Plants I love

Plant art for Christmas

Publishers believe that garden books only sell in the run-up to Christmas. The idea seems to be that we only buy garden books to give them away. Here’s one you’ll have trouble deciding whether to keep or wrap, and as you mull over the decision each flick to a new page will shift you ever closer to finding some other gift for that art-loving or plant-loving friend.Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, published by art and garden book specialists Phaidon, (rrp $80) collects 300 artworks from around the world across a span of 1500 years. While some fit the criteria of botanical art, with a scientific purpose underlying a beautiful composition, most celebrate the beauty, ephemerality and intrinsic interest of flowers, and do so in a range of materials, some of them surprising. There’s a confrontingly sexual orchid made from bronze and painted white by British sculptor Marc Quinn, who’s famous for having carved a sculpture of his head using his own frozen blood. What looks like a photo of a rhipsalis in shy flower turns out to be a monumental, giant-sized, 2.59m x 1.7m, hyper-real oil painting by South Korean artist Lee Kwang-Ho.

Lee Kwang-Ho, Cactus No. 59, 2011, oil on canvas, 259 × 170 cm, private collection. Picture credit: © Lee Kwang Ho / Johyun Gallery (page 57)

Lee Kwang-Ho, Cactus No. 59, 2011, oil on canvas, 259 × 170 cm, private collection. Picture credit: © Lee Kwang Ho / Johyun Gallery (page 57)

Also surprising is a plate from the Ferns of Great Britain and Ireland made by Henry Bradbury at the height of fern-fever in Britain. It looks like a very fine watercolour, but is actually a nature print, a process in which the actual plant is pressed into soft lead to form an image. The image is then transferred electrically to copper, and printed using coloured inks. The technique was developed at the Imperial Printing House in Vienna. Bradbury studied in Vienna and improved on the technique, which he patented in London. The delicate ferns depicted here are printed in greens and browns and their laciness is perfectly captured in the process. Tragically, Bradbury killed himself at 29 by drinking acid, having been accused of plagiarism by the director of Imperial.

The stories accompanying each work are fascinating, and just as interesting are the provocative pairings of images and the visual dialogues they suggest. An airy sketch of a tassel hyacinth by Vincent Van Gogh faces a woodblock by of a bellflower and dragonfly by Hokusai, the Japanese artist who had such an enormous influence on the Impressionists.

Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Rosa centifolia: Rosier à cent feuilles, 1820, hand-coloured stipple engraving, 23 x 32 cm, Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society, London. Picture credit: The Art Archive / Eileen Tweedy (page 10)

Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Rosa centifolia: Rosier à cent feuilles, 1820, hand-coloured stipple engraving, 23 x 32 cm, Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society, London. Picture credit: The Art Archive / Eileen Tweedy (page 10)

A hand-coloured print of a rose by Pierre-Joseph Redoute, Plant Painter to her Majesty Empress Josephine Bonaparte, shares a spread with a 3D digital rendering of a rose by contemporary Japanese artist Macoto Murayayam. Redoute used multiple processes to produce his hand-colouring engravings and Murayayam too uses several processes, first hand-drawing anatomical studies of dissected plants, then putting them through a software program so that they look like engineering blueprints for an alien world. Both use contemporary technologies to capture the beautiful geometry of the rose.

The images and stories in Plant are a reminder of our complex love affair with plants, and make for an addictive, page-turning treat.

Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), c.1505–10, pen and ink with red chalk on paper, 19.8 × 16 cm, Royal Collection Trust, London. Picture credit: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016 / Bridgeman Images (page 223)

Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), c.1505–10, pen and ink with red chalk on paper, 19.8 × 16 cm, Royal Collection Trust, London. Picture credit: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016 / Bridgeman Images (page 223)

 

It’s time to

Check for caterpillars
Spray with Dipel or Success if you must control caterpillar damage, but pause and consider the future butterfly first.

Trim wisteria
Keep the long whippy growth of wisteria trimmed back out of the way.

Plant tomatoes
Buy advanced pots, or start new plants from seed. They need a sunny spot and soil enriched with old compost and manure. If growing in pots, choose a bit container, or a variety bred for pot culture.

Pinch basil
Pinch out the growing tips to promote a bushier basil. Liquid feed weekly to move it along fast, producing the softest leaves.

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Plants I love

Worsleya and other fans

worsleya procera

Worsleya in flower last year. So far, nothing this year, but there’s still time.

The flower of Worsleya procera looks like a lily, but it’s wisteria-purple, a colour you never get in a lily. One of its common names is blue hippeastrum, which doesn’t suit it as well as another, Empress of Brazil, which at least captures its sense of drama. The throat of the flower is white and as the petals extend, each with a ruffled edge, the colour builds in lines to be richest at the petals’ tips. A handful of blooms unfold from the single flowering stem so it’s quite a show, but I’d grow it even if those blue December blooms never appeared.

Some plants you grow only for their flowers. Hibiscus, for example: really, who’d bother if it weren’t for those stunning blooms. But others are fabulous, flowers or not, and this is one of them. Grey-blue, silky-smooth leaves curve out of the central stem, all in the same direction, so that rather than a fountain effect it creates a kind a rooster’s tail, but longer, firmer – and green. Or a ponytail, complete, with a curling twist at the end.

worsleya-procera

You see what I mean – who wouldn’t want this!

These fabulous good looks are augmented by rarity, and the fact that it’s the only child in the species, so that Worsleya is a kind of secret handshake amongst plant lovers who, spying it on a fellow gardener’s terrace feel an instant rapport.

