What would you say were the typical green ingredients in a Sydney garden? Murraya, camellia, agapanthus? (I’m not counting buxus because that’s usually more furniture than plant.) And definitely clivia. Cilvia arrived in Sydney on the good ship Arachne in 1844, via its homes in South Africa and Swaziland. We’ve loved it ever since for its stoic determination to look magnificent in that most difficult position – dry shade. That first arrival was nobilis, the droopy-headed member of the family.
Nobilis had been the first clivia to be collected and named by western science. Kew’s John Lindley paid the honour to Lady Charlotte Clive. As well as being Duchess of Northumberland, governess of the future Queen Victoria and granddaughter of Clive of India, Lady Charlotte was a keen plantswoman and the first to grow and flower clivia in England. She’s the reason clivia doesn’t rhyme with trivia.
While nobilis is still much sought after, the clivia most familiar to Sydney gardeners is miniata. The original had orange flowers with a green throat, edging to yellow.
Over the past century hydridisers have worked their magic on miniata so that she now comes in yellow, peach, salmon, green, almost-white and various shadings in between. The dark orange, wide-leaved varieties are called Belgian hybrids. There’s a great collection of them in the grounds of Sydney University. The most impressive clivia garden in Sydney though, is surely the Lover’s Walk garden at Bronte House.
Leo Schofield, who rehabilitated the garden at Bronte House when he lived there in the 1990s, wanted to plant C. nobilis in this shady, dry, rocky spot. It was impossible to find in the numbers he needed, so he instead planted 3,500 miniata, sprinkled with a mix of Belgian hybrids and species. Carla Pettit now manages the garden and says the only annoying thing about the clivia section is that it looks spectacular and draws Open Day visitors to gasp in admiration, despite being the area where she does the least work. “I’m listening to them and thinking ‘What about the area around the house that I spent countless hours preparing!’” The only effort the clivias demand is a twice-weekly watering (they might manage drought, but they prefer regular water, as long is it gets away quickly and doesn’t bog them down), and the removal of spent flower stems after flowering.
The clivias of Bronte House are remaining under wraps this year as Waverly Council takes on restoration of the building, not due to be finished until October, so the great clivia shows this year will be under the palms in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney; edging the fronts of garden beds all over the North Shore; and in shady garden spots all through the city.