Tag Archives: woodland plants

Our world of azaleas here

Our sky carpet of Kurume azaleas in September

Our sky carpet of Kurume azaleas in September

I have never tracked the flowering season of our evergreen azaleas. Generally we would say they are spring flowering and the peak is in September. But this year, I have become aware of them coming into flower already and I have been snapping a few photos for several weeks. When I looked around, plenty have blooms out.

I googled and found references to them having a flowering season of a week or two in spring. Not here, is all I can say. For us, they are unsung heroes in the background of our garden. We have lots of evergreen azaleas and they are rarely foreground stars. But they are such an obliging plant because they grow in semi shade to shaded areas (of which we have plenty), they never get too large, they are wonderfully unfussy, don’t need deadheading and they gently flower on… and on… and on.

The evergreen azaleas are gently flowering already and will continue through til spring

The evergreen azaleas are gently flowering already and will continue through til spring

You can make them stars. You can turn them into bright, colourful clipped mounds of bloom if that is what you want in your garden. You can tastefully plant the same cultivar (to keep uniformity) as an edger alongside a driveway or path. You can colour tone for variation and mass plant out a gentle incline. Or you can ignore fashion and plant a mismatched collection as a vibrant statement of mushroom shaped mounds out in the open. With any of those options, you will probably get peak flowering for a couple of weeks and have relatively anonymous, small leafed green shrubs for the other 50 weeks of the year.

We have plenty of star plants in our garden, so we lean more to using the evergreen azaleas as understated support plants throughout. They are so obliging by nature. Even if you cut them back very hard, most will just come again. You can raise your own plants from seed if you are a patient gardener. They are widely available for sale and generally you decide what you want by leaf and flower size – some are much smaller in both than others – and by colour rather than searching out particular named cultivars.
???????????????????????????????Colours are from white through the whole gamut of pinks to pure reds. The closest to blue is lilac and the closest to orange is more coral in tone. Nor are there pure yellows. Just white with a green or yellow toned throat.

We have plantings of the fine leafed Kurume azaleas from Japan which are now over 60 years old. At about 45 years of age, Mark decided they needed some attention and rather than cutting them back hard to rejuvenate them, he set upon a course of limbing them up. It is a constant task but we take out all the lower growth and have them as an undulating carpet of blooms just above head height.

A garden visitor from Kurume came a few years ago. He spoke no English and we speak no Japanese but he managed to convey the information to us that our Kurumes were simply astounding for their age. But, and there is always a but, we should be taking better care of them. I have spent a prodigious amount of time grooming out dead twiggy bits and an excess of lichen ever since. Some gardeners choose to use copper sprays or lime sulphur to combat lichen build up on older plants.

All azaleas are rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas. In other words, azaleas are a separate section of the rhododendron family. They then divide further into the deciduous azaleas (botanically Pentanthera) and the evergreen azaleas (at least mostly evergreen, the Tsutsuji or Tsustusti azaleas originating from Japan).

Vibrant colour in late October from deciduous azaleas

Vibrant colour in late October from deciduous azaleas

Deciduous azaleas are a different branch of the family altogether and many look more like rhododendrons with their full trusses. They are often referred to as Azalea mollis or Ilam azaleas in this country. Some bring the most wonderfully vibrant colour into the spring garden, bordering on vulgar if not placed well. You don’t get the same bright oranges in any rhododendron that I know of and the intense yellows, tangerines and reds make a big statement. For those of more refined sensibility, there are also pastels and whites. Many are strongly scented.

Deciduous azaleas are more tolerant of heavy, wet soils – even occasional flooding – and of full sun than their rhododendron cousins. Surround them with lots of green is my advice, and let them have their time to star in all their glory.

The problem with deciduous azaleas is that when they are not in flower in mid spring, they tend to be pretty anonymous plants. And in humid climates, they are inclined to get mildewed foliage by the end of summer so are not plants of great beauty in small gardens.

Nor are they always easy to source. Garden centres really only have a three week selling time on them when they are in flower because few will impulse buy outside that show time. So buy plants when you see them on offer, is my advice, rather than waiting until the precise moment you are ready to plant them.

