Saturday, December 29, 2012

Summer flowers

Dahlia and Zinnia flowers
Music by Howard Shore: The Hobbit soundtrack out now on Decca records

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Festive Season

Today I will be working in the vegetable garden while listening to J S Bach.
Happy Festive Season to all.  Rejoice greatly!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Justicia betonica,White Shrimp Plant

Justicia betonica, White Shrimp Plant
My blogger mate Sandy from the Sunshine Coast once featured this plant which she found growing beside a drain as a 'garden escapee'. I came across it on a nature strip in a Sydney street and immediately screeched to a halt and ordered my work mate out of the passenger seat to grab a cutting. That was last summer and now I have some very healthy specimens growing, flowering and almost ready for sale. This is a charming small rounded shrub growing to about a metre in height with a crown of papery flowers which consist of green veined white bracts from which emerge lovely baby pink flowers. These flowers are produced continually for about six months and have a wonderful texture when handled. I am thinking it would make a great specimen for a blind-fold guessing competition.
Most Justicias will tolerate light frost or will defoliate in very cold winters but are otherwise very hardy and tolerant of shade and dry conditions. Best specimens grow in well mulched semi shaded positions with regular water.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Achillea millefolium 'Ivory Moon'

 Achillea millefolium 'Ivory Moon'
Of the two white Yarrows I have been growing this summer, the other being 'White Delight', this is by far the superior cultivar. The mark of a good variety being upright sturdy stems and large flat 'plates' of flowers. In bud 'Ivory Moon' starts off as a cream colour before changing to ivory white.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

White Lightnin' Lantana montevidensis

Lantana montevidensis  'White Lightnin'
Banned but not forgotten, this ground cover Lantana weaves its way between the curved spiked leaves of some big Agave plants and the delicate white flowers look quite charming. Though it does not set seed, it is thought that the pollen from this species may contribute to the continually evolving weed species L.camara which costs the country billions of dollars each year by degrading agricultural land and by causing loss of habitat for native flora and fauna.

Zinnia 'Zowie'

Zinnia 'Zowie' hot pink
This is one of the compact low growing Zinnias which look terrific mass planted in a low bowl shaped container or when used to edge a path. I grew this variety from seed but I have seen it available as 'potted colour' in a Garden Centre. The buds open as a fine pin-wheel or star shape before becoming fully double over the course of a week or so. Zinnias love the heat and are tolerant of dry . Although these low growing varieties are not useful as cut flowers they are tolerant of  strong sea breezes in coastal gardens and those hot northerlies which sees the temperature go up above 35C in western Sydney.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Zantedeschia x elliottiana, Calla Lily

 I am beginning to get a bit cautious about putting a cultivar name to a particular bulb or seed which comes labelled as one thing but looks remarkably like something else when it comes into flower. This Calla lily is called 'Hot Chocolate' which is supposed to be a dark burgundy colour but these flowers look very much like another called 'Pot Black'. I need a Kiwi Calla grower to give me a correct ID as New Zealand is the country of origin of many of these wonderfully coloured summer flowering hybrids. The Zantedeschia  species are native to South Africa, so, like a lot of their flowering bulbs, they need a dry dormant 'downtime' such as over winter in this case.  If grown where winters tend to be wet and cold the bulbs can rot unless you have well drained sandy soil. I grow them in pots and at every stage of growth they look remarkable. The newly emerging leaves are pointed spears ,spotted white and edged with black eye liner. As the leaves mature the stems turn red like rhubarb (pictured below) and look terrific when placed in a clear glass vase with either the Calla flowers or those of a different type. If growing Callas in pots, regular applications of liquid fertilizer encourages the production of more flowers with stronger stems. Bulbs are usually available during winter for spring planting.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'White Dynamite'

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'White Dynamite'
Waiting to check on proper name for this variety

Calabash / Bottle Gourd

 A Burmese Australian friend has introduced me to the Calabash or Bottle Gourd as a food plant. I have had a couple of carved ones for years and always thought it was just an ornamental plant. One the carved ones pictured above has been decorated with oak leaves, acorns and snowflakes so the carver may be of English origin.
Bottle gourd, Lagenaria siceraria
The plant is a very rampant summer vine of tropical and probably African origin. It has that hot climate habit of producing large tissue paper like flowers which bloom at night to attract moths and bats. Hand pollination is recommended to ensure a good crop as the night life pollinators are not always active or in large numbers. During the day the flowers appear brown and wilted.
 The fruit is best used when young, in ways as you would with squash or zucchini. The Burmese deep fry pieces to make the snack boo-thee kyaw. In Japan, ribbon like strips of the flesh (yuugao) are dried and used as an edible tie for sushi. In fact most Asian countries use it as a cooked vegetable in curries, soups and stir fried.
Burmese snack boo-thee kyaw