In its native Brazil Worsleya grows on rock faces in subtropical rainforests among lichens and mosses where hot days and cool humid nights result in heavy dew and persistent mist. Replicating those conditions at home means it’s best grown in a pot in a free-draining mix of orchid bark mixed with coconut peat or pea gravel. Water it daily and protect it from afternoon sun. Find it occasionally at Growing Friends at the Botanic gardens, or at plant fairs and shows.

aloe plicatilis

I’ve long been mad for the fan effect of this aloe, and picked this one at at the Collectors’ Plant Fair this year.

Slightly less rare, but with a similarly desirable flat foliage effect, like a plant pressed to grow between the pages of a book, is Aloe plicatilis. Where Worsleya grows in just one direction, this aloe grows in two, symmetrically, with the thick succulent leaves lined up tight like a partly opened fan, giving it the common name of fan aloe. It’s endemic to just a few mountains in the Fynbos of South Africa. Slowly, over decades, it will get to 5m, with multiple fans on a thick corky trunk, but so far at my place it’s happy, small and handsome in a pot. A sunny spot with well-drained soil is essential, whether in a pot or garden bed.

aloe plicatilis

I saw this Aloe plicatilis in flower at the fabulous Ballarat Botanic Gardens on my recent Ross Gardens Tour of Victoria.

Smitten by Worsleya and A. plicatilis, I fell for another fan at Collectors Plant Fair this year, the irresistibly named Boophone (boo-oh-foe-nee). There are two to choose from: Boophone disticha, which was used to tip poison arrows by the Hottentots, Bushmen and Bantu of its native South Africa and grows in a fan of straight leaves; and Boophone hameanthoides, which looks like it stuck its finger in the electricity socket and ended up with a tightly frizzled perm. Each leaf of the fan is wavy-edged for maximum startle effect.

Collectors Plant Fair 2106, photo by Daniel Shipp

Thanks to Collectors Plant Fair and Daniel Shipp for this pic of the amazing Boophone hameanthantoides and its dried flower heads.

Apparently both these African bulbs will flower with single enormous pink-red heads. The aloe too promises to burst into bloom late one winter with spires of orange-red flowers. Though I’d miss the summer show of blue blooms on the Worsleya I’m not really fussed if none of these flowers. My collection of fans doesn’t need flowers to make it exotic.

It’s time to

See flowers
Perennial Hill is a English-style flower garden on the sunny side of ‘The Gib’ in Mittagong. It’s open weekends until mid-December, 10am-4pm, $7. www.perennialhill.com.au

Feed roses
Deadhead spent blooms and give plants a supplementary feed of specialised rose food, such as Sudden Impact for Roses.

Plant petunias
For long-lasting colour in the sun, try petunias. The dark purple ones have an evening fragrance so are good for pots near the outdoor table.

Trim lavender
Cut back lavender after each flush of flowers to promote another flush.

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Plants I love

Wisteria lane

If I could bottle the scent of my driveway I could– a sprinkling of jasmine over wisteria, with a top note of lemon blossom underscored with just a touch of freesia. I don’t think I could call it Driveway though: doesn’t suggest quite the right images for the ad campaign.

Wisteria sinensis

The wisteria is in stereo. On the fence we share with our neighbours is the traditional mauve Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis. It has been here longer than either of us and was never trained on the fence so much as allowed to engulf it. For years it was the only thing holding the fence up and when it no longer could we chainsawed it to the ground and replaced the fence.

Wisteria sinensis

My intention with this tabula rasa was to train the wisteria so that it made an appealing line on the fence rather than a tangled scribble. I had in mind a wall I’d seen in the Botanic Gardens in Brussels with gnarly swoops of wisteria stem like fat brush calligraphy. Fat chance! The wisteria took off like a dropped bag of marbles. In weeks it had clothed the fence in brilliant lime green leaf and had never looked better.

It didn’t flower that year, which some might consider a downside, but I loved the green floaty growth covering the whole surface of fence with riffling movement. Now we are back to a tangle of bare sticks against the fence with a ruff of flowers on top. Can I convince the neighbours to let me at it again with the chainsaw?

Wisteria floribunda

The other wisteria is a Japanese form, Wisteria floribunda ‘Macrobotrys’. In this wisteria the space between each flower in the panicle is bigger, giving the cones an elegant, elongated look. They are wispier and more inclined to shiver in the slightest breeze. It grows in a pot at the side of the house. The pot restrains its growth so I don’t have to worry about it lifting off the roof, though it does need to be watered every day in the summer. From indoors the long flowers are framed through French windows and from one particular chair, with my head turned just so, the view is of drooping wisteria and blue sky and nothing else.

There are many more wisteria to choose from – some with chunky dense panicles, some with double flowers, and in colours from burgundy through pale pink to white. It’s always best to buy them in bloom so you can see exactly what you’re getting, unless of course you’re just after that gorgeous fresh floaty leaf. They’ll all grow in big pots or in the ground.

Wisteria

The best place to see wisteria in pots is at Nooroo, the Mount Wilson garden owned by Anthony and Lorraine Barrett. The garden is famous for its wisteria collection, established by botanist, plant collector and inimitable garden story teller, Peter Valder, whose family owned the property from 1917 until 1992. The wisteria court, formerly the tennis court, features 28 standard wisterias ranging in colour from white to deep purple. It’s at its frothy floral peak in late October.

Peter Valder, whose fabulous monograph on wisteria you can get from Floreligium for just $30, advises pruning wisteria in late spring, taking back all the new shoots to two or three leaves. Six weeks later, he says, go over the plant again and continue tidying up those long shoots that get in the way through summer. The main thing to remember is not to prune in winter as you’re likely to cut off the flowering stubs.