Our garden might look a bit sad and empty without the strong showing from the azaleas.

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

Plant collector : Helleborus x sternii

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Helleborus x sternii

There are more hellebores than just the common H. orientalis and sternii is one we appreciate in the winter woodland. It has distinctive green flowers, sometimes flushed purple, and lovely glaucous foliage which is finer in appearance. Glaucous just means it has a blue or grey cast to the colour. It is more upright in growth and does not make as dense a clump as orientalis. In addition to that, it holds its flowers in a cluster above the foliage and many of them are outward facing rather than all nodding (or facing downwards). So it displays its flowers a little better than H. orientalis.

The x sternii means it is a hybrid – in this case a cross between H. argutifolius (from Corsica and Sardinia) and H. lividus (from Majorca). From those origins, you can guess that it is quite happy in hot, dry conditions and the information is often given that it is suited to sunny positions. In our garden, sunny positions are at a premium whereas we have woodland in abundance so we are always after plant candidates for shadier positions. Plants like this hellebore which are not at all fussy, are very handy to add winter interest.

Sternii can be raised from seed or by division. There are named selections of sternii around – the seed from these won’t come true so they need to be divided or increased by cutting if you want to keep their special features. It appears that many of the newer forms are extending the colour range into purer pinks, burgundy, slate and white – akin to the orientalis colour range. We only have the original green flowered forms and have not seen the other colours in this country yet.

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: Agapetes serpens

Agapetes serpens - attracts nectar feeding birds in winter

Agapetes serpens - attracts nectar feeding birds in winter

Agapetes serpens is a surprisingly hardy woodland plant from the Himalayan region and there we have been for years thinking it was a somewhat tender plant from India! Right general geographic area at least (she says in self defence). It is an evergreen shrub but with arching growth – aptly described by another as being like a vegetable octopus. What is really lovely through winter and spring is the prolonged flowering season when the branches are festooned with tiny hanging red bells with cute little chevron markings which Mark always thinks resemble Chinese lanterns and these must contain nectar because the wax-eyes come in to feed regularly. Mark was delighted to see even a bellbird come in to feed on one of our plants.

In the wild, A.serpens is often epiphytic which means it grows perched in the embrace of a larger tree. Consequently, in a more suburban environment, it is equally suited to growing in a container or a hanging basket. As the plant matures, its roots develop into big nubbly, woody protruberances pushing themselves above the soil, which we assume is for water storage. We grow serpens both in the shade where its foliage stays predominantly green and in full sun where it tends to be red-toned. I am still a little hesitant about declaring it as totally hardy so in colder, inland areas it would probably be wise to treat it as a woodland plant which needs some overhead cover rather than using it out in the open.

Agapetes are related botanically to the vacciniums (which includes proper cranberries) and all are members of the wider ericaceae family which takes in the heaths and heathers as well.

Plant of the week – Farfugium japonicum argenteum

A farfugium, these days, no longer a ligularia

I had to do some decoding of the name of this evergreen, clump-forming plant for woodland and shade areas. It used to be known as a ligularia (Ligularia tussilaginea argentea to be precise) but the family were reclassified as farfugiums. Argenteum’s siblings are far easier to build up so are a great deal more common – aureomaculatum which many of you will know as the Leopard ligularia (about which we are bit sniffy – looks as if it has been sprayed with Paraquat, is Mark’s opinion) and cristata (also known as crispatum) which looks a little like a tough oak-leafed lettuce. Argenteum is slow to increase so usually passed by in the nursery trade in favour of those which get a quicker turnaround. But none of the alternatives can light up a dark space quite like the startling white splashes on the often enormous leaves of this plant. The kidney-shaped leaves can reach up to half a metre across.

These plants are classified within the daisies, asteracea, and the flowers are typically nasty yellow things but you can cut them off. Argenteum prefers some shade (the white parts will burn in the sun) and grows in similar conditions to hostas – humus rich with adequate moisture. The beauty is that they keep their leaves all year and are largely impervious to slug and snail attack. The one defect they can suffer from is anthracnose which can result in little shot holes in the leaves. We don’t worry about it but if you want perfect leaves every time, you may need to use a fungicide occasionally.