Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Budworms, Heliothis species

Budworm, Heliothis spp
Colour variation from green to rusty red but always with a "GT stripe" down the side and a bit of designer stubble around the head.

The moth stage of the most common budworms, Heliothis punctiger (top) and Heliothis armiger

Right now, about 10cm below the soil, a budworm pupa is saying to itself 'Send 'er down, Hughie' as a gleeful expression of hard rain falling, for warm moist weather favours these insects. The emerging moths are nocturnal (hence their Latin Family name of Noctuidae) flying around at dusk , flitting about, feeding on nectar and laying up to a thousand eggs over a two week period. Many have shortened lives if they find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to make love to a porch light or insect zapper. Those that stick around the garden lay eggs near the tops of plants on flowers or newly set young fruit. Unlike their more stupid cousins, the green looper caterpillar, offspring of the cabbage white butterfly, the budworm sets up home inside a bud or fruit like a tomato by drilling a small hole which is barely visible to the naked eye. The flowers they delight in ruining include carnations, geraniums, calendula and hollyhock. Vegetables attacked include sweet corn ,usually at the top of the ear, beans in which they bore inside to eat the seeds and tomatoes ,where they are just called 'darn those grubs!' again.
Because they are out of sight, control can be difficult without a systemic insecticide so for those looking for an organic control method, a search and destroy approach is the way to go even at night when the moths are on their egg laying mission.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Curry plant: Helichrysum italicum

Helichrysum italicum, Curry Plant

During the few days of sunshine we had last week, the aromatic plants released their fragrance stored in the oil glands of their leaves into the air. A delicious scent of curry and honey surrounds this plant on a hot day. This is a small shrub from the daisy family growing to about 50cm and spreading to about 60cm. It is native to the Mediterranean basin and is found growing on dry rocky alkaline soils and prefers similar conditions in a garden or it will be short lived. Planting it close to a path or in a rockery is a good way to grow it and when the small yellow papery flowers appear they can be picked for drying as they retain their spicy smell. Curry plant has no culinary value but is often sold with herb plants and I wonder how many cooks have tried a few leaves expecting food to be enhanced by the flavour. No chance. Curry plant is easy to grow from cuttings placed directly into a sandy soil during autumn.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Achillea 'Red Velvet'

Achillea millefolium 'Red Velvet'

This is one of the best red Achilleas I have grown, with the flowers opening as a rich crimson red and fading to cerise. I have been growing a small trial plot of all the different cultivars available in what has been a difficult summer for plants which do not require excessive water. This one flowered very early in spring and though the colour of the flowers was superb, the flower stems were a bit weak and it tended to flop over as the months progressed. Over the last month the central section of the plant has died out completely but it is still hanging on and should recover when the weather cools down. I put this down to the plant having been breed in conditions of severely cold winters (hence the early flowering) and hot, low humidity, summers as experienced away from the coast.

Shoo-fly plant: Nicandra physalodes

Nicandra physalodes
 Shoo-fly plant or Apple of Peru
This weed of summer, which has its origin in South America, has had a good year with all the rain and I have noticed in some areas that it is reaching up to 2 metres in height. It occurs in all States except NT and is easily recognized by the bell shaped pale blue flowers emerging from a green calyx. The fruits which form are round berries like wild gooseberries enclosed in the 5-parted calyx which turns papery and brown. These are not edible unlike many other members of the Solanum family, eg tomato and potato. I am not sure where the common name shoo fly plant comes from but it reminds me of that summer song we all sing: shoo fly don't bother me....
It is fairly easy to control if you get onto it early but growth is so rapid it could be above your head in the space of a week.

Monday, February 20, 2012

European Fan Palm

European Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilisDrawing by Desmond Muirhead, 1961
The only palm native to Europe and found in Spain, Italy, on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily as well as in the North African countries of Algeria and Morocco; it is considered a relic of a former tropical flora. In Australia it is less commonly seen, unlike the Canary Island Date palm which is almost considered weedy, though the reason for this is that this fan palm is dioecious having separate male and female trees and therefore subject to dodgy pollination.It is also extremely slow growing making only about 10cm. growth per year ,more, if given special attention to soil and fertilizer requirements. Eventually it will form a clump of several trunks to about 5 metres,
In Australia we are spoilt for choice as far as the variety of palms we can grow so it not surprising to read David Jones comments on this one in Palms in Australia. He calls it 'strongly spined and rather unfriendly' though very suitable for cold climates. American writer Desmond Muirhead in his book Palms is kinder and gives a good rap as to why it appealed to landscape architects such as the great Thomas Church.