The only bit of that advice of that I got around to following last year was snipping off the long summer shoots that whipped me in the face when I walked in the  gate. And yet, here it is, like a Japanese dream outside my window, and smelling good enough to bottle all up the driveway.

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It’s time to

Bring in the bees
Urban beekeeper Doug Purdie’s new book, The Bee Friendly Garden, Murdoch $45, tells why and how to transform our outdoor spaces from insect deserts to stops on a nationwide bee highway.

See waratahs
The Wild About Waratahs Festival at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah offers the usual opportunities to admire waratahs, as well as a chance to buy cut flowers and plants, including a new variety, ‘Corroboree’, launched as part of the RBG’s 200th birthday celebrations. The festival runs September 24 until October 3.

Make a plan
Thirteen cool climate gardens are on show for the Leura Gardens Festival this year, from October 1-9, all with different approaches to mountains gardening.

Fertilise
Feed the garden with an organically-based fertiliser as it bursts into growth. Bush Tucker is developed for natives and can be used on phosphorus-sensitive banksias and grevilleas.

 

 

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Plants I love

Growing orchids in trees

Singapore is the only country in the world to have chosen a hybrid as its national flower. It’s an orchid called ‘Miss Joaquim’, after Miss Agnes Joaquim, who in 1983 crossed the Burmese Vanda teres and the Malayan Vanda hookeriana to create the world’s first vanda hybrid. It’s a tough plant that grows as a dense clump of thin branching stems to about head height, which is where the rosy-violet flowers bloom.

Orchid 'Miss Joaquim'

Here’s ‘Miss Joaquim’ grown as a sort of hedge in the National Orchid Garden in Singapore. If you’ve been to Hawaii you will have seen her growing on the side of the road, her flowers picked and placed into leis. And in tropical Queensland she’s a hardy roundabout plant!

Commercial orchid culture took off in Singapore the 1920s and the island became synonymous with orchids. It’s still the place to go to see orchids, especially every second year in late July when the Singapore Garden Festival sets up in the Gardens by the Bay. This year I marvelled at baskets of impeccable moth orchids, hung from tall stands, each with multiple arching canes studded with dozens of perfect white blooms, and pots of modern vanda hybrids packed into shallow wooden trays and suspended overhead, the supporting structure disguised with trailing curtains of Spanish moss.

Orchid, white moth orchid, pic Robin Powell

Much as I wanted to take all these home, it was the idea of growing more orchids in the garden that I ended up souveniring. Almost everywhere you look in Singapore there’s an orchid growing in a tree, along with shaggy ferns on the trunk and a birds nest fern squatting happy in the elbow of a bough. I loved this festooning of trees with plants.

One reason all the trees are host to so many plants – all that rain!

In Singapore the go-to orchids for this kind of treatment are the vandas, but they’re not for Sydney’s great outdoors. So I asked advice of Ian Slade, from Kawana Gardens Nursery, who grows a bountiful array of orchids in a mature jacaranda at his Peats Ridge property. He recommended Dockrillia teretifolium, the pencil orchid or bridal veil orchid, which naturally grows on casuarinas up and down the coast. Dendrobium speciosum var. Hillii, with its big fat spikes of fragrant creamy blooms “gets pretty big but takes a while to get there”, he says, and lots of the coelogyne orchids also do well in trees. Another reliable choice is the Mexican orchid Laelia anceps, which comes in a variety of colours and doesn’t mind cold winters as long as there’s no frost.

Orchids in frangipani, pic Robin Powell

Vandas in a frangipani.

To establish an orchid in a tree, simply tie it on with something soft and stretchy like pantyhose (cable ties or fishing line will cut into the tree as it grows). Pack some damp sphagnum moss around the roots to protect them until they get a hold around the tree. Position the orchid to get a good amount of light or morning sun to encourage flowering.

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The dead tree look-alike is actually concrete. A DIY project for the weekend?

No tree? No problem. In the National Orchid Garden of the Singapore Botanic Gardens what looked at a distance to be dead tree trunks sporting masses of orchids on closer inspection turned out to be concrete arms wrapped in black coconut fibre sprouting orchids tied on with cable ties. Behind them waved a tall hedge of ‘Miss Joaquim’. Perfectly Singapore.

Find specialist orchids and other interesting plants at Plant Lovers Fair, Kariong, September 24-25, www.plantloversfair.com.au.

It’s time to:

Get to Bronte House
This inspiring garden is open tomorrow, Sunday 18 September, from 10am – 2pm. 470 Bronte Road, Bronte. Entry $2.

Prune
Cut back shrubby tibouchinas ready for a burst of spring growth.

Feed
Now that the weather is warming the whole garden can be fed with all-purpose fertiliser.

Make a list
Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on the Central Coast on September 24 and 25 promises to fill your garden with new treasures. More than 40 specialist growers will bring their wares, and there’s a free speakers program.. Go to Plant Lovers Fair for details.

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Plants I love

Finding the barnacle goose tree

In his new book on 200 years of Australian gardens, Planting Dreams, (more on this next week) garden historian Richard Aitkens bemoans the current practice of valuing plants based on their performance as tools – good for hiding walls, or dividing spaces. I’m with Richard on this. We kill of the mystery, magic, history and culture of plants when we ascribe them a limited purpose, or reveal nothing about them but how to kill the insects that like to eat them.

In my desire to explore the culture part of horticulture I’m old school. Real old actually – at one with the 16th and early 17th century naturalists who believed that you could not understand anything in the natural world without looking at every aspect of it – from the words used to name it, to what Pliny et al had to say about, and every poet since. To these polymaths, the literary and mythological aspects of plants were just as important in understanding them as what they looked like and how they behaved.

