Chris Cuddy describes himself as a plant nerd. What might that mean? Here’s an example: his current favourite plant is an ancient survivor of the Namibian and Angolan deserts, Welwitschia mirabilis. This Jurassic-era plant produces only two leaves in its entire life. And it can live 1,500 years. Over the centuries of wear and tear the leaves split and fray so that the plant ultimately looks like a huge mound of seaweed washed up in the desert. It’s generally only grown by Botanic Gardens, but Cuddy came across some seed and now has 20 plants. “It’s a bit of a folly,” he admits, “I don’t even think I can plant it out in the garden, but I heard about it at uni as an example of a really ancient plant, so when I came across the seed, I couldn’t resist. True plant nerd behaviour.”
Cuddy grew up in Lane Cove, but fell in love with the countryside around Canowindra, and started his own nursery there, Perenialle Plants (www.perennialle.com.au), in 2010. His focus is on drought-tolerant and frost-hardy plants, mostly perennials. The majority of the catalogue is from southern Africa, the Mediterranean and New Zealand, and he says all do well in Sydney, though gardeners on the coastal fringe will want to ensure good drainage.
The nursery primarily operates as mail order, though it is also possible to drop in, shop and see the plants growing in the garden. Particularly impressive last week was Salvia leucantha. It might not have the rarity, history or nerd value of the Welwitschia but it’s much prettier! It’s commonly called Mexican velour sage, referencing its Mexican origins and the fabulous felty feel of the long spires of flower. Cuddy grows both the purple-flowered original, and the South African-bred white and pink-and-white forms. They all perform really well in Sydney, and are at their best from March well into winter. Cuddy grows five or six plants together to form a really impressive mass, but they also work in smaller spaces as individual plants. In Canowindra the frost knocks leucantha back in mid-winter; in Sydney gardeners have to play Jack Frost by cutting the plant to ground level in August.
Also featuring in Cuddy’s late-autumn garden is Phlomis ‘Edward Bowles’. The commonly grown phlomis, Phlomis fruticosa, is commonly known as Jerusalem sage. ‘Edward Bowles’ is a hybrid if it and of P. russeliana, which has lovely wide leaves. The result of the marriage is the best of both parents. The large evergreen felty leaves form a low mound from which spires of yellow flowers like claws arise in summer. When the flowers die, the stems become dark brown spires holding tiers of the whorled seed heads. “The seasonality of the plant is great,” enthuses Cuddy. “You get such different effects at different times, and all in a tough plant about 1.2 metres high and a metre wide.” Not just for plant nerds.