Thursday, May 31, 2012

Vriesea hieroglyphica

Vriesea hieroglyphica
If grown in an elevated garden bed or in a tall pot you get to see this Bromeliad at its best. When the light shines through the olive green leaves, the chocolate coloured hieroglyphic cross-banded pattern comes alive. This is a fairly hardy Bromeliad and will even tolerate a light frost if grown under trees. It forms a large vase shaped plant to about a metre or more across but may be slow to develop side shoots. Tissue culture grown plants have seen this species become more readily available.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lichens for dyeing

I am fascinated by tree and rock lichens and the patterns and texture they form on branches and boulders. It is interesting that almost all kinds of lichen can be used for colouring in the dye process and different kinds produce different colours ranging from pale green to yellow, tan, reddish brown and even pink. Many can be used without a mordant to set the colour but others require a process of fermentation to release their colour. I am not a "crafty" person so I have no experience of dyeing cloth or spinning and weaving with wool but the history of plant dyes makes for interesting reading. A little gem of a book on the subject, giving a world history on plant dyeing from such far flung places such as Morocco, Norway, Japan, was published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York many years ago but it may be still available. Among the contributors is one Padraic O'Maille , a tailor of Galway, Eire whose clients wear tweeds dyed with lichens.

Volume 20 No 3 Special edition
published by Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spanish wood Marjoram, Thymus mastichina

Thymus mastichina
This is not a herb I am growing at the moment as my stock plant died during the very wet months earlier this year. No wonder, as It is native to the dry hills of southern Portugal and central Spain. It is a delightful small aromatic shrub growing to about 30cm high with intensely scented leaves which impart a camphor and eucalyptus aroma when crushed. The oil extracted from the leaves is used as a flavouring agent in the food industry, though it is given the confusing name of 'oil of wild marjoram'. I photographed this specimen in November when the flowers were just starting to appear.

Woolly Thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus

Woolly Thyme ,Thymus pseudolanuginosus
I love the ground cover thymes but they just do not like a mild coastal climate where summer days can be humid. Large sections of this plant turned black during February and March but with a cut back it came back to life and now in the early morning, the dew collects on the leaves and it sparkles a frosty white. This is a pot grown specimen as it really needs a rock garden situation or stony gravelly soil to do well. Pink flowers are supposed to cover the plant over summer which makes it very attractive to bees, however I don't think the winter here is cold enough to trigger bud formation. Maybe it needs a cover of snow to do well.
 2017 update: I no longer grow this thyme.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Golden Dream'

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Golden Dream'
   'Golden Dream' is one of the Klahanie dwarf types which is suitable to grow in a pot. From tightly furled buds a big powder puff orange flower emerges.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bougainvillea x 'Zulu'

So now we are experiencing the driest May in 100 years though there is still so much soil moisture when you dig the ground it is not really noticeable. One plant which responds to dry weather by flowering its head off is this Bougainvillea. This miniature variety makes a great container plant as it forms a neat though sparse shrub, has no thorns and requires no special care. It can live in a pot for years without needing re-potting and can be bonsai pruned if you want to give it a tree like appearance. This variety is not covered by plant breeders rights PBR and can be propagated by cuttings in summer. In the open ground it can be used to form a low hedge and is useful in exposed situations such as embankments where the soil is rocky and well drained.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Chrysanthemums in cottage garden planting
Last Friday when I was at the plant market there were thousands of Chrysanthemums for sale, many of which end up being planted in the garden as they are very hardy and undemanding perennials. While most of the ones sold are either yellow or white, I think the pink, maroon or golden brown coloured ones are easier to accommodate in a planting scheme. The pink one pictured above is hiding the bare legs of a rose bush while the maroon is matched with blue Easter daisies and silver foliage plants. All they need for maintenance is for the spent flowers to be cut off and to be dug up every few years and divided when they become too crowded.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Phalaris arundinaceae var 'Picta'

Phalaris arundinaceae var.'Picta', Gardener's Garters
Common names of plants are always intriguing especially when they make reference to a long forgotten custom. Sleeve garters were worn in certain professions to stop shirt cuffs getting dirty and gardeners would certainly have needed them when dealing with this grass which inhabits marshy swamp ground or even shallow water. It is quite possible even that the thin leaf stems of this grass were used as a makeshift garter, tied around the sleeve if you were just about to plunge hands into mud to dig out a plant. This grass is notable for the fresh mint green and white striped leaves which take on a pink tinge as they emerge from the soil. It is sometimes given the name of canary reed grass for the delicate appearance of the inflorescence which brings its height up to about a metre. I grow it in a pot and it does not really need absolute wet conditions to grow well; as mine has dried out without the plant showing any undue stress. A word of warning however, it is a bit of a bolter when grown in favourable conditions and may spread near and far, in much the same way as mint does when given a free reign.
Sleeve garters are now more likely to be worn if you are heading out for an evening poker game with the boys or a night of high rolling at the casino

