Crepe myrtle
Plants I love

Crepe myrtle

Crepe myrtles are street trees in my neighbourhood and right now our streets look dressed for a five-year old’s birthday party. The flowers are as frilly as a tulle tutu and come in a complete collection of princess pinks. That they manage to wear this exuberant frou frou and still look elegant is just one reason crepe myrtles are Sydney’s favourite small flowering tree. There are other reasons: in autumn they colour up nicely, bare branches in winter let the sunshine in; and the sinewy trunks develop fabulous silver, copper and bronze tones as they mature.

Crepe myrtle

Selective breeding over the 200 years since the crepe myrtle, specifically Lagerstroemia indica, arrived in gardens from China has resulted in some outstanding varieties. But things really took off in the 1950s when Donald Egolf at United States National Arboretum began hybrising Lagerstroemia indica with the Japanese crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia fauriei. The Chinese species tends to be badly affected by powdery mildew in humid weather. The Japanese doesn’t, but only comes in white with an occasional pink-blushed individual.

Putting the two together resulted in the Indian Summer series, more than 25 mildew-resistant varieties named for North American Indian tribes. ‘Natchez,’ for instance, is white to 8m; ‘Yuma’ is a pinky-lavender to 4m; and ‘Sioux’ is hot-pink to 4m. More recently dwarf varieties also became available (‘Chisam Fire’ is a showy dark pink to 1m) so that there are now some 120 crepe myrtle options to suit any garden need, from small shrubs to large trees.

Crepe myrtle

Care questions revolve around pruning. Crepe myrtles flower on new wood, so pruning, which encourages new growth, results in lots of flowers. Unpruned trees will still flower, but with fewer frills. Some gardeners, and council maintenance teams, favour the hack rather than the prune, and simply blunt-cut the tree in what looks like one sweep of the chainsaw. This produces ugly thickets of thin upright growth.

A more pleasing approach is to selectively prune the tree to maintain a natural, elegant shape. Get the pruning tools out in late winter. If the tree has been grown on a single trunk, clear off any suckers or twiggy branches beneath the canopy. If it is a bit of a thicket, allow three or five main trunks to grow, cutting others out at ground level. Remove crossing branches from the centre of the canopy, clear out dead branches, then cut back anything narrower than a pencil. Make all these cuts flush with another branch or the main stem, so that after you have finished the tree looks like it has lost weight rather than had a bad hair cut.

Crepe myrtle

The dwarf varieties are exceptions, some of which can get a bit leggy at their mature height. If that’s the case, give them a hearty chop to around 30cm above ground level in late winter, and they’ll shoot up in spring, ready to join the party in summer.

It’s time to

Control rust
Keep a watch for signs of rust on frangipani, which shows up as powdery orange spots on the undersides of leaves. Spray with Ecofungicide before the infection sets in.

Tame Chinese jasmine
The long tendrils of new growth can be trimmed to keep a neat profile.

Plant beans
Still time for a harvest before winter if you act now.

Watch for lily caterpillars
These beasts will destroy a crinum or clivea clump with eye-watering speed. Squash individuals, spray hoards with Dipel or Yates Success Ultra.

Hillandale
The perennial borders at Sarah Ryan’s flower-filled country garden are at their best through late summer. The garden is open on 27-28 February and 26-27 March, at Yeltholme, which is just this side of Bathurst. Details: www.myopengarden.com.au

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In season

February 2

In now: Figs are one of our oldest cultivated fruits. From their home in southwestern Asia they were traded and shared to become treasured in Egypt, Persia and Greece just as those ancient civilisations were taking off. They’re at their luscious best now.

At their best: Limes are the first citrus of the new season and are about to become abundant.

Best buy: Valencia oranges are juicy and sweet. Don’t be put off by green skin, that’s the fruit’s defence against sunburn.

In the vegie patch: Sow kohlrabi seeds direct where you want them to grow, into soil with added mushroom compost. Harvest in around 50 days.

What else:

  • plenty of different melons to try
  • good time to make tomato sauce with roma tomatoes at bargain prices
  • Sydney-grown eggplants are at their peak
  • buy snake beans that feel form not foamy

 

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Latitude 23, RBG
Plants I love

Latitude 23

The Tropic of Capricorn is the most southern circle of latitude where the sun can be directly overhead. Its northern equivalent is the Tropic of Cancer, and together they form the borders of the tropical world. The two tropics are at around Latitude 23, which is why Latitude 23 is the name of the new tropical glasshouses at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney.