You can see how this works in an exhibition of herbals from the 16th to 19th century from the collection of the Sydney Botanic Gardens Library, now on display at Red Box gallery in the Herbarium foyer.

John Gerard's Herbal

One of my favourite herbals is available in facsimile so you can flick through it and have a really good look. It’s John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597. Gerard was a great gardener with a fascination for new plants at a time when every arriving ship brought new horticultural treasures from around the world. He was, for instance, the first man in England to eat potatoes he’d grown himself. And he was as good at self-promotion as he was at gardening. He was the first person to publish a catalogue of plants growing in a garden, listing some 900 species in his private garden at Holborn.

Gerard makes a very personable guide through the plant world of the late 16th century, always willing to share his personal experience. Those potatoes, he says, have a texture a bit between flesh and fruit, and are a bit ‘windy’ unless they are roasted in embers and then eaten ‘sopped in wine’.

John Gerard's Herball

 

The slow and patchy metamorphosis from a Renaissance view of the natural world to an Enlightenment one is evident in Gerard’s book. The potato was a New World discovery and so arrived in England without an ancient or poetic or mythological backstory. Gerard reports about it purely from experience. But flick to the back of the volume and you’ll find him anchored in mythological mode.

John Gerard's Herball

 

It’s here, at about Chapter 170, depending on the edition, that you’ll find the barnacle goose tree. Gerard claims to have seen this natural wonder with his own eyes, and writes about it alongside a woodblock print which had been used to illustrate a Dutch herbal half a century earlier. The illustration shows a twisted tree blooming with large tulip-like shells, overhanging a cliff. Beneath the tree birds are shown serenely floating on the waves. Birds falls from the shells produced by the tree, explains Gerard. If they happen to fall on land they perish, but if they fall into the sea they become fowl, bigger than a duck and a bit smaller than a goose.

THe barnacle goose tree, John Gerard's Herball

Here’s a barnacle goose illustration from a later edition of the Herball, still holding on to a spot.

Enlightenment writers argued for clear-eyed observation. ‘Knowledge is made by oblivion,’ claimed Thomas Brown who argued in 1672 that the only way forward was to forget everything that had come before and start again, using observation as the only criteria for knowledge. But despite Browns’ call, the myth of the barnacle goose tree lived on until 1780 when two French zoologists conducted an autopsy on the story. Their scientific paper migrated to the popular press where the story was told as the ‘histoire du canard’, which is where we derive the meaning of a canard as a tall tale.

One more postscript: the goose tree survived into the early 20th century in Northern Ireland where Catholics still ate ‘barnacle geese’ on Friday and fast days, sneaking in a feast of roast goose or duck thanks to a centuries-old definition of barnacle geese as seafood.

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Yulan magnolia
Plants I love

Moving trees

What to do with mature trees in the wrong spot? It’s a question with currency as National Tree Day has people all over the country planting baby trees, and another of Anzac Parade’s mature Moreton Bay figs becomes mulch. Mouran Maait owns Alpine Treemovals, a company that transplants mature trees around Sydney. If he had his way mature trees would always be considered for their transplant potential well before they were stuffed into a chipper.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell (2)

This is the rescue section of Alpine Treemovals Nursery at Glenorie; there’s also a large section of nursery-grown trees.

Maait’s desire to give new life to old trees doesn’t always work out. Sometimes access is impossible or the tree is unhealthy or has no re-use potential. And sometimes it’s a phoenix palm, also called Canary Island date palm, Phoenix canariensis. Maait has black-banned dealing with any more of these, partly for health and safety reasons (those spiky fronds and all that rat and bird excrement captured in the crown) but also because people just don’t want them anymore. A highly fashionable choice in the late 19th and early 20th century, the date palm has been overtaken. New to the top of the desirable list, according to Alpine’s buyers, are banksias, tuckeroos, (Cupaniopsis anacarioides, an east-coast rainforest tree) and magnolias, both deciduous types and evergreens, especially Magnolia grandiflora ‘Exmouth’.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell

If I had room I’d love to find a home for that pair of hoop pines Mouran is walking past. Gorgeous metallic trunks.

Some trees can’t be saved; others are destroyed through thoughtlessness. “They just need to give me some notice,” pleads Maait about developers, builders, architects or owners who don’t think about moving trees until the very last minute. “I can’t come and collect a tree if you ring me today, but give me enough time and I can see what can be done.” In his ideal world councils would require an assessment of trees on a property as part of a development approval process.

Alpine Treemovals, pic Robin Powell (1)

It was hard to get the right camera angle, but can you see how the age of form of this weeping Japanese maple gives it a $20,000 price tag.

The current jewel of rescued trees awaiting a new home in Alpine Treemovals’ Glenorie nursery is a 60-year-old weeping Japanese maple from a Waitara property. The call from the property owner came in November – spring – the worst time to move a deciduous tree. The best time to transplant trees in in winter when they are dormant; not in spring with growth energy pulsing through the plant. To reduce the risk, Maait put off the collection until an overcast cool day to lower transpiration. His team had the maple out of the ground and into a bag at the nursery in under five hours. It barely dropped a leaf and has been living happily in its big black bag at the nursery for nearly eight years, awaiting a buyer who appreciates it age and beautiful form enough to part wiht around around $20,000 plus installation costs to have it in their garden.

Yulan magnolia

Yulan magnolia, rescued from TAFE. Also seen at the top of this post.

Less pricey is a mature Yulan magnolia rescued from Ryde TAFE. Around 5m tall, and in bloom with creamy-white cupped flowers, it was drawing the eye of a woman who’d come shopping for her new garden when I visited the nursery. She was tossing up between the Yulan magnolia and a mature, pink-flowered Magnolia soulangeana in the next row. Smaller budgets are also catered to, and $600 will get you a new tree; the saved-in the-nick–of-time backstory comes free.