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Strange plant associations

Salvia 'Phyllis Fancy' with a Silver torch cactus Cleistocactus species
 When you live in a climate which is relatively benign it is possible to grow a really broad range of plants though this often makes for some strange plant combinations. These are a couple of examples I saw recently. Salvia 'Phyllis Fancy' is a hybrid shrub Salvia which is continually in flower until you give it a rest by pruning back hard in late winter. It is named for Phyllis Norris and it originated in the arboretum at the University of California Santa Cruz. It is a fairly tough plant and copes well with dry conditions so is perfectly at home clasping a clump of the silver torch cactus which originates in Bolivia.
Silver Birch, Betula pendula, with Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides
This is a case of Scandinavia meeting the Florida everglades. Silver birch growing in warm climates invariable suffer from premature leaf drop. The leaves turn crispy very early in summer and are shed thus leaving a dead looking tree for months on end. I have driven past a very attractive grouping of birches for years; they were placed just so right and were quite mature in size. Then recently I saw them chopped up and laying in a heap on the nature strip. Perhaps the message has got out that they are a better cool climate tree. As for the Spanish moss it has had a great season and has tripled in size over recent months and is happy to grow on any tree limb it takes a fancy to.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tree Tomato, Tamarillo

 Tree tomato or Tamarillo
There is nothing quite like the first fruit of the season picked and eaten straight from the tree, and the tamarillo has a wonderful balance of sweet and tart flavour. It cleanses the palate and puts a real zing in your mouth. We have the Kiwis to thank for making the fruit popular here as they coined the word 'tamarillo' in 1967 and produced the first commercial crops in the southern hemisphere which they exported around the world. The tree is actually indigenous to South America, in particular the regions of southern Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. On YouTube there are many videos featuring the production of fruit in these regions as well as lots of interesting recipes using it for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Tamarillos are quick growing trees and I would recommend staking them or giving them special protection in windy sites. For me, this is a case of expert advise not headed. My tree blew over in gale during the "big wet" of late summer. It has continued to grow at a 45 degree angle so the crown of the tree is now flat at eye level, with the new shoots pointing upwards. It looks pretty strange and I have to duck under it as it is now blocking a path. When the flowers first appeared I gave the tree a big feed of compost and some complete fruit tree fertilizer. Consequently I have been rewarded by a bumper crop. The tree is grafted onto a wild tobacco plant Solanum sp which makes it more resistant to eelworms and soil fungal problems. I think the life span of a tree is about five years but I may be proved wrong with this one, even though it has used up one life already and survived to live on in a bit of a kooky way. The tree trunk is pictured below.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cotyledon orbiculata

Cotyledon orbiculata (Crassulaceae)
The frost white leaves and bell shaped pink flowers have made this a popular succulent especially in cooler frosty climates. On the humid coast it is always a bit of a battle to keep it alive during the summer months if the weather gets too wet or if potted specimens are subject to overhead irrigation. The indication that it is not long for this world comes quickly. The stems collapse in a heap and turn black. Tip cuttings taken from plants when they get to this stage will usually survive . This succulent is indigenous to Angola, Namibia and South Africa. It grows as a small shrub to about 90cm x 50 cm wide. After a few years in the ground the lower leaves have often dropped off and new plants are best started off by taking a batch of cuttings from the leggy stems. However the leggy look can also look appealing as it gives the plant a gnarled bonsai look.It is a great succulent to grow if you are lucky enough to have a beach side pad as it does well in pure sand and not minding the salt spray.
The cultivar 'Silver Waves' or undulata is worth seeking out as it has curious crimped edge leaves and a wonderful shape.

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'
Feather Reed Grass
This is a northern hemisphere grass which has become very popular over the last ten years. The selling point is that word 'architectural', referring to the stiff pink-bronze inflorescences which stand up to 1.8m high above the clump of foliage which stays around the 60cm mark. So far mine has failed to produce more than a few of these flower heads and I am beginning to wonder whether that it is just too warm on the coast for this grass to perform at its best. The grassy clump itself is pleasant enough and certainly low maintenance with none of the browning or dead material which is often associated with growing Miscanthus grass. I am growing it around the base of a Jacaranda tree and behind some lavenders.This is a sterile hybrid and propagation is by division of the clump in spring.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Oliver Sacks on Cycads

'We moved past great coral canyons, with their endless forms and colours and their gnarled and twisted branches, some shaped liked mushrooms, some like trees, being nibbled at by tetrodons and filefish. Clouds of tiny zebra fish and fish of an iridescent blue swam through them, and around me. We saw flatworms waving like tiny scarves in the water and plump polychaetes with iridescent bristles. Large starfish, startlingly blue, crawled slowly on the bottom, and spiny sea urchins made me glad my feet were protected by fins'..................... Oliver Sacks from The Island of the Colour-blind.

