Saturday, August 31, 2013

Corsican Mint, Mentha requienii

 Cheers to spring with Le Grasshopper cocktail
made fresh with Corsican mint
 Corsican Mint, Mentha requienii
Recently I have been hanging out at some French websites and blogs looking for information on this, one of their native plants. I was able to discover the history of the man behind this mint as well as a terrific recipe for mousse au chocolat which uses Corsican mint as an ingredient. 
I grow mine in a pot with a saucer of water underneath. It likes a cool shady spot and pictorial labels at nurseries will often claim it can be grown as a ground cover between paving stones and walked on, however the climate here is too dry and variable for this to be achieved without sub-surface irrigation and a lot of spare time to weed amongst the "carpet". Good luck to those who try. In a pot it can be kept on a table where it can be stroked like a pet cat to release the fragrance from the leaves and to recall the eminent Frenchman Esprit Requien (1788-1852) who grew up in Avignon and had a great passion for the natural world of plants and animals found in his region. He is forever remembered in that city by the natural history museum he helped establish, Le Museum Requien at 67 rue Joseph Vernet, as well as for his conservation efforts to save the medieval parts of the town from demolition during the 19th Century. As a young botanist he travelled to Corsica, documenting the flora of the island, and naming many new species. Imagine his delight at discovering this mint and how pungent and fragrant the leaves would have been to his senses especially if the day was hot and he had found a shady spot to rest. Requien obviously fell in love with the island and died at age 64 at Bonifacio, a town in the extreme south of Corsica, a place where the language merges with the Italian of Sardinia just across the water.
Buste d'Esprit Requien, Botanic Garden, Avignon
photo: Veronique Pagnier
Requien was one of the first scientists to develop the concept of "phytosociology" in his work with the flora of the famous Mont Ventoux describing how different plants and animals are associated with different altitudes.

Esprit Requien (1788-1852)
Recently the Museum Requien held an exhibition on Australian fauna and flora. I am sure he would have found this country a fascinating place to visit.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Coecogyne cristata

 Coecogyne cristata
About eighteen months ago I was given this pot containing an unidentified orchid as a thankyou for doing a plant delivery. I placed it in a semi shaded spot, and, apart from the occasional watering, it hadn't received much attention. Then a week or so ago I noticed a couple of long stems hanging over the side of the pot, two streamers of flower buds. The buds were enclosed in a curious coffee stained envelope which made me think it had been sunburned or damaged by the wind. Then this 'keel' fell away and lovely fragrant white flowers emerged. It turns out to be a cool climate epiphytic orchid from the Himalayas and a 'good variety for beginners' which is just my ticket. Apparently it flowers when winter snow is melting and can tolerate quite a wide range of climates, being popular as a houseplant in Europe for that reason. In Germany it goes by the name of schneekonigin or 'snow queen' which makes it sound like a brand of ice-cream.
While I am not about to bitten by the orchid collecting bug, it is nice to have a few varieties in the garden as part of the spring flower scene especially as they demand so little attention to make them look fabulous.
 I don't have any 'how to grow orchids' books but I can recommend these two as good 'who-done-it' adventure style mystery books on the subject. Susan Orlean's funny and sad The Orchid Thief was made into the terrific movie Adaptation which had Meryl Streep playing journalist Orlean and is a must see for anyone who collects plants or who runs a plant Nursery.

Eric Hansen's Orchid Fever is a real eye-opener into the bureaucratic world of 'CITES' plant conservation/protection and the obsessive world of plant collectors who pay big dollars for the truly rare and exotic.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Geranium x monacense 'Muldoon'

Geranium x maonacense 'Muldoon'
Not another 'bloody cranesbill' I hear you say; to use a really bad horticultural pun. I have been growing this geranium for about a year and this is the first time I have had flowers from it. I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by the flower colour which could be described as a muddy purple, though the centre white circle does bring it to life somewhat. I 'photoshopped' the colour to make it more of a cerise pink so you will have to take my word for it. This plant is a hybrid between G. phaeum and G. reflexum ,so has the tall wispy flower stem of the former and the reflexed petals of the latter. It is an absolute shade lover and only flowers in spring and early summer. By mid summer expect it to look a bit scruffy, as mine did last year, so perhaps this one is really more suited to a fairly cool temperate climate. The lobed leaves have an interesting purple black mark on their edge and mine is showing a bit of white variegation though this may disappear over time. 
 I can only really muster faint praise for this Geranium as it has little to offer compared to varieties such as G 'Khan' or G 'Rozanne' with their showy cupped flowers.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Geranium x sanguineum 'Khan'

 Geranium x sanguineum 'Khan' syn. 'Wisley Hybrid'
Sounds like Englishman Allan Robinson had a bit of a fight on his hands with RHS Wisley when this Geranium came to be recognised as his own discovery. It is thought to be a hybrid between G. sanguineum and G. wlassouianum and was named for his beloved cat (Genghis) Khan. The flowers are very telling such is their brilliant magenta colour and for their appearance well above the 40cm mound of neat leaves. "Look at me.....look at me!" it screams, especially on a dull day.