It’s time to

Book now
It’s still a long way off, but put the Ballarat Garden Show, 13-15 November in your diary. See five private gardens, the Archibald Prize at the fabulous Art Gallery of Ballarat and David Glenn’s inspirational Lambley, 20 minutes away.

See flowers up close
Florilegium: the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney celebrating 200 years tells the 200year history of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney through 87 plants, illustrated by 64 botanical artists. An exhibition of the artworks featured in the book, called The Florilegium, Sydney’s Painted Garden opens today at the Sydney Museum, cnr Bridge and Phillip Streets, Sydney, July 30 to October 30.

Grow mushrooms
Mr Fothergills has released kits growing golden and pearl oyster mushrooms. Soak the kit overnight, spray daily and expect to be eating your own mushrooms in two weeks. $25, available at Bunnings and independent garden centres.

Aerate the lawn
Mossy areas develop in lawn that is compacted. More effective than inviting stiletto-wearing friends to cocktails is to use a garden fork to pierce the soil. Sprinkle over a little garden lime to reduce soil acidity.

 

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Plants I love

Chocolate grows on trees

If it’s a birthday there must be chocolate. And so it is that the Story of Chocolate is one of the treats the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is sharing for its 200th birthday. The story unfolds in the big present the Gardens recently unwrapped, a new horticultural exhibition space called The Calyx. (For those whose high school biology is shadowy, calyx is not just a handy Scrabble word, but also the term used to describe the cup that protects the developing flower bud. Think of the curving green sepals around a rose bud or the green skirt at the end of a tomato or strawberry.)

The Calyx replaces the Pyramid glasshouse and links with the Ken Woolley-designed Arc glasshouse, completed in 1987. It’s part-exhibition space and part-function centre, its purpose being to fund horticulture as well as to show it off.

Calyx, RBG

Chocolate is a good place to start exploring the deep relationships between money, plants and people. Cacao was currency in Aztec culture and is now traded on the futures market. It grows only in a thin band, 20 degrees either side of the equator, making Hawaii the North Pole of chocolate and tropical Queensland the South Pole.

Calyx, RBG

At the entrance to the Calyx exhibition is a beautifully grown representation of the South American rainforest, featuring rare palms, lots of bromeliads, shawls of Spanish moss, and a mature cacao tree of the ‘Criollo’ variety, which is the one used by the Mayans to make their hot chocolate. Behind the tree is a long living green wall featuring the Mayan god of chocolate as well as the Mayan symbol for chocolate, illustrated in plants. (Interestingly, the images are hard to make out unless you look at a camera screen, which draws the ‘plant pixels’ together.)

Calyx, RBG

The ‘Criollo’ in the Calyx is flowering, with tiny complex blooms springing directly from the trunk, a form of flowering called cauliflory. In the wild little midges like fungus gnats pollinate the flowers but as fungus gnats aren’t welcome in the controlled environment of the glasshouse, Gardens staff are painstakingly hand-pollinating the flowers to see if they can produce a pod before the show closes after Easter next year. In the meantime, freeze-dried cacao pods provided by the Daintree Chocolate Company have been hung on the tree.

The relationship between the midge and cacao is just one reason chocolate responds so poorly to industrialised plantation farming. It’s a plant that grows naturally in the rainforest understorey, with protection from hot sun, and with a thick compost of rotting leaves at its feet providing shelter and food for those pollinating midges and for the mycorrizal fungi that help provide nutrients to the plant. Sustainable farming requires replicating these kinds of conditions, rather than destroying rainforest to establish plantations of high-yield varieties that threaten to narrow the varietal diversity of cacao and send some of its most interesting flavours extinct.

Calyx, RBG

The chocolate-coated conservation message from the opening of the Calyx is that plants are part of an ecosystem deeply impacted by the choices we make. Most visitors seem happy to take the message home – in the form of a block of chocolate from Lindt, which is a major supporter of sustainable cacao in Ghana, and exhibition sponsor.

For how to make chocolate once you have grown the cacao, check out this on Melanie Boudar’s chocolate plantation tour in Maui.

It’s time to

Watch pines
A new pine nematode is killing pine trees in the Sydney basin. Plant Biosecurity NSW is asking for help reporting dead and dying pines so that the nematode and its vector beetle can be tracked. Go to www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/content/biosecurity/plant/pine-nematodes

Cut back
Trim liriope to the ground to allow fresh new growth to rejuvenate the plant.

Feed bulbs
Use a soluble fertiliser on spring bulbs you plant to keep for next year.

Buy fragrance
Daphne is one of the signature scents of winter. ‘Perfume Princess’ is a new variety that flowers over a long period, with an intense perfume, in gardens or pots, semi-shade or full sun. It’s Australia’s Nursery and Garden Industry Plant of the Year for 2016.

 

 

 

 

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Rhipsalis baccifera
Plants I love

Hanging garden

Sydney gardeners first fell for rhipsalis at the first Australian Garden Show Sydney, held in Centennial Park in 2013, when we saw it falling in curtains from a Brendan Moar-designed pergola. Moar accentuated the thin vertical hang of rhipsalis with slender hanging threads of silver beads. The long lime green stems caught the slanting sun and waved and shimmied in the breeze so that all but the plant nerds in the crowd stood amazed and desirous, asking what’s that and where can I get some?

Brendan Moar garden AGSS 2013

Brendan Moar’s garden at AGSS 2013 with rhipsalis and chain of bananas hanging from the pergola.