Latitude 23 is a repurpose-reuse project. The plants come from the tropical collection that was held in the Pyramid and the Arc, which were demolished to make way for a new horticultural exhibition centre called The Calyx. They have been resting in the nursery, but Curator and tropical plant lover, Dr Dale Dixon always thought the treasures were too good not to share. So two charming old glasshouses next to the Fern House have been re-purposed as Latitude 23, showcasing an ever-changing selection from the tropical collection.

Bat plant, Tacca integrifolia

Grabbing my attention just inside the door last week was a white bat plant, Tacca integrifolia, with a handful of giant flowers trailing long, gently curling ribbons from the ‘mouths’ of their bat-like faces. The black-flowered bat plant, Tacca chantrieri can be grown outside in Sydney, given the right conditions, but the fabulous white version needs the protection of a glasshouse. Beyond the startling bat plant, the place is packed with treats – tassel ferns, lipstick palms, carnivorous pitcher plants, orchids, hoya and baskets of trailing Aeschynanthus species with flowers like lipstick emerging from a tube – all displayed so you can get up close and see the hairs on the leaves and the veins in the petals.

Latitude 23

Latitude 23 is open from 11am-2pm on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays and is already drawing more visitors in a three-hour period than the Pyramid attracted in a week says Dixon. Those captured by the charms of tropical plants will next want to sign up for Dixon’s tours of the secret other half of Latitude 23, where rare plants are displayed in a glasshouse that’s not open to the public. The oddities here include ant plants, which offer ants a safe home in the honeycombed swollen base of the stem in return for the nutrients offered by their droppings.

The Papua New Guinean tongue lily is a different kind of weird. Long, thick fat leaves with a tongue-like groove protrude from bulbous brown swellings that erupt all over a big mound. As creepy as any alien, the plant steps up the horror with a dark purple ‘flower’ that looks like a cancer in a stop smoking ad. Dixon suggests I smell it, and, foolishly compliant, I bend in close for a whiff of something rotten. It’s a stinky reminder of the amazing diversity and specialisation of plants, in this case plants found in the tropical world bordered by latitude 23.

It’s time to

Book now
Longwood gardens in Pennsylvania has a mind-blowing annual budget of $50 million. Karl Gercens is in charge of the no-expense-spared glasshouse displays. Hear his thoughts on finding inspiration at the Garden Design Series, Royal Automobile Club, 10 March, 6.15pm. Tickets:$75. Details: www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au

Deadhead aggies
Cut finished flowering stems of agapanthus to prevent seeds falling into the clump, or worse, somewhere else.

Learn hedging
Scott Wilson has reclaimed and rejuvenated the kilometres of 19th century landscape hedging around his property Old Wesleydale in Tasmania. Learn the ancient skill of hedge laying at Wilson’s ‘Hedges in the landscape and their management’ course on April 16 at Old Wesleydale. Cost: $150. Details: www.oldwesleydaleheritage.com.

Beat the heat
Do an early morning harvest of ripening fruit and veg before a scorching hot day. High temperatures and hot sun will cook tomatoes on the vine and turn greens to mush

 

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In season

January 26

 

In now: Look for bananas from northern NSW. Smaller, and ripened over a longer period than the Queensland mega-bananas, they have intense sweet flavour.

At their best: Sydney-grown sweetcorn is bursting with juicy sweetness.

Best buy: Grey zucchini aren’t grey at all but a lovely mottled pale green. Shorter and stumpier than the familiar dark green, they also have denser, more flavoursome flesh. Perfect grilled in salads.

In the vegie patch: Sow or plant another tripod of cucumber to provide crunchy salads through autumn. They like rich soil so add chicken manure and compost to the area first.

What else:

  • all of last year’s apples are on sale as the new harvest starts.  Well-stored sundowners will still be crisp. This early in the season the only fresh commercially-grown apple is royal gala. To find other varieties head to the orchards.
  • if you’re indulging  in figs, store them in the fridge only if you need to keep them. Bring them back to room temperature before eating.
  • look out for the big round Reed avocado which has only a brief season.
  • buy some cheap pineapple to cook up a spicy, gingery pineapple chutney.

 

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Plants I love

Canna

The story goes like this. Rebels in the Indian mutiny, having run out of ammunition but not ingenuity, loaded up their rifles with the pellet-like seeds of cannas instead, thereby giving the plant its common name, Indian shot. Sadly it’s not true, though in a botanical version of ‘Mythbusters’ a Californian botany professor fired canna seeds from 12-gauge shotgun into plywood targets and found many of the seeds were unaltered by the impact! The story is a geographical fail too. The canna is native to the West Indies and tropical America generally, rather than to the East Indies and tropical Asia. The single pellet of poetical truth in the common name is that the brilliant colours of canna do remind you of a vibrant Indian fabric market.