 Up close the buds are very hairy, but are pussy cat soft and not bristly stiff.
 Ten out of ten for this Geranium as it fights for my attention from the dwarf Bougainvillea 'Zulu' which is also in flower at the moment.

Geranium sessiliiflorum x traversii 'Sea-Spray'

Geranium x 'Seaspray'
 It's sea-spray of the the wild north of Scotland variety which is where this little Geranium hails from; the Orkney Islands to be precise, a place with a climate tempered by the Gulf Stream which means it stays consistently cool but not freezing. Ground hugging as a defense against wind and with pale pink flowers on short stems and pewter coloured scalloped leaves this is a delightful garden plant for a partly shaded garden spot or as a hardy pot plant which can cope with drying out.
I grew this many years ago and have decided to give it another go because the colour combination of the foliage and flowers is quite unique.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Cat Grass Kit

 'Feline Groovy' Sammy
 Over the weekend I planted out the very neat Mr Fothergill's Cat Grass Kit.
 It's 'neat' in the cool, well designed sense of the word, a perfect package for apartment dwellers or for those who keep their cats indoors like we all should. Interesting to see a 'Made in Canada' label on this product which made me think of all those snow bound cats in a Canadian winter dreaming of green grass.
So this kit consists of a packet of cat grass seeds, and a mini greenhouse with an expandable Jiffy pot of instant growing medium of the just add water variety. The pictures below explain how it works. The packet of seeds is generous so that consecutive sowings can be made over many months.

 You add 300ml of warm water to the Jiffy pot and wait a few minutes for it to absorb all the water. Then you poke a couple of holes in the base of the container and spread out the soil with a little knife. Now the instructions say to poke the holes in first but you may end up with a big puddle on your kitchen bench if you do.
 Seed planted
 Completed, this little greenhouse generates enough moisture so you don't really need to water the seed again but just keep an eye on it. This is not the end of the story and I will update the post as the seed grows and develops. This kit retails for $5.95 and would make a terrific present for cat lovers. It is available from the Mr Fothergill's website as per this link:
Seeds, Vegetable Seeds, Flower Seeds and Herb Seeds
 Update: This is the germinated seed after a couple of weeks. This can be given to your cat as is or potted into larger pots so it has a chance to grow bigger. Impress your friends by giving them the botanical name for it: Dactylis glomerata

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Norman J Sparnon

 Norman James Sparnon OAM (1913-1995)
Ikebana Master
 Norman Sparnon was born in Melbourne and is remembered there by a plaque in Jells Park, Glen Waverley, where he planted a tree in 1984 to celebrate 25 years of Ikebana International in Australia. As a young man he became absorbed by the learning of written and spoken Japanese and following his service as an Army Major during World War 2, he went to Japan to serve in peace time redevelopment, eventually living there from 1945 to 1958.
One day he went along to an Ikebana class his wife Mary was attending, to act as an interpreter, and became hooked on all aspects of Japanese floral art. "I was captured by the art right from the beginning. I felt I'd found something that matched up with my personality" he recalled later at the launch of one of his books. On return to Australia he lived in the Sydney suburb of Darling Point where he had a studio and ran an Ikebana school in the 1960's and 1970's , teaching both the classical Ikenobo and modern Sogetsu styles of the art. For Norman it was always far more than just flower arranging,"You become so very close to nature and understanding it." he said.
These days his timeless  books are fetching high prices and his last from 1970 The Poetry of Leaves sells for about $250.00. Trouble is you may just have to go to New York City to buy a copy, such is his influence outside this country.

 His first book from 1960
The illustrations below are of his use of camellias. In 1968 he wrote a book called The Magic of Camellias with E G Waterhouse
 Modern 'moribana' arrangement of quince and camellia

 Window arrangement with camellia and fasciated willow

 Red-lacquer plate with lichen covered pine and camellia

 Shoka arrangement of Ikenobo School
Single flower 'Ichirin' with incense burner

 Nagiere arrangement of quince and camellia
by Sofu Teshigahara founder of the Sogetsu School

 Pine and camellia in 'shin' arrangement

'tsubaki' = Camellia japonica
'to-tsubaki' = Camellia reticulata
'sazanka' = Camellia sasanqua
To prevent camellia flowers from falling in an arrangement, apply damp salt to the base of the stamens by means of a match.