Sleek modernism using the European Fan Palm
Stuart Company Building
Pasadena, California
Landscape Architect:Thomas Church
Muirhead was writing at a time when landscape architects were starting to demand mature specimens of plants (hang the expense!) for immediate impact, a practice which is more common today.
He enthuses over it saying:'As a landscape subject, the Mediterranean fan palm is unsurpassed, with its fine form and character and a presence which demands attention. This palm is especially effective with interesting backgrounds like grilles, plain walls or murals, and foregrounds of yuccas, aloes, or large blue agaves and in fact all types of succulents and cacti.' He also recommends the use of lighter foliaged trees like Jacaranda or Albizzia julibrissin to compliment the picture. It is always a joy to read about how a plant can be placed in a landscape and not just a horticultural description as to how it will grow.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Botanic Garden of Padua, Italy

Goethe's Palm House 1585L'Orto Botanico dell'Universita di Padova, Italy
This weekend I have been reading about the great German writer, poet and scientist Johannes Goethe who lived from 1749 -1832. Following his famous and inspiring (to a new generation of German men) Italian Journey (Italienische Reise) of 1786-1788 he wrote his theory of plant evolution called Metamorphosis of Plants which was published in 1790. While in Italy he visited the Botanic Garden of Padua which had been established in 1545. He is remembered there for the Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis var arborescens) which had been planted in 1585. I came across a very interesting "virtual tour" of the garden which I have included below. See how many familiar plants are growing in this fascinating garden.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna 1787
by Johann Tischbein 1751-1829

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cosmos bipinnatus

Cosmos bipinnatus with dark purple Achillea

This Cosmos needs no introduction as it is fairly well known amongst gardeners. The tall varieties are usually grown by seed sown directly where they are to grow, though the low growing variety 'Sonata', which only reaches about 30cm, is often sold as a bedding plant or as potted colour. I like the ones which reach about 2 metres and when grown close together they support each other and are less prone to blowing over in a strong wind. If you grow them from seed and they self seed and come up again in the same spot you may get some interesting colour variations and shapes. Some of the white ones amongst this patch have produced flowers which have a centre spray of spiked petals which looks quite unusual. Cosmos bipinnatus originates from Mexico and Central America tolerating soils of low fertility and hot dry conditions making it a good flower to grow for beginner gardeners. It also attracts lots of bees and beneficial insects to the garden.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Galinsoga parvifolia, Yellow weed

Galinsoga parvifolia, Yellow weed or Potato weed
This is a fairly common weed of gardens and cultivated areas and is found in over thirty countries, being of South American origin and brought to Kew Gardens from Peru in 1796. It is not normally seen growing as such a dense patch as in this photo but I came across it in a place where a vegetable crop had been harvested several months ago. Normally it appears as an isolated specimen, often working its way through other plants and reaching about 40 cm in height. What I did not know about it until recently is that it has a culinary use as a dried herb in South American cooking. In Colombia it is called Guasca and is used as an ingredient in a traditional soup called Ajiaco which normally includes chicken.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pelargonium tomentosum, Peppermint scented Geranium

Peppermint Geranium
 Pelargonium tomentosum
The first sign of cooler days to come always shows up on the peppermint geranium as its soft velvety leaves get a fine covering of dew early in the morning. I have grown this robust spreading ground cover plant on and off for years and when I took a batch to the plant market today eagle-eyed Jane spotted them and immediately remarked how big her own plant had grown and what a huge area of ground it was covering. She also reminded me what a great affinity the leaves have with chocolate cake. Baking one that is, as the leaves when placed at the bottom of the cake tin leave an imprint of their shape as well as imparting a subtle flavour.
The plant itself has been known in horticulture since 1774 and even gets a mention by famous gardener Gertrude Jekyll: describing it as 'thick as a fairy's blanket, soft as a Vicuna robe.'
The small clusters of white flowers it produces, which one garden writer called melancholy are unusual as the three lower petals are longer and narrower than the two upper ones. In other words the flower is ensuring that a big fat bee has a comfortable landing strip.
There are a few hybrids and variants from the type including one called 'Dark Lady' which has a chocolate marking in the centre of the leaf. This is recorded as being available in New South Wales in 1960. Anyone come across it? There is also a hybrid, cross species with P graveolens, from the US called 'Joy Lucille' which was introduced in 1940.
Cuttings of the plant strike well if you use semi mature wood and keep the cuttings a little on the dry side as they easily rot and turn black when too wet. If you have sandy garden soil, pieces of stem can be stuck directly into the ground with great success. I would include Peppermint geranium in my top fifty all time favourite garden plants.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Klahanie Hibiscus