Red canna

An unnamed sensational red canna from my mum’s garden.

As evidence: currently blooming in my garden is a rich red; a hot pink; the bright orange with dark burgundy foliage called ‘Wyoming’; and a giant orange monster that towers more than 2m high. I also grow a few specifically for their fabulous foliage: an elegant version with purple-edged and striped leaves, which, unfurling, look like calla lilies; ‘Tropicanna’ in lurid sunset tones of purple, orange and pink stripes; and gold and lime striped ‘Bengal Tiger’. This last one looks fantastic backlit but has the downside of insipid orange flowers held on horribly clashing violet-pink stems. I cut them off whenever they appear.

Canna 'Bengal Tiger'

This is ‘Bengal Tiger’ at the size I like. Check the pic at the top of this post to see the nasty flower spike.

As you can tell from my mix of named and unnamed varieties, cannas are one of those easy-care plants shared anonymously between friends, as well as hunted down through mailorder specialists (try Canna Brae).

It’s estimated there are now several thousand canna cultivars in gardens around the world, which is quite the comeback. In the plant’s 19th century heyday a German catalogue listed 500 varieties and 76 beds of different cannas bloomed to rave reviews at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, but when the good taste brigade turned its back on Victorian-era excess cannas were caned. Now the chromatic clamour and tropical exoticism of the canna is back. The dwarf varieties are good in pots, and they go well in the garden with subtropical plants like bananas and gingers and palms, with contrasting foliage plants and with dahlias. That’s a combo made famous by English gardener Christopher Lloyd who gave the English garden world conniptions when he tore out a rose garden at iconic Great Dixter and replaced it with an exotic mix featuring plenty of cannas.

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This is ‘Wyoming’, with dark burgundy, almost black foliage. The wattlebirds love this and stick their beaks so far into the flower their weight bends the flower spike towards to the ground, with the bird hanging upside down. The inevitable snap of the stem and ungraceful escape of the bird is a slow-motion accident you can’t stop watching.

Cannas like lots of sun, are drought-hardy once the clump gets established and look lushly gorgeous when it rains a lot. They respond really well to feeding, but don’t look bad without it. Dead flowers should be picked off the flower spike, and finished spikes trimmed. Don’t cut the whole stem down though, as a new flower spike will likely emerge from the side of the stem. Apart from baby snails chewing holes in the baby leaves, the single canna curse is rust. The powdery orange spots appear on the lower leaves first and quickly spread. Bin badly affected leaves, and control the spread of the fungus by spraying any outbreak, including the mulch surface around the plants, with Ecofungicide.

It’s a small amount of effort for massive effect as it’s not just the colour that appeals but the plant’s explosive growth. The clump shifts from zero to hero as soon as the weather warms, completely changing the sense of volume in the garden. When the cold sets in they start to look a bit shabby. I cut them down to a few centimetres above ground level and mulch with compost and manure. I just get used to the garden without their bulk, height and brilliant flashes of colour when they come booming back again.

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In season

January 19

In now: Blood plums are followed by a rainbow of plum varieties. Eat fresh, bake, grill, jam, or bake in pies, tarts, cakes and crumbles. I made a blood plum and tomato salad out of Matt Preston’s new book last week, on a bed of rocket, with mint and a red wine dressing spiked with white pepper.

At their best: Seedless black grapes are big, sweet and firm-bordering-on-crunchy. Choose bunches with fresh-looking stems and store in a ziplock bag or closed plastic container in the fridge.

Best buy: Australians buy more carrots than any other vegetable, even potatoes. Good news then that the Tasmanian carrot harvest is underway.

In the vegie patch: Keep pinching off basil flowers to promote more growth. They are edible, with a stronger flavour than the leaves, so use judiciously.

What else:

  • I don’t usually shop at Woolies, but research calls, and yesterday I noticed that it is marketing grey zucchini as white zucchini. Wonder if that will increase the price?
  • drought in the north has affected supplies of lychees, hence that stubborn price. They are a delicious treat eaten straight from the fridge on a hot night.
  • look out for golden queen peaches. These are  firm peaches so don’t wait for them to soften. They are the traditional canning peach, but don’t let that put you off – the flavour is great.
  • good times for seedless watermelon salads, both sweet and savoury.
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