The idiosyncratic and wonderfully humorous Dr Oliver Sacks had a reason for snorkeling in Pacific coral reefs. He was in search of the perfect shade of indigo blue, a colour which he saw in a vision while partaking in illicit substances during his younger days. This aspect of his crowded mind was not included in this book as the focus was on bringing attention to those who suffer from colour-blindness or Achromatopsia, where it is a hereditary condition on the islands of Pingelap and Pohnpei. The second half of the book centres on the Cycad islands of Guam and Rota where a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disorder afflicts a high proportion of the inhabitants.

Picador books (published by Pan Macmillan Australia in 1996)

While visiting Pohnpei, Sacks partook in a ceremony of drinking Sakau or what we call by the Fijian name of Kava. The video is included below.The sakau plant, Piper methysticum, was named by father and son German naturalists, Johann and Georg Forster, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the South Pacific in 1772 after Joseph Banks withdrew at the last moment. They called it rauschpfeffer or intoxicating pepper and in their diaries they recount the preparation of the sakau for drinking by Islander men inside Cook's cabin: It is made in the most disgusting manner...the root is cut very small, and the pieces chewed by several people who spit the macerated mass in a bowl when some water of coconuts is poured over it.
Sacks describes his encounter with sakau eloquently. It brought on an 'unctuous mellifluous flow of thought so far from my anxious, querulous frame of mind.'

 Kava, Piper methysticum (photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia)
Another species of Piper from New Zealand was named in Cook's honour, P captaincookia.

German naturalists Johann Forster (1729-1798) and Georg Forster (1754-1794) 
Portrait from 1775 in Tahiti.

Cycas revoluta  
Japanese Sago Palm
 The Cycad botany from this book is equally as interesting though since it was written the origin and age of Cycad species is no longer considered to be from the Jurassic age.The most common species grown here and widely used in the landscaping industry is Cycas revoluta. Eminent Australian naturalist David Jones is quoted on this species and he recounts how the seeds of this plant are used on the Ryukyu Islands of Japan to make a form of Sake. Drinking it is almost as deadly as a game of Russian roulette, since it is slightly poisonous and occasionally a potent batch kills all those who partake. Eat with a meal of puffer fish or fugu!
Welcome to the wonderful world of plants Oliver Sacks style.
R.I.P Oliver Sacks 1933-2015

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Salvia guaranitica

Salvia guaranitica

 Salvia guaranitica gone wild in dry shade under trees
 Salvia guaranitica is one of the hardiest Salvias even if you live in a climate where the winters go down to below -12C. It is a rampant grower with a suckering habit. You could plant it in a difficult site, such as the one pictured here and be delighted by the continual display of rich blue flowers over summer and autumn. My suggestion is to try some of the cultivars which may be more well behaved than the straight species. These include 'Argentina Skies', 'Black and Blue', 'Costa Rica Blue' and 'Violet Eyes'
2017 update: I currently have stock of 'Black and Blue'

Bouvardia longiflora humboldtii

Bouvardia longiflora humboldtii (Rubiaceae)
Sweet Bouvardia (Mexico)
The BBC series World's Most Dangerous Roads which aired here on SBS was quite a good armchair adventure. Though last nights 'team' of Ben Fogel and Hugh Dennis looked as if they could barely stand to be in each others company on their journey through Peru. What was interesting to see was the German settlement deep in the Amazon jungle dedicated to the great naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt. Humboldt travelled through Latin America between 1799-1804. He spent time in Mexico and this sweetly perfumed flower, which is related to the Gardenia, was named after him.
I grow mine in a pot as it is not a particularly robust plant. It is a small shrub with lax stems  weighed down by the terminal clusters of pure white flowers. The flowers are a popular addition to wedding bouquets. It flowers all summer and is semi deciduous or completely deciduous over winter. Like most plants from Mexico, it is tolerant of dry periods and in my case this usually means it has missed out on watering and has forgiven me and just kept on flowering after a brief sulk and flower drop.I took cuttings over summer and wait to see how many have taken.
Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859)
Portrait from 1843 by Joseph Karl Stieler