The 'true blood' Camellia

 Earlier this year The University of Adelaide offered The Art of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) as a free 'ebook' available for digital download. It was interesting to become reacquainted with this decorative artist who saw things as a pattern of black and white, influenced by, among other things, the Japanese woodblock print and who used the 'Japanese rose' or camellia as a motif in his work, for decorating voluminous kimono style clothes or as background wallpaper.
 'The Dancer's' Reward' from Salome
In feudal Japanese culture, the camellia was associated with beheading by a samurai. It was given this association because the flower drops to the ground intact,with the ground below a big camellia bush often littered with still perfect flowers as if after a battle. The short vase life of the flower still has some modern superstition attached to it, in that it is not given to a hospital patient or used in a flower arrangement unless accompanied by a longevity symbol plant such as a pine.

 La Dame aux Camelias 
Volume 3 of 'The Yellow Book'
Beardsley had another reason to have the camellia as his favourite flower. He had met Alexandre Dumas, the author of La Dame aux Camelias at Puy in France and was smitten with the subject matter of the book; about a young courtesan who dies young. Beardsley already knew his days were numbered and he died of Tuberculous at the age of 26. A copy of La Dame aux Camelias was placed in his coffin.

 'The Black Cape' from Salome
 In the 1960's there was a revival of interest in Beardsley as much of his subject matter had appeared too shocking for previous generations. Life Magazine in 1967 included some fashion shots with his work as background.
Mrs Harilaos Theodoracopulous wears an Adolfo camellia hat with a Bill Blass cocktail dress.....

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Camellia garden

The Camellia garden at the Illawarra Rhododendron Gardens
What I like about this garden is that the Camellia japonica varieties are semi hidden behind a Camellia sasanqua hedge. There is a gap in the hedge where you enter into a shady nook with a winding path so the big C japonica varieties can be seen up close. In the background, the tall gum trees provide some shade and valuable leaf litter mulch.
Though they are very nice to enjoy when in flower, these Camellias present a fairly gloomy and stiff picture for most of the year. I have come around to thinking it is the Camellia reticulata varieties which are the most desirable, though as scarce as hen's teeth in the nursery scene. They are more open in habit as shrubs and more flamboyant in their appearance as flowers. 
The camellia as a symbol of worldly vanities as apposed to humble virtue, is shown in this Victorian era English picture. The actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) is tempted by the bold but scentless Camellias while holding violets in her hand.

'Choosing' 1864
George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Ellen Terry is wearing her wedding dress in a very fetching colour ! She married Watts in that year but stayed married to him for less than a year.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pelargonium sidoidies

Pelargonium sidoidies
This small shrubby geranium (H 30cm W 60cm) leads something of a double life as it is regarded here as a promising low water use ground cover or 'path edger', while in its African homeland it has a long history as a medicinal plant. In Zulu it is known as Umckaloabo which roughly translates as 'heavy cough' referring to its use for respiratory complaints. The small deep maroon flowers appear on the ends of wiry stems which zigzag from the centre of a neat mound of scalloped grey leaves. Frost hardy and tough, it would be home amongst succulents or as balcony pot plant unfazed by strong wind or salty air.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Bogan Fuchsia

The inclusion this year of the humble garden gnome in the RHS Chelsea Flower Show could be seen as a sign that any expression of gardening from whatever class or background you come from is justified and should not be judged on matters of taste. In Australia the celebration of the suburban bogan is certainly welcome on our TV screens.
In Australian literature, Patrick White had great affection for bogan characters in his dusty suburban Sarsparilla of the late 1950's and early sixties. In the short story Down at the Dump, the garden of Wal and Isba Whalley has a big Camphor Laurel tree (Cinnamomum camphora) which is 'lopped back every few years for firewood', its trunk scarred by son Lum who slashes at the bark with a knife 'because it was something you did'. Out back standing in knee high paspalum grass is the two-tone Ford Customline...'it looked stolen and almost was ...the third payment overdue' while the twins Barry and Garry, looking like a couple of 'taffy brumbies', play in a rusty boiler they use as a cubby.
Across the road in a liver-coloured brick home with a cream Holden Special in the driveway lives Councillor Les and Myrtle Hogben and their daughter Meg. On the cool side of the house grow tall fuchsia bushes with a ground cover of aluminium plant (Lamium galeobdolon) Meg, dressed in her brown school uniform, is thin and freckly with the eyes of a 'mopey cat'. She hides from her mother, 'standing amongst the fuchsia bushes looking out from their greenish shade. Her skin was green except where the war between light and shade worried her face into scraps: and the fuchsia tassels trembling against her unknowing cheek, infused something of their own blood, brindled her with shifting crimson. Only her eyes resisted.'
White wrote later of these characters in 'Letters' (edited by David Marr) ....but Meg Hogben and Mum Whalley are the pure, the truthful, those of whom we may have hopes in the future.'