Monday, November 29, 2010

Borage, Borago officinalis

Borago officinalis

At the community garden, the herb Borage has self-seeded and appears on many of the members plots. The pendulous star shaped azure blue flowers are always attended by many bees making it an important plant to include in the garden to ensure good pollination of vegetable plants. What I like about Borage however is the aura it evokes of classical antiquity. Most references to it quote the Latin phrase Ego borago gaudia semper ago : I borage ,bring always courage; so one can almost imagine a Roman soldier with his spirits braced by a cool tankard of borage brew....refreshed, invigorated, encouraged and ready to go into battle with the chemicals in the herb possibly acting on his adrenal gland. Sparks would fly if any remaining leaves were thrown into a fire as they are rich in potassium nitrite and create fireworks when burning. Borage is thought to be indigenous to Aleppo in northern Syria, a region once a Roman province and now a city in ruins since the Syrian conflict. References are also made of its use in the Middle Ages by the Arabs of Andalusia in southern Spain where it was referred to as abu-raj or 'father of sweet'.
The famous Herbal of John Gerard from the 16th century is often quoted for its positive spin for he says: The leaves and flowers put into wine make men and women glad and merry and drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy'

The name borage is thought to be derived from the Latin burra meaning woolly or hairy referring to the shape and style of the leaves. This drawing captures this aspect perfectly as does the French common name for the plant of langue de bouef.........!
The leaves are indeed quite bristly and care should be taken when removing old plants from the garden and it is advisable to wear gloves and long sleeves if you don't want a slight skin rash for your efforts.
The blue flowers of Borage have always been a popular embroidery subject and the image has been recorded as being used as a decorative motif on handkerchiefs given to men departing on a crusade as well as on domestic historical works dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
These days borage has a more subdued and genteel reputation with the cucumber flavoured flowers and leaves being used to decorate cakes or being added to a nice glass of Pimms on a hot day.
Finally, there are no special requirements for growing borage. In warm climates it does best during the cooler months with the best flowers in spring and autumn. Once you have one plant you will get a repeat performance for years to come, such is the nature and quantity of seed produced. A white flowered form is an occasional sport and will come true to seed but you really can't beat that true blue flower with its black cone of stamens like a central beauty spot.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Poa labillardieri, Tussock Grass

Poa labillardieri 
Tussock Grass

Though this native grass is widely used in public landscaping and roadside plantings it deserves a place in the home garden as well. It is in flower now and the shimmering gauzy flower stems look terrific, as pictured above, when moving in the breeze with a sparkling surf beach in the distance. I like to plant it around spiky Agave and Yucca plants as the fine blue grey foliage makes a good contrast to their thick broad rigid stems. Maintenance of this grass involves shearing off the old flower stems after they have dried off. New growth appears very soon after.
This species is named for Australian explorer Jacques Julien Houtou de La Billardiere
Jacques Julien Houtou de La Billardiere (1755-1834)
sketch by Julien Leopold Boilly 1821
Wellcome Library, London

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Isolepis nodosa syn Ficinea nodosa:Knobby Club-rush

Knobby Club-rush, Ficinea nodosa with clipped Westringea fruicosa

If you like exploring coastal ecosystems you would be familiar with this native plant growing in hind dunes or bordering damp swampy places. Despite this origin, it is perfectly adaptable to the home garden situation where it can be grown as a decorative plant in ordinary garden soil or as a container plant. The tall stiff stems to 90 cm carry globular flower heads at this time of year which last for many months and which make terrific cut flowers. The plant is slow spreading by underground runners and can be maintained by shearing off old flowering stems once a year. The old flower stems often lurch sideways under the weight of the developing seed heads. The plant is still known under the old name of Isolepis despite the name change to Ficinea.

Uebelmannia pectinifera subsp flavispina.