The first part of the question was the easiest to answer. Rhipsalis is a large family of mostly epiphytic cactus that look nothing like the typical image of a cactus. Though some are hairy, even bristly, none are spiky or spiny. The stems are generally thin and cylindrical and they hang down. In their native South American and tropical African rainforests they do this from the forks of trees, but they do it just as well in a pot.

Rhipsalis baccifera

Rhipsalis and macrame hangers – a marriage made in hipster heaven.

Different species of the plant branch in different ways. In some the stems hang as straight as the hair of a teenager practising with her new hair straightener. Longest and straightest of all is R. campos-portoana. Others branch more compactly, such as R. ewaldiana, which is like a tangled perm, dense enough to use as a groundcover in a shady, well-drained spot. R. baccifera, is in between those two, trailing to a bit more than a metre, with branched lime green stems like so many split ends. Its little flowers are followed by translucent white berries so that the plant in fruit looks covered in a net of pearls.

Hanging plants

Rhipsalis, chain of hearts and chain of bananas in Justine Smith’s Jungle Cactus greenhouse.

For a few years after Moar’s revelatory experiments with rhispalis the second part of the question – whereabouts – was harder to answer. Now rhipsalis is no longer a collectors’ rarity and can even be found in commercial garden centres.

Justine Smith is a wholesale grower who supplies several species of rhipsalis to Flower Power from her greenhouses at Peats Ridge just north of Sydney. With perfect timing her interest in growing the plant coinciding with a huge new demand.

Rhipsalis

Part of the initial appeal for Smith was that rhipsalis doesn’t just look good, it’s easy to grow, and to propagate. She advises partial shade for the best-looking plants. Rhipsalis will grow in full shade though growth will be slower and flowers less likely. In full sun the foliage, which is the real point of the exercise, yellows and looks sick. Too much water is worse than not enough, especially in winter. For best growth, keep it watered but not soaked through the warm weather, a little drier in the cold, and offer slow-release fertiliser.

As well as hanging in baskets from pergolas or from the branches of mature trees, use rhipsalis to spill over the edge of a large pot to soften its impact and balance whatever is growing upright. Or take a leaf from Moar’s copybook and use rhipsalis as a curtain, veiling a view with a shimmer of green.

It’s time to

Watch pines
A new pine nematode is killing pine trees in the Sydney basin. Plant Biosecurity NSW is asking for help reporting dead and dying pines so that the nematode and its vector beetle can be tracked. Go to www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/content/biosecurity/plant/pine-nematodes

Book Nambour
The speaker program is a drawcard for Queensland Garden Expo and this year there are more than 100 lectures, demos, q and a sessions, advice clinics and workshops. July 8,9,10, Nambour Showgrounds, Sunshine Coast. www.qldgardenexpo.com.au

Cut back
Trim liriope to the ground to allow fresh new growth to rejuvenate the plant.

Feed bulbs
Use a soluble fertiliser on spring bulbs you plant to keep for next year.

 

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Plants I love

Rosemary

Now that it’s finally cold enough to turn the oven on for dinner my secateurs are seeking out rosemary to roast with potatoes tossed with lemon, braise with beef and bacon, or nestle against a lamb shoulder given the long slow treatment.

The only consensus on flavour in rosemary is that the upright forms are better for cooking than the prostrate form, though nothing beats the lounger for crawling in a tangled fragrant mass over a hot wall. Otherwise, flavour seems to depend as much on conditions as anything. Rosemary likes it hot and dry and prefers frost and drought to humidity and soggy soils.

Consequently, in my humid patch rosemary is not long-lived and every few years it succumbs to a fungus and I start again in a different spot. Next time this happens I’m going to hunt up the variety called ‘Mozart’. This is much praised by nurserymen such as David Glen of Lambley Nursery, outside Ballart, who uses it as an edging along a broad brick path, and Chris Cuddy of Perenialle Plants at Canowindra, who both sell it mail order. ‘Mozart’ has richer blue flowers than the hardware store plant I’m currently growing, and much more of them. The glossy green leaves and flowers grow on strictly upright stems to about 90cm.

Rosmarinus-officinalis-Mozart-at-Lambley-Nursery

Rows of ‘Mozart’ in full bee-happy bloom at Lambley Nursery. Thanks to Lambley for the photo.

That sturdy uprightness of rosemary is valuable in the garden as a contrast to floppier, more filmy plants and it also looks good with succulents, which share the liking for hot dry conditions. Sydney garden designer Peter Fudge channelled a sort of Japanese aesthetic in his own front garden, planting rosemary in gravel alongside felty Kalanchoe tomentosum, succulent crassula and dark green mounds of dwarf Raphiolepis ‘Snow Maiden’. The rosemary is kept trimmed to form neat green-grey mounds. (Read more about Peter’s front garden here.)

Garden by Peter Fudge

That’s rosemary in the top left, along with raphiolepis, and kalanchoe, and with westringia, kalanchoe and crassula in the foreground.

Mickey Robertson at Glenmore House in Camden matches rosemary with other Mediterranean types such as lavender, santolina and perovskia, Russian sage, and it looks suitably rustic against the old farm buildings in the garden. Robertson also puts rosemary to use in her kitchen, where she bakes it with chestnut flower and pine nuts into a favourite cake.

Glenmore House

And here’s rosemary with lavender and citrus in the sunny side garden at Glenmore House.

To keep rosemary looking good it’s best to be mean – no water, no fertiliser, and plenty of cutting. Trim often and prune it back by about two-thirds every year after the flowering starts to wane. Use some of the prunings as propagation material: trim the tips, strip the bottom third of leaves and carefully firm into pots of potting mix. The resulting successes can be used as repeats around the garden, or kept as back-ups to replace old plants and those afflicted by sudden death.

