowdenii only comes in shades of pink and is often grown as a cut flower. Nerines last well in a vase, though I admit we leave ours in the garden. When a bulb only puts up one flower spike, it seems mean to cut it off in its prime. You can grow them from seed (make sure the seed is fresh and sow it immediately) but you will be waiting several years for them to get to flowering size.

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

Plant Collector: Iochroma grandiflorum

Our Iochroma grandiflorum on a magical late autumn day

Our Iochroma grandiflorum on a magical late autumn day

We were looking out at our iochroma this week, marvelling that it was still in flower and making a wonderful picture in the late autumn conditions. We tried to remember when it started flowering and we are pretty sure it was in bloom by late October. A plant which flowers for seven months is not to be sneezed it. Technically it is a shrub, though at over 3 metres high it is a large one, yet it never gets very woody. The stems are quite brittle. Iochroma hail from Central and South America – this one is mainly found in Ecuador. It doesn’t mass flower but keeps producing an apparently inexhaustible supply of these pretty blue trumpets which are about 10cm long.

Iochromas belong to the solanaceae family (think solanums, like tomatoes and aubergines) and you may see a resemblance to its pest cousin, woolly nightshade. The leaves are large, soft and almost felted. Being large growing, brittle, soft foliaged and from warmer climes, you might think it is not a starter for colder, frost prone areas but it is remarkable resilient. Wind, frost, cold and heavy rain will knock it about, even defoliate it at times, but as long as it is well established, it can return to fine form very quickly as soon as temperatures rise. It sets its flowers on new growth so as long as it is warm enough to keep the plant growing, it continues to produce blooms. However, it is not a tidy little plant suited to immaculate little gardens but sits more as a large border plant in similar conditions to abutilons. Tui are reputed to love it feeding from the flowers.

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

Plant Collector: Cyclamen purpurascens

Cyclamen purpurascens seems to be in flower pretty well all year

Cyclamen purpurascens seems to be in flower pretty well all year

We are big fans of the species cyclamen and C. purpurascens is starring as a garden plant. Astoundingly, this patch in the rockery flowers almost twelve months of the year and doesn’t go dormant. Most of the species cyclamen are from Southern Europe through to North Africa and are therefore used to distinct wet and dry seasons and often poor, stony conditions. C. purpurascens has a far wider distribution into Northern Europe where it is more of a woodland plant, often found growing naturally in beach forests.

It appears that we are quite lucky that our form of this cyclamen is good, clean cerise colour as it is sometimes found more in muddy pink shades but like most species, the colour can vary across the spectrum of pinks and very occasionally turning up in white.

C. purpurascens has typical heart shaped leaves, dark green mottled with silvery white markings. It grows from a round, flat tuber as do other cyclamen. Given its wonderful performance as a garden plant over several years here, the only downside is that it sets very little seed. This will be why you don’t see it around much. The common C. hederafolium sets seed freely and naturalises readily if given the chance whereas we have to be vigilant to spot the occasional seed on C. purpurascens. If you can find it, give the tuber cool, moist growing conditions which are rich in humus. Moist does not mean permanently wet – which may rot out the tuber. We have it growing on the shady side of the rockery.

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

Plant Collector: Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Metasequoia, commonly known as the dawn redwood

Metasequoia, commonly known as the dawn redwood

Most people know this by its common name, the Dawn Redwood, though this can cause a little confusion if you mentally associate the massive redwoods with North America. Those are the sequoia and sequoiadendron whereas the metasequoia is a Chinese plant (though botanically related). It wasn’t even identified and recorded until the 1940s, which is very late in the piece for botanical discoveries, certainly of something that large. For it is a very large tree – this specimen must be nigh on 30 metres now. We understand this specimen was planted in the mid 1950s here. Seed was sent from China to the Arnold Arboretum in the USA in 1948, just before China closed its borders for decades, and the arboretum then dispersed it around the world to ensure the survival of the species. So our tree must be one of the older ones in cultivation outside its native habitat, though is a mere baby for what is a very long-lived tree.

The other aspects that make this tree really interesting are that it is a conifer (bears cones) but it is deciduous. There are very few deciduous conifers. The leaves are turning colour now and will fall soon. In spring, the fine, feathery foliage (described as pinnate) emerges in bright green and garden visitors invariably ask us to identify the tree. It also has magnificent shaggy brown bark which is wonderfully tactile. It is just not a tree for suburban back yards but where space allows, it is a most handsome landscape specimen. It likes adequate moisture and we have it growing by a stream, but it is not as tolerant of wet roots as the other deciduous conifers, the taxodiums and glyptostrobus.

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

Plant Collector: Vireya Rhododendron Satan’s Gift

Satan. I'm afraid it is vireya rhododendron "Satan's Gift", not Santa's Gift

Satan. I’m afraid it is vireya rhododendron “Satan’s Gift”, not Santa’s Gift

The trouble with vireyas is that they have an aversion to frost so they are really only a garden option for those in mild, coastal areas. Inland (where frosts are much greater), you need to be a careful gardener willing to give them protection and maybe bring them under cover. But they can be such a rewarding plant with their extended flowering habits. This one is Satan’s Gift, one of the best varieties named by the late Felix Jury and certainly the showiest and the most fragrant.

Felix was a complete agnostic so the word Satan merely evoked hot colours to him but over the years, we have seen more religious people struggle with the name. Indeed, we have seen it offered for sale as Satin Gift, Jury’s Gift and the hilarious Santa’s Gift. (Note to such people: it is fine to shun a plant because you don’t like its name, but it is not okay to rename that plant to something you find more acceptable). We were once told that it was the only plant in Eden Gardens in Auckland, a memorial garden, without a name plaque. We just think it is a splendid cultivar to have in the garden.

This is a cross between two different species (konorii x zoelleri) which gives it hybrid vigour. It is particularly bushy and well furnished and flowers more than either of its parents.

Besides not liking the cold, vireya rhododendrons need great drainage. The fastest way to kill one is to keep it with waterlogged roots, whether in a container or the garden. In the wild, most are epiphytes and grow up in the trees.

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