Uebelmannia pectinifera subsp flavispina

I have this gnarly old cactus growing in a large flat bowl and this year it has decided to flower brilliantly. It is native to Brazil and is noted for the golden yellow spines hence the sub-species name flavispina. I have small plants available for sale.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Spinifex sericeus, Beach Spinifex

Beach Spinifex 
Spinifex sericeus
This native grass is familiar to anyone visiting a surf beach along the coast from Victoria to northern Queensland. It is one of the most important sand stabilizing plants in eastern Australia.The female inflorescence, which is pictured here, consists of a group of long narrow spines which change colour from blue-grey to straw as they mature. The spines are actually soft to touch and carry minute flowers. They are fertilized by the male flower which is a short fan shaped spikelet formed on a separate stem some distance away. When the seed is ripe, the whole female structure detaches from the plant and cartwheels across the sand shedding seed as it goes. They mimic the seed dispersal method of the desert tumbleweed familiar to those who enjoy old western movies.
I do not have any plants of it available for sale.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Plant pathology:Mosaic virus of Zucchini

Distorted, twisted mottled leaves are indications of mosaic virus on this Zucchini. The fruit is smaller and lumpy with variegation of yellow and dark green. The disease is caused by the watermelon mosaic virus which is spread by aphids such as the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) and other species. Once the plant is showing symptoms it is best removed and put in a bin, not in compost, as the aphids which caused the disease have long gone.


Fasciation is an abnormality of plant stems in which normally round stems develop in a flattened way. The yellow Achillea filipendulina 'Gold Plate' pictured above ,which is in flower at the moment, has several stems affected by this mutation. It does not normally affect the health of the plant and can even be considered a desirable trait, particularly amongst succulent growers where the "crest" form of a flat stem topped with tightly packed leaves is considered decorative and worthy of the show bench.
Echeveria x 'Gilva' crest form

did i tell u i liked sweet peas?

picking a bunch every few days..........

Friday, November 19, 2010

Zucchini pest:The Pumpkin beetle, Aulacophora hilaris

Pumpkin Beetle: Aulacophora hilaris

I am beginning to think that having a plot at a community garden is a great opportunity to learn about pests and diseases. This is my first encounter with this 6mm long native beetle. It is easily recognised by the distinctive four black spots over its wings. From my observation, it seems to love company as large numbers congregate on one leaf which they shred until a lacy skeleton is left while neighbouring plants are left entirely alone. Old fashioned remedies to deal with them include dusting the leaves with flour or hydrated lime. Planting nasturtiums nearby is also supposed to be a deterrent. So far they are not doing enough damage for me to take any drastic action as to their removal and I can live with a few shredded leaves.

Illustration of Pumpkin Beetle by E H Zeck
from Insect pests of fruit and vegetables in NSW
by Hely. Pasfield. Gellatley
(published by Inkata Press)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pine Tree Pest, Pine Adelgid insect

White woolly secretion around the base of the needles of Pinus thunbergii indicates the presence of the pine adelgid insect (Pineus pini). This pest is related to aphids which suck the sap from plants. In my nursery both Pinus mugo and Pinus thunbergii have been affected possibly due to the plants being placed too close together and from an uneven watering regimen. I use an oil based spray to remedy it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sweet Chariot Rose

Rosa 'Sweet Chariot'

A mate of mine has decided he wants hanging baskets along one side of his new pergola and despite my best efforts to talk him out of doing so, re you have to water them twice a day in summer, he is going ahead anyway. I picked up this miniature Rose 'Sweet Chariot' at a recent garden show and it is said to be perfect for hanging baskets as it has a cascading habit. Reading up about it though, the proper Sweet Chariot should be a double flowering rose bred in California by Ralph Moore from miniature 'Little Chief' and the rambler 'Violette'. It has a delicate sweet perfume and iridescent magenta flowers. I am not sure why this one has reverted to a single flower but it is quite eye-catching none the less.
I have always liked the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot and on YouTube you can see the definitive classical version sung by Kathleen Battle, the soul version by Etta James and the vocal gymnastics of Beyonce on the pop version. And then there is UB40 who appropriated the song as the anthem for the England Rugby team . So we will ignore that entirely as they will be soundly trashed by the Wallabies in the test match played today (our time about 1.15 AM Sunday)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Heaven Scent Sweetpeas

Tall stemmed Sweet Peas from Dr Keith Hammett of New Zealand
This cool spring has been fantastic for growing sweet peas. Normally by now we have had a few days over 30C which puts a stop to the display of flowers, making the stems short and therefor not great for picking. Next year I might order individual colours from a specialist breeder such as Dr Hammett in NZ, He offers a near black one, appropriately enough for a Kiwi. The ones above are from a mix of his available from Yates seed. I also had some seed left over of the variety Old Spice which includes bi-coloured flowers and many dark maroon ones.
'Old Spice' Sweet Pea

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Silene inflata, Sculpit

Flowers of Silene inflata
This is a herb from Italy which can be used in Risotto, egg dishes and salads.... or so says the packet of seed . Tasting it raw, it was not particularly inspiring for me so I am waiting for it to be discovered by a celebrity chef who can show me how best to use it. If you do a bit of a web search on it there is no real information about it other than it has a flavour not unlike a combination of chicory ,tarragon and arugula (rocket). One of my books on edible plants which was published late in the 19th century lists it and says the taste when cooked was not unlike that of fresh green peas.So for the time being I will file it under survival food or edible weed.
I am familiar with the genus as they are often given the common name of catchfly or bladder campion.

