Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lovage, Levisticum officinale

Levisticum officinale syn Ligusticum levisticum (Apiaceae, Celery Family)
For hours after handling this herb, your hands are likely to retain a rich combination scent of celery, parsley, pepper and vegemite. The German name for it, Liebstockel or Maggikraut gives more of a clue on how to use it in the kitchen, for in 1885, one Swiss gentleman, Julius Maggi used it to make his first batch of Maggi flavouring. A long time before this, in 1801 the Germans who had settled in Pennsylvania were using the hollow leaf stems of the plant as a drinking straw according to Stearn's American Herbal which was written around that time. After reading this I immediately thought it would make a great drinking straw for a 'Bloody Mary' cocktail with the complimentary flavour it has for that particular drink.
The botanical name is derived from the Italian Province of Liguria where it was found growing in abundance and is thus called in Greek, Ligustikas. In ancient times both Greek and Roman cooks were familiar with it as a flavouring agent. The English name was derived from old French and was once known by the charming Loveache pronounced Loveaitch.
Another species found growing on the wild east coast of Scotland called Ligusticum scoticum is also used in cooking and my Scots recipe book includes one for Pheasant and Lovage Crumble, a great winter sounding dish.
From a horticultural point of view, I am unable to provide Lovage with ideal growing conditions such as a cool damp meadow beside a stream where it may reach up to 2 metres in height when showing off its dish telescope like flowers. Mine rarely reaches more than 30 cm in height but the flavour is still there and that is what matters. In warm climates it may also be plagued by insect problems such as leaf miner, aphids and mealy bugs which congregate around the stem base. On digging up my plants this week to divide and propagate I found the whole plant to be infested with nematode (eel-worm) but I did manage to save a few pieces with clean roots which will go into a new position before long. This is a herb I can't live without, so it will live to see another day.

Lovage showing  root knot nematode damage 

Gaillardia, Blanket flower

Gaillardia or Blanket flower
The winter habit shown by some plants of spot flowering is always welcome and a reminder of summer which is when this North American native perennial is at its best. The cool days slow everything down so you can see seed development take place over a longer time. The seeds are often in no hurry to disperse as they are certain conditions would be not right for germination. Spiky seeds of the blanket flowers are perhaps waiting for an animal on patrol so they can attach themselves to fur or fleece.

Pink Rosemary

Rosmarinus officinalis 'Roseus'
In full flower at the moment is this pink rosemary. The flowers are numerous and highly visible as the leaves are slightly smaller than other forms. It grows into a bush of about 80cm but can be kept trimmed to a lower height.The other pink flowering variety is 'Majorca Pink' which has a more prostrate habit with lax stems towards the edge of the bush. These stems often send down roots where they touch the ground and can be easily removed and potted on or transplanted to a new location.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Borage seedlings

Pink, white and blue flowered Borage in summer
In mid winter the first of the Borage seedlings start to appear, often growing much further away from where the parent plant was originally placed. The new seedlings hug the ground and eliminate competition by sending out a rosette of broad flat thick leaves. They also send down a long tap root to anchor themselves into position. Now is a good time to dig them up and either pot them on or transplant them to a spot where you would like them to grow. In moist soil they dig up fairly easily and I usually trim off most of the large leaves and leave a central few. In these cooler days they don't wilt and are easy to establish in a new spot in no time.
Newly dug seedlings

Seedlings trimmed of large leaves and ready for planting

Friday, June 22, 2012

Rue, Ruta graveolens

 Ruta graveolens, Rue (Rutaceae: Citrus Family)
Rue is a herb I have been growing on and off for more then thirty years. I like the connection it has with classical antiquity and the time of the Roman Empire. What other plant can you grow which was recommended by the writer Pliny, AD 23-79, to improve the eyesight of artists, engravers and woodcarvers or to protect people against the bites of serpents, toadstool poisoning and the "evil eye".
At this time of year the foliage of Rue take on a steely blue colour and the irregularly cleft leaves with their 4 or 5 spoon shaped segments cast themselves downward as if anticipating a snow flurry. In summer this sub-shrub opens up with 30 cm tall stems topped with small glistening yellow flowers which have wide spread cupped petals with delicate fringes on their edges. A conspicuous green ovary projects one small white pistil from its centre, while the surrounding stamens bend over individually to dust their pollen onto its sticky surface without the benefit of insect intervention. Perhaps this adaptation is the result of it naturally occurring in dry inhospitable limestone screes of southern France and Spain where pollinators may be few and far between.