Rosemary prunings not used for propagation or dinner needn’t go to waste. Food magazines use the stripped stems as skewers, which seems like a terrific idea but which I find is more trouble than it’s worth. Instead I allow all the bits to dry then use them as fragrant kindling in the fire pit or barbecue.

It’s time to
Chocolate-coated botany
The Calyx is the new exhibition centre at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. It opens this weekend with Sweet Addiction: the Botanic Story of Chocolate. 10am-4pm. Adults, $15, children $8.

Plant poppies
Plant seedlings close together in a sunny, fertile spot. Fertilise prodigiously for flowers into spring.

Plant a fruit tree
Unless you live in chilly parts of Sydney, choose a low-chill or tropical variety. ‘Anna’ apple could work. It was bred in Israel and fruits even in tropical Queensland. It will need a pollination partner, as well as protection from fruit fly. Expect mighty yields of apples around Christmas, three years after planting. More: daleysfruit.com.

Choose a chook
Don’t know your Australorps from your Orpingtons? The National Poultry Show is on this weekend, June 11-12 at the Sydney Showground, ticket $10 at the gate.

 

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Plants I love

Why are banksia flowers so big?

Why are banksia flowers so big? I’ve long admired those huge cones, run my hands over their almost-plastic perfection, marvelled at their fabulous geometry and great colour combinations, but I’d never considered the question until I read Tim Low’s Where Song Began.

Banksia serrata

Bankisa serrata and friend, photographed on the walk south from Merry Beach to on the south coast of NSW.

As Low explains it, banksia (and other Australian flowers) are big as a result of a kind of evolutionary arms race with Australian honey-eating birds and mammals. In a land of abundant sunshine and impoverished soils, plants photosynthesise like crazy but don’t have the nutrients to turn that energy into growth. Instead they produce nectar, lots of it. With an abundant food source, the birds grew bigger (and more aggressive and much louder), and to survive their weight, the flowers needed to toughen up or collapse. The banksias, which can produce nectar for up to 20 days, are the biggest and toughest of the lot.

Matchstick banskia, Banksia cuneata

This is the matchstick banksia, B. cuneata, one of the rare beauties in the Collins collection.

There are 79 species of banksia in the world and Kevin and Cathy Collins have all of them growing in their garden, The Banksia Farm, at Mount Barker in south-west Western Australia. The Collins’ is the only full collection in the world. They no longer open the garden on a regular basis but banksia fans can stay in the B & B on the property and book a walk around the garden with Kevin.

Kevin Collins

Why does Kevin remind of a character out of May Gibbs?

A full set of banksias would be an impossible act to replicate in Sydney as the majority are native to the sandy soils and low humidity of Western Australia and less than perfect drainage spells death. But local gardeners can grow our local banksias. Banksia integrifolia, known as coastal banksia, is the least fussy about soil and has green-yellow flowers through autumn, with a silvery sheen to the candles when they first form. B. serrata, old-man banksia, has saw-toothed leaves and a develops a fabulously gnarly trunk. It is perfect in sandy coastal conditions, must have good drainage, and can be pruned to keep it to an appropriate size, or to emphasise its sculptural form.

Banksia serrata

So much to love in a banksia flower – the colours, the texture, the geometry. This one B. serrata.

Our local banksias are also good for pots. The dwarf forms of Banksia spinulosa are the easiest to find, and to grow. ‘Birthday Candles’ grows to about 50cm high and has yellow flowers with red styles through autumn and winter. The original plant material for ‘Birthday Candles’ came from Schnapper Point near Ulladulla on the south coast. ‘Stumpy Gold’ was developed from plant material collected at Catherine Hill Bay on the central coast. It has noticeably greyer foliage than ‘Birthday Candles’ with and gold on gold flowers.

Feed banksias in the garden or in pots in spring and autumn with a low-phosphorus fertiliser developed for native plants. Kevin Collins advises that banksias love a good mulch, kept clear of the trunks. Trim off the spent flower heads in spring and that’s all the maintenance required.

These dwarf banksia candles bloom into winter, providing a feast for birds. And when the big wattlebirds land for a breakfast feed those resilient and spectacular flowers barely waver.

It’s time to:

Bag a book
The Foundation and Friends Annual Book Sale is on Friday May 27, 11am -4pm and Saturday May 28, 9.30am – 4pm, Joseph Maiden Theatre, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney.

Choose citrus
‘Clementine’ mandarins, unlike most mandarins, can hang on the tree for months without deteriorating. Perfect for home gardeners.

Plant poppies
Plant seedlings close together in a sunny, fertile spot. Fertilise prodigiously for flowers all through winter.

Plant bulbs
Spring bulbs can go into the ground or into pots now, though tulips are best left in the crisper for another few weeks. Sow seed or plant seedlings of annuals at the same time to take over once the bulbs fade.

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Sarrecenia leucophylla
Plants I love

From the weird world of carnivorous plants

Smarter gardeners than I approached Collectors’ Plant Fair a few weeks back with a strategy. Some had a list, others had a budget. I had a resolution to bring home only the plants I knew exactly where to put in my over-crowded garden. I failed, but I wasn’t the only one – the ATMS had run out of money by Saturday afternoon. Of all the little plants now resting on the terrace til I find them a home in the garden, let me tell you about the one I have snuck inside to admire.

Sarrecenia leucophylla

It is a trumpet pitcher plant, Sarracenia leucophylla, a carnivorous plant from the bogs of the south-east of the US. It’s endangered at home, mostly due to housing development on the Gulf Coast, but also to poaching for the florist trade. It’s easy to see why poachers would bother getting their feet wet. The pitchers are tall slender funnels, topped with a frilled hood. The top of the pitcher is a translucent white, veined with red or green in fabulous patterns. The effect of the erect funnels, each turned a different way, is like a nest of exotic baby birds, mouths agape awaiting dinner.