Spear shaped leaves of Sculpit, Silene inflata

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chamomile Matricaria chamomilla

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla syn recutita)

My late night brew of choice is a cup of chamomile tea and this year instead of buying the prepared version courtesy of Mr Twining I have decided to grow my own. This is the annual spring flowering form, often called German Chamomile, while the ground cover Roman Chamomile, Anthemis nobilis, is perennial. I first encountered this herb growing wild in Greece and flowering profusely as a roadside weed during April and May. Bunches of the flowers were sold in markets for use as Khamomili Tsi. The name is actually derived from the Greek Chamoemelon ......'chamai' meaning on the ground and 'melon', ground apple, referring to the apple scented flowers.The Spanish Manzanilla means little apples and also refers to a light wine flavoured with chamomile.
Herbalists regard Chamomile as an aromatic sedative herb which is anti-inflammatory, analgesic, promoting healing and benefiting digestion while stimulating the immune system. A sapphire blue oil ,chamazuline, is produced from distilling the flowers. An early description of this was given in 'The Curious Distillatory' written in 1677 by Thomas Shirley 'The innate blewishness of the camomil is of that contagious or communicative nature that it is able to infect other things and render them like itself' . Shirley recommended mixing it with a pine oil probably to make some form of an antiseptic.

Conical shaped flower heads of Chamomile
I am waiting for a dry day to start picking the flowers for drying though I have since found out that it is possible to freeze the flowers which means less of the volatile oils are lost in the process. It is also recommended to seep the flowers in oil to make a good massage oil.
I started off the plants from seed sown in mid-winter and for a long time the seedlings barely moved. Planting the tiny seedlings out ,I was not sure whether they would survive but then suddenly they took off and they grew strongly to about 50cm before flowering. I am hoping to let a percentage of seed fall to the ground so it can perhaps become a permanent position for growing this wonderful herb each year.

Illustration of Chamomile as a marginal illumination in the 13th century Hours of Anne of Burgundy by Jean Bourdichon. I love the inclusion of the ladybird and dragonfly in this picture.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Rat-tail Radish, Raphanus sativus

Rat-tail radish  
Raphanus sativus
Radish gown for their pods are popular in South East Asia where they are used in stir-fries or pickled to used in a side dish. In Malaysia they are known as lobak. This is the first time I have grown them and have been surprised how decorative they look in the garden. The plants are easy to grow, reach about 90 cm and are topped with clouds of tiny mauve and white flowers which look at bit like Virginia Stock. The pods are crunchy and are not too hot. I have been cooking them with other vegetables and they are delicious.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Spring flowering succulents

Echeveria in flower now

Yesterday I planted out a new stock garden of succulents from which I hope to take cuttings to use as propagation material. However last night and this morning we had another deluge of rain with some 60mm falling. I incorporated lots of sand and grit into the bed before planting into what was fairly moisture retentive soil so here is hoping that they survive and thrive. The Echeverias send up a flower spike at this time of year which looks quite decorative but they are like a mecca for aphids which love to cluster around the unopened flowers or all along the stem.The insects like the soft stems which are easily pierced with their mouth parts to suck the sap.Using a spray to kill the insects also removes the lovely grey or white "bloom" over the succulent leaves so I don't spray but just remove the flowering stems and bin them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Movember mo bro

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868- 1928)
(Photographed in 1893 by James Craig Annan, Glasgow)

'Art is the flower......... life is the green leaf'
Henry Lawson (1867- 1922)
Australian writer and poet photographed in 1902

This year I am doing the "mo bro" thing for the month of November having been inspired by the very sexy advertising campaign and its key issue of helping raise awareness of prostrate cancer and male depression. I like the late 19th, early 20th century walrus style but have no hope of achieving one of those in thirty days. Needless to say I will end up looking like a member of the Village People especially if I wear a plaid shirt.
The funniest comment on the moustache was in the Pedro Almodovar film Kika when the character of Juana played by the extraordinary Rossy de Palma said that they made men look homosexual or fascist or both.