Native habitat: "Karst" landscape near Minerve, France
It is in summer that Rue is at its most potent and allergic reactions may occur for those with sensitive skin who brush against the plant. For those with a tougher constitution, it is interesting to see how its sap is able to "tattoo" the skin especially if the sun happens to be out at the same time. (Don't try this at home kids) Perhaps this "magic" from a plant accounted for it being a powerful protection against, and incantation by witches: "Then sprinkled she the juice of Rue. With nine drops of morning dew" 
However it also had a special religious significance and as a symbol of regret and repentance, it became known as Herb of Grace and bunches were used to sprinkle holy water before High Mass. Bunches were also carried in Law and Criminal Courts to protect judges against goal fever. (These days the word rue is more likely to be heard in the divorce courts as in "I rue the day I meet him/her that b****")
Today Rue is less used in either medicinal or culinary ways. It is banned in France but in Italy the leaves are used to flavour grappa della ruta, a form of brandy and also make their way into salad mixes as the Italians are fond of their bitter greens. In China, where it is known as chou-cao it is cooked with green beans.
In autumn I collect the seed which is contained in hard glandular capsules at the end of the stems.The capsules spit open to reveal numerous black seeds which germinate after a few weeks. The mini forest of tiny rue plants in the pot pictured below are quite happy to stay in that condition for some time before being pricked out and given a new home.
The smell of crushed rue leaves may not be to all tastes. I think the best description is given by Margaret Brownlow in her book Herbs and the Fragrant Garden (1957 DLT London) where she described it as being like musty churches, Gorgonzola cheese and Aden.
 (Aden in south Yemen was a British Colony from 1936 to 1967)

Pansy 'Black Beauty'

Pansy 'Black Beauty'
Before it opens to reveal a shining golden eye, this black Pansy looks very Gothic indeed with petals resembling the cape of Count Dracula. This variety has been around for some time but remains a real talking point as there are so few flowers that are so dark and spooky looking. It is difficult to place in a garden as the colour disappears close to the ground but it makes an interesting pot plant for a table where the flowers can be viewed up close. This one started flowering this week and has lots more buds to open over the coming months.
We have just passed the winter solstice and the wind chill factor makes it feel like the temperature is in the minus degrees right now.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Viola 'Velour Blue Bronze'

Just coming into flower this is an exquisite new Viola I am growing this winter. The flowers are small and perfectly rounded with petals shaded purple blue above and russet bronze below.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Los Agaves de Mexico:el arbol de las maravillas

Agave with pink flowered 'Society Garlic',  Tulbaghia violacea
At the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, the Agave is taking centre stage this week, literally. There is a curious potted specimen which consists of a rosette of very stiff pointed leaves in a low bowl right behind where world leaders are giving their economic message. Outside in the resort, the xeriscapes are exceptional in their concept and design. 
Mexico is the heartland of the Agave family Agavaceae and more than 80% of all species find a home here. Wonderful to see them on the evening news broadcast.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Duranta erecta 'Sheena's Gold'

