Saturday, January 4, 2014

Origanum dictamnus 'Dittany of Crete'

 Origanum dictmamnus 'Dittany of Crete'
As the 'Holy Grail' for herb enthusiasts and something of a 'literary celebrity' in its own right, I was pleased to finally get my hands on this plant recently, though who exactly imported it, or the seed, would be interesting to know, as often such information in the Australian horticultural trade can be a closely guarded secret. While recorded as growing in European gardens as early as 1548 by herbalist William Turner, who wrote in his The Names of Herbs that he had seen it growing in Venice and Antwerp, he did not record its presence in English gardens until his 1568 Herball in which he wrote: " I have seen Dittany growing in England in Maister Riches garden naturally, but it groweth nowhere else that I know saving only Candy" ( the old name for Crete) The Hortus Kewensis confirms Turner and lists Dittany of Crete as "cultivated in 1551 by Mr John Rich". 
Fast forward to the early 20th century, in the US, the records of The Herb Society of America pinpoint its arrival there to the year 1936, brought over from Crete by one of its members, Mrs Ellery Sedgwick. who had procured a plant there from a woman who had been her cook in New York. Up until then herb growers had only been able to see what this ancient herb looked like from the specimen in the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University which had been collected in 1846 by Theodor Von Heldreich, Director of the Athens Botanic Garden. As Mrs Sedgwick recalled "The herb was some five inches high and had five or six little labiate flowers with protruding stamens at the ends of its branches, and resembled exactly the pictures of the specimens of Dittany at the Gray Herbarium of Harvard. Interest in the plant had also been sparked by the publication of the findings by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) in his four volume Palace of Minos at Knossos (Macmillan Co. Publishers) where it was depicted on a fresco of birds perched amongst Cretan plants, this Caravanserai gave a window into the civilization of 1500 B.C..Sir Arthur was obviously a sharp eyed plantsman for he had already seen the wild plant growing in the crevices of rocks and described it as having 'rounded leaves like Pennyroyal ...lilac veined and covered with soft downy hairs, with a flower of a delicate purple hue emerging from a cluster of overlapping bracts 'and 'answering Virgil's description' In Virgil's Aeneid (29BC-19BC) Bk X11 tells of Venus helping to heal the wound of Aeneas.
"A branch of healing Dittany she brought
Which in the Cretan fields with care she sought.
Rough in the stem, which woolly leaves surround.
The leaves with flowers, the flowers with purple crowned.
Well known to goats; a sure relief
To draw the pointed steel and ease the grief."
The poem references goats which had long been observed nibbling on 'this sacred herb of Crete'  when wounded as an aid in their recovery.
So getting down to the nitty gritty of growing it in a climate which is just not like Greece in any way shape or form is a challenge. I am growing it in a pot in a mix of sand and perlite, not watering it much and keeping my fingers crossed that it survives the coastal humidity this summer. Taking cuttings to ensure a backup supply is advised for those like me who struggle to grow plants out of their comfort zone.
2017 update: Sadly lost my plant of it.

The Partridge Fresco from Pavilion of Caravanserai 
 Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete

Theophrastus (371 BC - 287 BC)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Captain Charles Louis Hope'

 Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Captain Charles Louis Hope'
This Hibiscus is shaded an interesting colour. Though technically described as 'light lime' it is closer, in certain lights, to a custard yellow or to a 'key lime pie'. The suffused deep rose centre is appealing and much like a beetroot stain on a t shirt might appear at this time of year.
It is a Queenslander and was bred by Alex Scott from a pod parent of 'Surfrider' and a pollen parent of 'Red Stripe', growing into a large bushy shrub with good glossy foliage.
I am intrigued why the name 'Charles' was included in the fore-name as it is not mentioned in the Australian Dictionary of Biography for the 'Honorable' Captain Louis Hope (1817-1894), the so called 'Father of the Australian sugar industry'. This is assuming that this Hibiscus was named in his honour.
 In 1864 Hope erected Queensland's first sugar mill at his property Ormiston on the banks of Hilliard's creek in Cleveland, Morteon Bay, using exploited/indentured labour ie. black slaves from the South Sea Islands while completely displacing the traditional landowners, the Koobenpul people, who left behind as evidence of their culture 'Bora rings' and 'canoe trees'. To his credit, Hope was an enthusiastic horticulturalist, importing thousands of plants for his extravagant garden at Ormiston, which included a scarlet Hibiscus arch of interwoven branches under which carriages were able to shelter. Little remained of the garden by the middle of the 20th century, over-taken in the sub-tropical heat by rampant Lantana and Bougainvillea. It was given a makeover in the early 1980's with a planting of Camellias and Agapanthus.  The garden includes a memorial Cairn to Hope which was erected in 1935. Ormiston House is a fine example of colonial architecture and is open to the public for numerous  events throughout the year.

Sansevieria in flower

Sansevieria ssp. flowering stem
Sansevieria or 'Mother-in-laws-Tongue' can be tricky to grow outdoors in climates outside the tropics. I have given up trying to grow some species as each year during winter they develop brown spots on the leaves which often turn mushy and rot out or the top leaves burn off and die downwards. They are a tough plant however and new shoots appear in summer from the massive rhizomatious root system which has the power to break through plastic pots in search of new ground to conquer. Flowering stems appear from time to time over summer and these always draw the eye as they seem like an explosion of greenish yellow petals. The red or orange fruits which follow ripen slowly and these contain seed which are fairly easy to germinate though new plants are slow to reach a good size. Propagation is more easily carried out by division of mature plants. In the meantime my collection of Sansevieria plants languish at the back of the Nursery and only occasionally get a once over tidy up such is their ability to survive with just the water that falls as rain.