One of the big draws of the Growing Friends plant sale at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney next weekend is the cabbage on a stick plant, Brihamia insignis. The lure isn’t its good looks. The 1-2m tall succulent stem is topped by a rosette of fleshy, spoon-shaped leaves (hence cabbage on a stick). Clusters of tubular, yellow flowers bloom in winter and smell like honeysuckle.
Odd, rather than gorgeous, the real draw is this plant’s endangered status. Its only pollinator is a now-extinct moth, so the handful of individuals left on its native Hawaiian islands are hand-pollinated by botanists abseiling down the cliff faces. Introducing Brihamia into gardens is the backup plan to stave off extinction, and plant collectors are keen to help out. All proceeds from sales of the plant go to assist groundwork and conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai.
A rare find isn’t unusual at the Growing Friends nursery. It’s the go-to spot for gardeners hunting out the horticultural hard-to-find: a daily adjunct to the biannual plant fairs, Collectors Plant Fair in April, and Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong in September.
Growing Friends is not-for-profit. The money raised goes towards travel scholarships for Gardens botanists, research support and infrastructure. It is manned by volunteers who propagate plants from those grown in the public areas of the RBG. The plant list fills gaps in what is commercially available. “There are plants that have gone out of fashion but work well in Sydney, or tube stock sizes of plants you can only buy commercially in large and expensive sizes, as well as the rare and unusual and endangered stuff,” explains Greg Lamont. Lamont recently started working with Growing Friends as horticultural consultant. He comes from a background in plant research (he was first to launch garden-friendly varieties of Geraldton wax back in the ‘80s) and commercial plant and cut flower production, and his experience and expertise is improving propagation and growth rates in the Growing Friends stock.
Best-sellers at Growing Friends include the myriad members of the begonia family, blue ginger, the silver-rimmed Japanese chrysanthemum, Ajana pacifica and rhipsalis, which is hipster-chic in hanging baskets, green walls and indoor plants. My personal favourites are the coleus. These foliage fillers for shade can be found in commercial nurseries, but not in the brilliant array of colours and patterns seen on the Growing Friends benches. Lamont says they have been working on the coleus collection, improving its uniformity and quality and increasing the range. Hunt up frilled, curled and ruffled leaves in solid burgundy and lime green, as well as complex variations of two or more colours in patterns mad enough to make a tropical fish look underdressed.
Joining them on the desirables list for the spring plant sale is a rare bronze form of Alcanterea imperialis. This grand bromeliad was popularised by the modernist Brazilian landscaper Roberto Burle Marx, and this form comes from his own garden. Like the Brihamia, this gem will have the enthusiasts arriving early.