left to right: Salvia mexicana 'Limelight', Acanthus 'Hollard's Gold', Duranta 'Sheena's Gold'
Duranta 'Sheena's Gold' is one of the most widely grown golden foliaged plants and is used as both a large 3 metre topiary specimen (as pictured here) or pruned hard and kept as a low hedge plant, often in combination with the dark purple leafed Alternanthera dentata. Apart from needing some pruning or shearing over summer, it is a really low maintenance plant and is undemanding as to soil type and watering.This may account for its use in traffic roundabouts and roadside plantings. My local fire station has a hedge of it in combination with Anigozanthos, a tall yellow flowered 'Kangaroo Paw' which looks very effective.
At this time of year. especially in cold districts, the foliage turns dark inky black and if light frost occurs these leaves may drop off entirely. However new growth returns in spring with leaves coloured bright yellow and soon after the plant quickly returns to normal growth. Pale lavender coloured flowers appear in high summer and these contrast well with the foliage. This is a great plant for beginner gardeners to grow if they are after a quick growing screen plant to hide a fence or provide privacy. It can be cut back hard if it becomes too tall or unmanageable and will re-grow without any fear of having done it any drastic damage.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mexican Weeping Pine, Pinus patula

Pinus patula, Mexican Weeping Pine
Growing to about 15 or 20 metres in height, this pine tree is only really suitable for large gardens and parks . It is a not an uncommon tree in the coastal cities and towns of Australia from Brisbane to Melbourne and is always quite eye-catching because of the shiny curtain or shawl of needle foliage which sways in the slightest breeze. It is naturally occurring in central and eastern Mexico and found growing on mountain slopes at elevations from 1500 to 3000 metres. This region receives abundant summer rainfall and experiences high humidity over summer which will account for it thriving in Brisbane and Sydney.
Apart from the decorative leaves, the tree produces attractive conical cones which are about 10cm long by 5cm across. These persist on the tree for many years but can be cut off easily if required for indoor decoration.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cos lettuce

Cos lettuce surrounded by winter hardy tomato seedlings
When you grow your own lettuce you can afford to be a bit wasteful especially when you have half a dozen or so all ready at the same time. With Cos lettuce it is the inner pale yellow leaves which I like the best. They have plenty of crunch and being spoon shaped you can load up all sorts of filling onto them in say a typical Caesar salad for which they are ready made for.  In her Kitchen Garden Companion book, Stephanie Alexander recommends arranging the leaves of Cos on a platter rather than in a bowl for the perfect Caesar salad. The leaves are coated with a Parmesan dressing which is made in a food processor by combining Parmesan, anchovy fillets, Dijon mustard, lemon juice and olive oil with a couple of lightly boiled eggs. I like to add pieces of grilled chicken to my Caesar as well as Avocado, bacon and croutons made from sour dough bread.The perfect lunch at any time of the year.
Cos lettuce originated on the Greek Island of Kos, though it is also given the name Romaine.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chickweed, Stellaria media

Stellaria media (Caryophyllaceae Carnation Family)
Chickweed makes an appearance every winter in the garden and in potted plants. It forms quite a thick mat of loose succulent leaves topped by starry white flowers and seed capsules containing many orange seeds. Wild food foragers may be familiar with this universally occurring plant, using it as a tasty addition to salads and soups. I find the taste a bit bland and because the stems are covered with tiny hairs it is not always easy to swallow without inducing a coughing fit. As a herbal plant it is useful for making a poultice to sooth irritated skin. Apparently it is also possible to make a salve from Chickweed as well where it is mixed with beeswax so it can be applied for a longer period. I am not a regular user of herbal remedies but this one seems to work and from such a common garden plant.
As the common name suggests it is adored by chickens who love to scratch and pick out the oil rich seeds.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Winter Bee Buzz

 Agave desmettiana 'El Miradore's Gold'
If you use the M7 motorway in Sydney, the Agave plants in the median strip have been in flower for some time. They look stately and quite spectacular when seen in a large formal planting like this. I have two in flower in the garden at the moment and the flower stems reach about 5 metres in height. The opening flowers are laden with pollen and the buzz from the bees in attendance is audible from some distance away.