Sunday, December 9, 2012

a superb oleander

Andre Gide gets excited by the sight of an Oleander after a long journey...
'I should also say we had a good journey. We arrived here in the evening, exhausted by the heat, stimulated by the novelty, having stopped only briefly in Algiers and Constantine. At Constantine we caught another train to Sidi b. M., where a small cart was waiting for us.The road peters out someway short of the village, which is perched high on a rock like certain towns in Umbria. We climbed up on foot; a pair of mules carried our baggage. By this route, Michel's is the first house one comes to in the village. It is surrounded by a walled garden, or rather a paddock, in which grew three stunted pomegranate trees and a superb oleander.'  Andre Gide (L'Immoraliste) The Immoralist 1902

Oleander blossom makes a wonderful cut flower. The flowers are sweetly perfumed and have long vase life. When handling Oleander wear gloves and wash hands after touching cut stems.

First tomatoes of the season.

First picked tomatoes of the season are always the best. A mix of colours here including pink, yellow, red and green.

Calendula rust: Puccinia lagenophorae

Powdery orange rust, Puccinia lagenophorae on Calendula officinalis
Calendulas, which are sometimes give the name English marigolds, are at their peak of flowering from mid to late winter and into spring. The recent warm humid and showery weather means they are more susceptible to getting this rust disease, which is thought to originate in Australia on several native plant species, but is now fairly widespread across the world. The plants lose vigor and rapidly decline in appearance with leaves often turning black as the rust spores mature.
Nothing to be done but pull the Calendulas out and dispose of in the bin. One of the weed hosts of this rust is the common groundsel bush Senecio vulgaris. This weed is fairly common in horticultural crops and I was interested to read that the rust is being used as part of a new strategy in biological weed control in Europe. Scientific research papers can be viewed if you Google Puccinia lagenophora.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cardoon, Cynara cardunculus

Cardoon, Cynara cardunculus (Asteraceae)

A not for the faint-hearted vegetable garden: Cardoon with Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
In recent years the vegetable garden has become both a productive and ornamental feature of many gardens. In some cases it has made the switch from backyard to front garden, possibly at the expense of many flower displays of Petunias and Phlox. Driving around at this time of year I see tee-pees of climbing beans and the tasseled flowers of sweet corn peeping over the front fence of many homes.  
For those looking for a dramatic foliage plant, architectural even, with huge flowers, it is hard to go past the Cardoon. Related both to the globe artichoke and the scotch thistle, it has more in common with the latter as it is a spiny and prickly customer. It also can be a bit weedy. When the purple flowers have finished, hundreds of fluffy wind borne seeds are sent into space and hence it has weed status in many parts of the world. It was even noted as such back in 1845 by Charles Darwin writing in his Journal of the Voyage of the H.M.S Beagle for in the chapter Banda Oriental (del Uruguay) he noted 'very many, probably several hundred, square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains where these great beds occur nothing else can now live.' This sounds very similar to the problem faced in Australia by the 'prickly pear' (Opuntia sp) menace of the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Cardoon is weedy both in central Victoria and around Adelaide. However it is 'harvested' and used as a forage plant by many who are partial to the delicate flavour of the peeled and blanched stems and flower bases. Both of the related familiar garden weeds, the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and the true Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium) can be used in this way, though thick gloves and possibly a suit of armour are recommended when handling them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Billy Buttons

 Craspedia species "Billy Buttons'
 Helenium puberulum

The native 'Billy Buttons' (Craspedia species) is one of those really tricky plants to grow in a garden situation. In its Alpine habitat it has a trickle of melted snow underneath its roots while it is making its spring growth. It is grown commercially as a cut flower but perhaps is treated as an annual in that case. By the time it makes it to a florist it has often been dyed a range of lurid colours, though I am never sure what the appeal is in doing so. The technical description for flowers of this type in the daisy family is that each head appears as mainly a 'spherical bunch of disk florets'. The petals or 'ray florets' are tiny or absent.
I have doing some trials of the Californian native Helenium puberulum which has this flower structure and it is certainly much easier to grow. It hails from the Baja region of Southern California (think surfing and dramatic scenery) where it is given the Mexican name of 'Rosilla'. An English seed company has called it by the dreadful name of 'Autumn Lollipops' which is a slightly kitsch sounding name. I will stick to Billy Buttons I think. In Australia many Northern hemisphere perennials will flower in spring and then again in autumn following a cut back of the main flower stems. This Helenium makes growth as a single multi-branched stem of flowers with few leaves. The leaves have been modified to form a flange or flap clasping the stem. This economy of appearance, no leaves nor petals, is perhaps an adaptation to a harsh climate where all the plant's energy is put into producing a big ball of pollen which is large enough to use by any passing insect as a landing strip. The other possibility is that because it grows mainly along streams it is able to adapt to any rising water levels with its overall rhythmic shape. I have yet to try picking a bunch of the flowers so I will be interested to know what their vase life is and whether they dry well. Further details to follow.