I bought the plant from the stall of the Australian Carnivorous Plants Society. Kirk Hirsch is the group’s publicity officer. Hirsch fell for carnivorous plants as an 8-year-old when he started ordering venus fly traps, pitcher plants and sundews by mail order. “I do like the irony of them,” he says. “If I find something eating my plants, a caterpillar or bug, down the throat of another plant it goes.”

Just as good is the ingenious way the plants catch their food. The white-topped pitcher plant I bought is an especially good flycatcher. Flies are attracted to the white top, and get busy collecting drops of nectar around the rim. As they do, the plant attaches tiny waxy plates to the feet of the flies so that they lose their ability to hang on and slip down the funnel. The narrow space at the base of the pitcher is so tight the fly can’t gyrate its wings and get lift off. It’s stuck. A pitcher needs only a few flies a week to feel well-fed, but if there are a lot of flies around, the pitchers can fill with trapped flies.

If that happens I’m putting it straight outside! Pitchers like humid conditions, wet feet and full sun, but Hirsch reckons I can admire it up close for its autumn display as long as it gets at least four hours of direct sun a day. Once the weather gets cold, the pitchers will brown off, the plant will go dormant, and then I will have to find a proper home for it.

You can find pitcher plants at water garden specialists, and at meetings of the Carnivorous Plants Society.

[golast] The Carnivorous Plants Society meets on the second Friday of the month at Woodstock Community Centre, Burwood, at 7.30pm. Next meeting: May 13. More: www.auscps.com.

It’s time to

Buy bromeliads
Bring a box to collect new bromeliads, tillandsias, neoregalia, guzmanias and more at the Bromeliad Fair. Saturday, April 30, 10am- 4pm and Sunday, May 1, 9am – 12pm, Concord Senior Citizens Centre, 9-11 Wellbank Street, Concord.

Divide broms
If not buying new stars, it is still a good time to clean up bromeliad clumps. Once pups are a third as big as the mother remove the pup, compost the tired old plant and replant the fresh newbie.

Support broadbeans
Broadbeans will flop and flail if not given good support. Create a frame with bamboo stakes and a cats cradle of string in several tiers to support 1.5m of growth.

Admire camellias
Eryldene, historic home of Sydney’s camellias, is open May 7 and 8, with morning and afternoon high teas both days as a Mother’s Day treat. 17 McIntosh Street, Gordon. $24 plus $8 entry fee. Bookings: www.eryldene.org.au.

 

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Plants I love

The supermodel of lemons

A few weeks ago the baby green fruit on my lemons were so well-camouflaged I feared the harvest would be a dud. But they have now fattened up and are starting to weigh down the branches with promise of lemons through to summer.

I grow ‘Dwarf Meyer’ in pots. The meyer is thought to be a cross between a lemon and one of the Chinese oranges. Frank Meyer, who worked for the US Department of Agriculture, found it on a visit China in 1908, and naturally he named it after himself. The parentage explains its deliciously sweet flavour and beautiful smooth skin.

Meyer lemon

My supermodel reference is all about the skin – look at that glowing complexion and tiny pores!

Its good looks and fine flavour are reason enough to grow it, and there are practical considerations too. A dwarf meyer, grafted on to ‘Flying dragon’ rootstock, gets to just 1.5 metres, which means the fruit is always easy to reach. I considered a dwarf version of the ‘Eureka’ lemon, which has the benefit of year-round fruit, but it gets to 3m, which is not dwarf enough.

To grow lemons successfully in containers, go large. Forty centimeters in diameter is the minimum, but bigger is better. Use a quality potting mix and choose a spot with at least six hours of sun a day. Water regularly, but don’t let the roots get sodden. Ditch the pot saucer or anything else that would prevent water draining from the pot. Feed often. Lemons are called gross feeders, which is the horticultural term for ‘must be fed like a sumo wrestler’. Use something organic like Dynamic Lifter Plus Fruit Food every two or three months. The lemon’s hungry habit means that gardeners should resist the temptation to underplant with a fringe of blue lobelia looping over the pot, or a blast of freesias mixing scents with the lemon blossom in spring. Gorgeous, but, trust me on this, they will diminish the health and vigour of the lemon.

Villa Gamberaia

What do the Italians not know about growing lemons in pots! These at Villa Gamberaia, above Florence

It’s not necessary to prune lemons to promote fruiting, so the only pruning needed is to tidy the plant, trim it to shape, or remove dead growth.

Espaliered lemon, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

If you did want to get busy with the secateurs, lemons make a good espalier subject. These on the sunny south-facing wall of Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.

A warning: there will be pests. Green or black sap-sucking aphids may attack new growth through the warm weather and citrus leaf miner will put silvery trails through leaves in summer and autumn. Squish the aphids and control leafminer with sprays of Eco-oil or Pest Oil. Scale might get a hold if the tree gets water-stressed, and this can cause a cascade of problems. The scale produces honeydew, which in turn causes sooty black mould and attracts ants. The ants protect their honeydew feast by protecting the scale against predators. To avoid all this keep the tree sun-drenched and regularly watered and fed. If scale attacks, Eco-oil or Pest Oil will deal with all but a major infestation, and if ants are a problem, smear a barrier of Vaseline around the trunk. But don’t get fixated on potential problems. The minimal effort demanded is more than compensated for by the pleasure of sunshiny lemons all through winter.

 

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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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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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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.

DSC_0058

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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