Osteospermum ecklonis 'Voltage'

Osteospermum ecklonis 'Voltage'
Any plant given the cultivar name 'Voltage' immediately sets me off on a bit of air guitar or Karaoke AC/DC style. High voltage rock' n roll indeed.
Yellow is a great winter colour in the garden as a reminder of warm sunny days."Osteo" daisies are very popular as they flower for such a long time and this one has been going strong for months and has plenty more buds to come while the older purple varieties are also spot flowering. Like other forms this grows into a small shrub of about 40cm high with a spread of about 60 cm. Regular removal of spent flowers means it will last longer and keep its shape better. It is an introduction from Ball Horticulture Australia and I am assuming it originated at the parent company in the US.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Limoncello'

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Limoncello'
Named after the Italian liqueur this delightful yellow Hibiscus is enjoying the cooler days though the flowers are not as big as during the warmer months. It is another small growing type which is very suitable for container culture or for use in small gardens.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An African Violet

 Maroon or ruby coloured? African Violet
I don't have a collection of African violets but I think this one would make a nice centrepiece if I were to have an indoor display of them.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Alternanthera bettzickiana

 Yellow Alternanthera bettzickiana aurea and pink Alternanthera bettzickiana
This colourful ground cover plant from Brazil is usually given the name of 'Exhibition Border' instead of the complex botanical name. It belongs to the family Amaranthaceae to which many coloured leaf tropical plants belong. Alternanthera species make rapid growth over the summer months and need regular clipping to keep them looking good. In winter they produce masses of short prickly flowers and seeds and virtually stop growth. As they are frost sensitive, they are more likely to be treated as an annual in cold climates and used for summer carpet bedding and floral clocks.
Recently plants has been used to great effect in 'green walls' using a checker-board pattern of contrasting yellow and pink panels. It's low water and fertilizer requirements make it an attractive alternative to annuals, but you just have to be nifty with the hedge shears to keep it looking good.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Zygocactus, Schlumbergera

 The "Zygoes" have been flowering their heads off for the past few weeks. They are one of those plants which come into their own for six weeks of the year and make a a big splash of flowers and then go to rest for the remainder of the year. All the showy hybrids are descended from two epyphitic species Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana which are native to South America and primarily Brazil. Like other epyphites they make good container plants and have low water and fertilizer requirements. Of course if you want a truly spectacular specimen it is worth giving it some fertilizer over the summer months before the buds start to form in autumn. Zygoes look good in hanging baskets or in pots with a narrow neck so that the flat sprawling leaves are able to splay out in all directions without being encumbered. There are lots of interesting coloured forms available from pure white to salmon pink, orange, red and peachy toned ones. They grow best in semi shade and can be rested when not in flower under trees and are able to cope with just occasional rainfall to survive well. The book below gives all the best detailed information on them and though it was published twenty years ago the cultivation notes and history on the genus is still valid and current.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Pelargonium denticulatum 'Filicifolium'

Pelargonium denticulatum 'Filicifolium'
This filigree leaf geranium releases a curious scent of balsam and furniture polish when the leaves are crushed. The leaves themselves are so finely divided that they seem to shimmer in the sunlight as well as being slightly sticky or tacky to touch, to the point of leaving a faint residue on your hands. This is a good shrub to grow near a path so you can brush past it and experience the texture and aroma of the foliage. It forms quite a sprawling shrub to a metre or so and needs a regular prune back to keep it looking good. It is not concerned as to soil type or condition as long as it is free draining. Small mauve flowers are borne in terminal sprays in spring but they are fairly insignificant and not particularly noteworthy. The stems and leaves are good for floral work as they require minimal wiring , though the scent may not be to appealing to all.
2017 update: I have limited stock available.

Lachenalia aloides,'Soldier Boy'

 Lachenalia aloides
Bulbs can be tricky to grow if you buy them from a supplier who is based in a cool temperate climate.  You plant them at the recommended time in autumn and they immediately think wow this place feels like spring and bolt into flower almost immediately. Such was the case with these Lachenalia which are supposed to reach about 30cm before coming into flower in early spring. They do look quite cute and are certainly bright but they are dumpy and only a few centimetres tall and most disappointing.  The common name of 'Soldier Boy' is given because they usually stand stiff and to attention. Their other common name is Cape Cowslip which alludes to their South African origin.They come from an area of winter rainfall followed by a hot baking dry summer so in a garden situation they need to be dried off over summer or they may succumb to fungal disease and rot. The history and cultivation of this interesting genus can be found on the following site: