Sunday, June 27, 2010

I was looking through some of my gardening books on Saturday, as I recuperated from a period outside in that awful windy and wet weather. As often happens, I did not find what I was looking for, and, as usual, it was my own fault – I got sidetracked by a remarkable coincidence.   Two different books on perennials described themselves as being the definitive one, “from Acanthus to Zauschneria.”
What is interesting is that both these name are probably unfamiliar to anything other than keen gardeners, although one of them is, or rather was, quite a common plant.
The most famous of the many species of Acanthus is the plant known to generations of gardeners as ‘Bears Breeches’, A. mollis.   This is a handsome perennial with shining, green leaves whose distinctive cut shape is replicated in architectural decoration, most famously atop Corinthian columns.  As well as a good show of luxuriant looking foliage, the plant carries a wonderful flower show – spikes of purple bracts that enclose white flowers, up to 1.8 metres high.
This plant is at its best in light shade, with good shelter and a deep moist soil but it can be a bit invasive, spreading by deeply buried rhizomes, and, once established, is tricky to remove entirely.  It is a valuable plant for the edge of woodland or in semi-wild areas, but perhaps not one to introduce into the most valuable spaces in the garden.
There is an interesting golden foliaged form around, originating in the Hollard garden at Kaponga in Taranaki, called ‘Hollards Gold’.  It is very attractive but is just about as persistent.
The only other species sometimes seen in New Zealand is a prickly customer, as it the name A. spinosus suggests.  In contrast to the above, it has lanceolate leaves, heavily dissected almost to the midrid, and also carries a smattering of soft spines.  Unlike the above, this prefers full sun and a well-drained soil, and is often seen with other spiky sunlovers, such as agaves and aloes.
The other end of the alphabet, the Zauschneria is not as popular as it should be in New Zealand, as it is a bright and cheerful perennial with a lot going for it.  As its common name of ‘Californian Fuchsia’ suggests, it is a native of western North America, and it forms a dense bush from a woody rootstock.  The grey/green foliage is topped through the summer and into the autumn with brilliant scarlet flowers, tubular in shape, reminiscent of fuchsias.
This is an easily grown plant in full sun and well-drained soils, where it will easily grow about 40 cm across and about 50 cm high.  There is a white form around, which is pretty enough in its own way, but the red is the thing with this plant, so get that one if you can find it.  It can be increased by division over the winter, but it strikes readily from semi-softwood cuttings in the spring and I think that is the easier way to go.
Another California perennial that is seldom seen is the amazing Californian Tree Poppy, Romney coulteri, which has the most glorious semi-transparent delicately crinkled white flowers,  about 150 mm across.   I guess it is best described as a sub-shrub, as it does form a sort of woody base, growing to about 1.5 metres high and around that wide too, but it best treated as though it is an herbaceous perennial, and cut back each year.
The foliage is grey-green again, very deeply cut,  and the flowers are borne in clusters of up to 20 on the end of long stems which branch at the top.  These flowers, which can be cut for the house although they have an unusual fruity scent, are carried through the spring and into the summer.
This plant is very particular about where it will grow.  It needs good drainage and full sun – it simply will not do well in the shade or damp – but then it presents another problem.  If it likes where it is growing it can grow too well, and be a bit of a pest.  It spreads with runners from its fleshy roots (root cuttings are the best way to increase it) and in well-drained sandy soils it can be a bit of a pest.


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