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Tangello'
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Strawberry Crush'
There are some very nice compact Hibiscus available at the moment which have been bred by Klahanie Nurseries of Vancouver, B.C. Canada, and currently available here..They are ideal for courtyards or small gardens and for growing in pots if you live in a climate which experiences a cold and frosty winter. They could be moved out of winter temperatures and kept dry during the coldest days.
Among the selection available are the two pictured above as well as a single pale yellow with a white eye called 'Limoncello'; a big red single dark red called 'Wild Cherry'; a single grey/mauve called 'Coconut Ice'; and two double flowering orange bi-colours called Calypso' and 'Golden Dreams'. Hibiscus are really at their best between now and April with a succession of wonderful blooms. I liquid feed mine every couple of weeks at this time of year to keep the foliage glossy and for the production of well sized flowers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Centranthus ruber, Red Valerian

Pink and white flowers of 'Valerian'
 Centranthus ruber

 This hardy perennial from southern Europe is sometimes given the name 'kiss-me-quick' which seems an appropriate name for today. It is flowering well at the moment and the flowers can be described technically as dense cymes of funnel shaped fragrant flowers shaded pink, white or crimson. The lance shaped leaves are grey green and clasp a single woody stem which often flops over unless pruned to make the plant more bushy. It is a bit of a stalwart found in old Australian country gardens and abandoned farm houses, as it is not fussy about soil or water. In fact, in Europe it is often found growing on rocky cliffs, railway embankments or out of old walls, loving the limey soil and rough ground. Given these conditions in a garden it will reward you with continual flowers over summer and will probably self seed without ever becoming weedy.
2017 update: I grow it from time to time but am currently out of stock.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Spring bulb planting time

My order of winter and spring flowering bulbs arrived today so over the next couple of weeks I will be preparing the garden for planting. I usually avoid adding any cow manure to the soil but prefer to dig in a potash rich complete fertilizer and some compost. Here on the warm coast I give bulbs such as daffodils and jonquils a bit of pre-planting "fake" winter by placing them in the refrigerator crisper for a couple of weeks. Others such as Anemones and Ranunculi I start off in seedling trays containing a fairly sandy potting mix before planting out. That way they are safe from any sudden deluge of rain or marauding snails which may nip off the emerging shoots. Once the new plants emerge they are easy to handle and better able to cope with a new home and can be spaced accordingly. The hardiest bulbs which need no special attention are the Freesias. Last year I discovered some that I had lifted and left to dry off in the shed and despite being planted late, I think it was mid-winter, they still flowered well. Freesias seem to do better when a bit crowded together as the flower stems can be quite lax so they need close mates to help them stand upright. The other very hardy bulb which is good over a range of climates is Ipheion uniflorum or spring star flower. I have ordered the white, pale blue and marine blue to mix together in pots as an edging flower in a large container. I will take some more photos as I plant out the individual bulbs over the coming weeks.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Apium graveolens var. secalinum, leaf celery

Leaf or Chinese celery, Apium graveolens var. secalinum
If you live in a warm climate this is the celery to grow, as the more common stalk celery, Apium graveolens var dulce, which originated in Italy, really requires a cool climate to develop tender long, mild flavoured stalks. Leaf celery grows for a couple of years before being spent and provides a plentiful supply of tender shoots which are indispensable when making stock ,soup or stews. They can also be added to stir-fries. It needs regular water during the growing season and a thick mulch around the plants is beneficial. Mulch can also help to blanch the lower leaf stalks which gives them a better flavour. This leaf celery is also a fairly common wild foraging plant being found in marshy swampy areas usually close to the coast, though the taste may be stronger than a cultivated plant. As the leaves resemble flat leaf parsley, it was marketed a few years back as Australian sea parsley but given our fairly conservative and unadventurous taste for new things it disappeared from the nurseries fairly quickly.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chilli variety 'Purple Tiger'

Ornamental Chilli 'Purple Tiger' 
 Capsicum annuum cv.
This is an ornamental variety of chilli which can be eaten though it is not particularly flavourful. The shiny black pendant fruits make a terrific table or plate decorative particularly when teamed with 'Black Russian' tomatoes. In the garden, the creamy grey and pink flecked leaves match well to plants like dark opal basil which has bright magenta coloured flowers. Some silver foliage, from say a Cineraria, the "silver dust" plant, is a good foil to this combination also.
As this is the first summer I have grown this variety,I am assuming it may well keep on fruiting for quite some time and I may just get a second year from the plants if they are kept a bit drier over winter. Other varieties with these black or dark purple fruits include 'Jigsaw' and 'Black Cuban'. 'Purple Tiger' also goes by the name of 'Trifetii'.

Tiger Hunt (detail) depicting Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605)
Victoria and Albert Museum ,London
Akbar is shown on the brown steed beheading the purple tiger with his scimitar. One hopes this is a pure fantasy depiction from the book of his fantastic exploits. The playboy emperor was well aware of the need to appear larger than life to sustain his popularity and dominate his surroundings, though paintings like this could have been used to intensify the experience of being in a cool, sumptuous and safe Mughal garden with its voluptuous sense of luxury.
I am in need of a time machine right now to take me back to the 16th Century Persian style of gardening without the senseless killing of tigers.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ruellia brevifolia

Ruellia brevifolia syn R. amoena syn R. graecizans
Red Christmas Pride

This small (60cm) shrub from South America has gone a bit feral across the Pacific Islands and north Queensland since being introduced as a garden ornamental. In these cooler southern parts of the country it is more well behaved and provides a decorative addition to the summer floral display with its crown of tubular red flowers. It needs a frost free position in sun or light shade, in average garden soil, at the front of garden borders or as a container plant amongst other tropical style plants. It stays quite neat and compact and the floral display is continuous over the summer months.
2017 update: It is too weedy to recommend growing and even comes up in the cracks of pavement.

Ruellia brevifolia planted in front of Pleomele reflexa 'Song of India' and bordered by Echeveria

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lemon Verbena Part 2

El Jardin Borda,The Borda Garden
Cuernavaca, Mexico

When Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota began their tragic adventure in Mexico in 1864 they used the home built by mining magnate, Jose de la Borda, as their country estate, enlarging the garden and filling it with fragrant plants. Amongst the scented herbs planted was Lemon Verbena which already had the common name Herba or Yerba Louisa having been brought to Europe by both French and Spanish plant hunters from South America in 1784. It had been named after Maria Louisa, Princess of Parma who died in 1819. Lemon verbena was also a reminder to Carlota of her own mother Louise Marie d'Orleans. The two Louise portraits are pictured below, from the time when lemon verbena was causing such a stir after its introduction into the gardens of Europe.

Louise Marie d'Orleans (1812-1850)
Queen Consort of the Belgian King Leopold
Portrait by Nicaise de Keyser (1813- 1887)

Portrait of Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma (1751-1819)
painted in 1765 in the gardens of Aranjuez
By Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Because of all the rain lately it has been a great opportunity for Dragonflies to show off their mass-dispersal behaviour and move about much more easily in search of new watery homes. I found this one resting on a residential brick wall. As a beautiful carnivore on the move, the dragonfly adult observes its flying prey and flies rapidly to overtake and capture it within an aerial basket-net formed by its legs. Even as a junior, at the nymph stage while still living in water, it has a reputation for being ready to take on all comers, including next of kin, in search of a feed. It has a spring loaded set of pincers called a labium behind the mouth. When an unwary prey comes within striking distance, the labium is flung forward like a spring gun closing around the prey and is quickly drawn back into the mouth. They are indiscriminate feeders, as any small insect or worm will do, including hopefully lots of mosquito larvae. Larger nymphs may even have a go at the odd tadpole or fish.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lemon Verbena, Aloysia triphylla

Lemon Verbena  
Aloysia triphylla syn Lippia citriodora
Lemon verbena is at its best right now as it just starting to produce the terminal sprays of delicate white flowers at the end of this seasons growth.Though it can grow to be quite a big shrub of over 2 metres, its spends its teenage years as a gangly youth of loose sprawling branches which are quite lax and supple, often spreading over the ground instead of growing upright. The crisp raspy leaves are very reminiscent of Lantana to which it is closely related and like Lantana it will grow across a range of climates, except the very cold, though it is well known as a potted specimen in cool climates. As soon as the leaves are picked, or if a potted specimen runs short of water, the leaves wilt quick;y . This may explain why it is not offered for sale in greengrocers and is therefore less well known here compared to southern Italy or in France. The leaves can be picked for drying now as they retain their flavour and scent well. I also grow the lime verbena and the leaves have more of a bitter tone than the sweet lemon one.
Lemon verbena leaves compliment the flavour of honey-dew or rock melons when combined with a smokey cured ham. In France lemon verbena is called verveine. The recipe below is an interesting take on the Spanish gazpacho which is perfect on a hot summer day. The sharp pointed lemon verbena leaves make an attractive garnish or plate decoration on both sweet and savoury dishes but you need to pick the leaves just moments before serving.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Felicia amelloides, Blue daisy

Blue flowered daisy, Felicia amelloides, growing amongst succulents
This small shrub daisy which originates from South Africa is great to use as a filler amongst other low growing plants particularly those which are not fussy about fertilizer or water requirements. It is continually in flower, though it has a main flush of flowers in spring and early summer. Regular dead-heading of old flowers and occasional trimming keeps it neat , compact and looking good. There is a white flowering form, as well as one with variegated leaves. Both of these are equally as hardy. A patch of simple blue flowers is hard to beat in the garden and this Felicia even makes a good container plant if your garden happens to be a balcony in an apartment building.

Bird with blue daisies
Wall-painting from Pompeii transferred to a panel

Friday, February 3, 2012

Acanthus mollis 'Variegatus'

Head wreathed with acanthus leaves
Mosaic from Tuscolo
Museo Nazionale Romano

Acanthus mollis showing leaf variegation
This summer one of my Acanthus plants started to throw up a few variegated leaves. While variegated forms of garden plants can be quite attractive and worth preserving, this one just did not look right. The white sections of the leaf immediately burned and turned brown and the rest of the leaf looked a bit patchy. When Acanthus finish flowering I usually cut them off at ground level, leaves and all. It will be interesting to see whether the variegated leaves return when the plants regrow this autumn.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tomatillo, Physalis ixocarpa

Purple Tomatillo  
Physalis ixocarpa

Both the tomatillo and its close relative the Cape Gooseberry (Physalis macrocarpa) are welcome weeds in my garden . They set fruit during late summer and autumn and then return again the next year without any trouble or special cultivation. Though green is the normal colour for the tomatillo, even when ripe, the purple variety pictured here is slightly sweeter and less tart flavoured. An article I was reading about them in the Los Angeles Times called the tomatillo "a green sourpuss with a sweet side".
I use them to make salsa to have as an accompaniment to barbecue chicken or prawns, from recipes obtained from the terrific little book pictured below. One called salsa tepozteco includes the unusual ingredient of an avocado leaf which is toasted first and then ground. It has a warm anise flavour when used in this way. I don't have an avocado tree but young seedling trees are always coming up in my compost from discarded pips. Tomatillos are also good to use in gaucamole verde and can be used to replace the normal lime juice as a key ingredient.
I guess the reason the tomatillo has never made it onto the supermarket shelf is that they have to be fairly ripe and soft to have the best flavour very much like a real tomato which is best when picked fresh and used straight away.They are so easy to grow I am not sure why they are not better known.
Salsa by Reed Hearon
published by Chronicle Books
San Francisco

Asian eggplants

Laos or Thai eggplant variety (Solanum melongena)

The University of Melbourne web page called Know your eggplants (see link below) gives the most comprehensive rundown on the multitude of eggplant varieties grown across the world as well as information on where to source seed. This is the first time I have grown this small round Asian variety and from one bush I picked half a dozen or so to use in a Thai style green curry. The classic pea size eggplant is normally used in curries as they can be left whole and add a bitter contrast to a sweet, salty, chilli hot dish.
It has not really been hot enough for growing a great crop of eggplants this summer. I have another variety called the Brazilian orange square, (Solanum aethiopicum type) which has barely grown more than 15cm and seems unlikely to flower and set fruit at this late stage of summer. There is always next year...
Know your eggplants