Monday, February 26, 2007

A wedding and a wonderful weekend in Wanganui

On a recent sunny weekend, the Head Gardener and I travelled to Wanganui to attend a friend’s wedding, and to catch up with some of my family, the River City being my father’s ancestral homeland.
More years ago than either of us care to remember I took my then new girlfriend, now the Head Gardener, to Wanganui for a day trip. We looked around the art gallery and the museum then made out way up to Virginia Lake. High on the hill above the lake stands a glasshouse proudly called the “Winter Garden.” I managed to convince my beloved that this garden was a gift by my family to the good people of Wanganui, a deception neither of us have forgotten, and one of us has not forgiven.
So this weekend, on our way to the wedding on St Johns Hill, we went back to the lake and the gardens. I have been a few times in recent years and have been a bit disappointed in the plantings but this time around we were very impressed with the garden – but not with the lake. We had been warned that the city had been experiencing a paucity of precipitation (borne out by the very dry looking gardens and lawns) and that the lake was suffering. It was cowpat green and giving off a most unpleasant odour. We didn’t get too close to the lake at all.
The first thing I was taken with was a bedding display in the large lawns in front of the “Winter Gardens.” It was a grand circular bed filled with two different French marigolds. These marigolds were past their best and many had seeded. As a result of the seeding a multitude of sparrows and other seed-eating birds had colonized the flower bed and were busy scoffing the autumnal harvest.
The real highlight of the bed though was the large planting of the bright red perennial lobelia, L. cardinalis, that was providing a convenient roost for the many small birds.
This is a Mexican species with beetroot red foliage - in fact, it is well worth growing this plant for the foliage alone -but its crowing glory is the brightest scarlet red flowers that top the deep foliage in summer.
Despite coming from Mexico, this flamboyant dark-skinned beauty prefers slightly damp soils, in full sun. It will grow perfectly well in normal garden soil but can also grow in the margins of the pool. The dark red foliage dies almost completely away over the winter so do not go thinking that the plant has died – it is just taking a well-deserved rest. It can be divided at this stage and replanted, but it also grows easily from its fine seed.
The most common form of L. cardinalis is the one called ‘Queen Victoria’ with slightly deeper red foliage. There are green leaved forms but to me it seems pointless to grow these when the red leaves are half the point of the flower. I think it looks best when planted with light green foliage or flowers (the lime-green Nicotiana looks stunning with it) or grey foliage and/or white flowers.
There are a number of hybrids available in the market, largely derived by crossing L. cardinalis (so named from the cardinal red flowers) with the North American L. siphlitica (I’ll leave you to work out what medicinal use gave this species its name). This is a blue flowered species with green foliage, although there is a lovely white flowered form around too, just called ‘Alba.’
There are now varieties in most shades from white through pink and mauve, to red, blue and purple. Among these is the very popular ‘Cinnabar Rose’, with rose pink flowers.
After photographing the Lobelias, and scaring the sparrows, we made our way up into the “Winter Gardens” themselves, a complex of a large display glasshouse and an attached “Beach to Bush” garden.
Scattered through both the interior and exterior gardens are lots of statuary and garden ornaments. I am a plant lover and such ornamentation usually leaves me unmoved, but on this occasion I was pleasantly surprised as the decoration blended in well – except, I have to say, for a large red and gold concoction, looking like an over-sized Christmas bauble.
The first thing to take everyone’s eyes as they entered the glasshouse was the stupendous display of enormous tuberous begonias. These are largely named varieties (they are labelled discretely but it is easy to see what varieties they are) and they are all grown in large bucket-sized pots. They are staked and supported and the floral display has to be seen to be believed.
At the wedding reception I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for a couple of years, and asked after her parents. She pulled out her digital camera and showed me a photograph she had taken earlier that day. It showed her father looking resplendent among the begonia display!
The tuberous begonias and their associated pot plants like bromeliads, impatiens and orchids are obviously thriving in the constant warmth and relatively high humidity in the glasshouse. I loved a Japanese influenced garden, complete with white impatiens to replace the traditional azaleas, bamboos and statues.
I strolled through the sandy part of the ‘Beach to Bush’ garden too, having a wry smile at the beach-like atmosphere created, complete with half-buried torsos and beach chairs.
The bush part of the area is a blue-shaded lathe house – a sort of shade house with thin slats of wood creating the shade. It was filled with native plants – ferns, perennials and some lovely creeping fuchsias – but I was very surprised to see that the bush was underplanted with bright red begonias!
At first I was a bit taken aback, but I am sure the gardeners and designers were making a point about how we should be using our native plants to create gardens, not replicas of native forest, and how a little humour in the garden can provide a lightened effect.
And for the lady gardeners the really important news. The bride was exceptionally beautiful, and the bridegroom made the most entertaining and romantic speech at the reception. All the ladies at our table were ooo-ing and ahh-ing.

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