Monday, March 12, 2007

Dame Edna would be proud

Gladiolus 'Nymph'

As I write this it is Sunday evening and it is very hot - our late and dry summer continues without abatement. In the un-watered parts of our garden things are very dry and in paddocks all around our district the naked ladies have made their appearance, splashes of bright pink showing against the straw shades of the pasture.
I refer to the bulbs, Amaryllis belladonna, of course, rather than unclothed female members of the rural community.
I have had a trying week. My seed from the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris was found to have a slight fungal infection when it arrived at the border in Auckland International Airport. As a result it has had to all be destroyed. Although I am slightly frustrated, I so understand why they did what they did, and I support the work that the inspectors do, so I’ll just have to grin and bear it. I have a lot of seed from my own crosses, and as others lost their seed at the border, I’ll share that around with some of the other growers.
I have been cursing the very dry season too. Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year and I love looking through the bulbs on offer in nurseries, working out what I am going to plant this season. I have to say that the warm and dry garden has put me off a little, but this weekend I did go down to the garden shop to select a few bulbs.
I have grown to love Gladiolus as I have aged, not something I might have predicted. Their showy flowers are sometimes difficult to place properly in the garden, but I grow a few for the house in my picking garden and wouldn’t be without them now.
This is, of course, not the right time to be planting florists’ gladiolus, the type most of us grow, but the dwarf forms should be planted now. I already a large clump or two of these, but I have added a few more varieties this season.
These are usually sold as Gladiolus nanus, but this name seems to have no authority. It is just used to describe the dwarf early flowering forms. They are unlike the larger florist forms, and although they are a similar size to the summer flowering “butterfly” gladiolus they are much more wild-flower looking.
These “nanus” forms should probably be called G. colvillei, the name given to winter-flowering hybrids based on G. tristis and G. cardinalis.
G. tristis is a highly scented species from South Africa, sometime available from specialist bulb nurseries. It usually has slightly insipid flowers but it makes up for that by having the most wonderful scent, especially noticeable at night. As you would expect G. cardinalis is bright red flowered. It is also likely that G. carneus is involved as many hybrids have flashes of colour on their bottom petals very reminiscent of this species.
Perhaps the most famous of these the variety known as ‘The Bride’; it has white flowers with a greenish centre to each flower, giving a very cool look in the garden. ‘Nymph’ is another very reliable older form. In this case the white flowers have cream markings on the bottom three petals, each cream area being surrounded with a thick carmine pencil line. These two are both very hardy and long-lasting varieties, and both do well in my garden.
This year I am adding ‘Halley’ and ‘Charming Lady.’ I hadn’t seen ‘Halley’ before and was taken with its creamy yellow flowers, set of with a red throat, colours more usually associated with the larger hybrids. I assumed that it was a new form – I was somewhat taken aback to stumble across a reference to it in a 1917 garden journal! The journal recommended planting this with yellow Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) but as I have only just this year managed to weed out the last of the white ones I planted nearly ten years ago I don’t think I’ll be doing that! I think I’ll plant them in the garden I have filled with other yellow flowers. I think it will flower about the same time as the white and yellow freesias.
“Charming Lady” is quite different to the foregoing, in that it has pale pink flowers shoot through with lilac. It is lighter in the centre. I have a garden with Alliums and other spring flowering bulbs and I think these colours will all go together very well.
At the other end of the flowering season – about now in fact- comes another fabulous Gladiolus species – well, it is now, but for most of my gardening career it was an Acidanthera. The botanists have rightly decided that it is in fact a Gladiolus – it will even cross with the large flowered hybrids.
This is another South African species with hooded white flowers and showy maroon blotches, coupled with an attractive scent. It is sometimes called Peacock Gladiolus, or even Peacock Orchids, although it is, of course, not remotely related to orchids. When crossed with the larger flowered forms some scent is brought across with the genes, but this is soon swamped in further crosses, so the elusive scented florists’ gladiolus looks as far away as ever.
All of these species prefer well-drained soil and will cope with full sun without any bother. In the hardest of climates they need lifting for winter but nothing in our region should pose any threat to them. You might need to keep an eye out for thrips in a dry season though. Apart from that they are plant-and-forget plants.

Monday, March 05, 2007

I have had a bit of a ‘herby’ weekend this weekend, as is befitting the weekend leading up to ‘Herb Awareness Week.’ I spent Sunday morning tidying up my back flower border and planting a gift rose. The international nursery responsible for releasing ‘White Romance’ rose onto the market contacted me about my scepticism about it replacing ‘Iceberg’, and has given me a plant to trial.
I saw “White Romance” for the first time this spring and I think it is a fabulous rose. Whether it replaces “Iceberg” is another matter, but next summer I will report on how this very double, and very romantic-looking, rose has done in my garden.
I cleaned the rest of the garden up while I was at it, pulling out some of the free-seeding perennials that had got out of hand. This includes some hybrid marjoram, seedlings from Origanum ‘Rosenkuppel.’ I planted this about seven years ago and it has gradually spread through the southern end of the border. It is easy to pull out, and at this time of the year when if shows its lovely heads of flowers – white on some plants, pinkish mauve on others - so I haven’t worried too much about it spreading. If it gets too bad I just pluck some leaves to eat with tomatoes!
I had a crack at my corner of basil mint too. I planted this in a pot at the back door a few years ago, but it has really gone troppo and tried to take over everything – I should have known a mint would do that. I find the flavour and scent of this culinary herb too coarse for my taste (I love mint and basil so it seemed like a good ideaat the time of planting) and I wasn’t picking it and keeping it under control, so it has gone. Fortunately there are still plenty of herbs in the garden.
The Herb Federation of New Zealand has selected the International Herb of the Year, Lemon Balm, as their herb of the year too. This is a another member of the ubiquitous mint family although its genus name, Melissa, is derived from the Latin word for a bee. The specific name (officinalis) means “from the shops” so it has obviously been in commerce for a very long time.
As you might expect from a mint cousin, lemon balm is very hardy and makes a clump of stems up to a metre high. It is shallow rooted and, again like its cousins, spreads with creeping rhizomes. The leaves are deliciously scented with tangy lemon.
In late summer this plant covers its self with white flowers and they in turn are covered with bees.
Herbalists have used this plant for hundreds of years as a relaxant. It is said to be useful for calming a over-busy brain and has mild anti-bacterial properties. It is commonly used to make herbal teas, often in association with spearmint. The leaves are often crushed and spread on the skin as a mosquito repellent, and an essential oil derived form the plant is very popular in aromatherapy.
The other traditional European herb being highlighted this week is the golden daisy known to botanists as Taraxacum officinale. This has leaves in a rosette from the base, the leaves being jagged and hairless. Each individual flower is carried aloft on a hollow stem and is the brightest gold imaginable.
It is, of course, the dandelion.
Most of us would be scared to bring any more dandelions into the garden than were able to make their own way there, but in colder climes the dandelion is well-regarded as a salad green, especially in spring when the leaves are not quite so bitter. The roots are collected in autumn and dried and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute. The roots exude white latex that is commonly used to treat warts, topically. Herbalists swear that dandelion has good liver and kidney restorative powers.
I must confess that I am not converted to the use of dandelions – in fact I took a few out today when cleaning up the garden.
I also removed a specimen of one of their native herbs of the year – a koromiko. Regular readers will know that koromikos (Hebes) are among my favourite flowers so I would be reluctant to remove one, but it was one of the own seedlings that was shy at flowering and added nothing new colour-wise to my collection. Besides, I needed the room to plant the “White Romance.”
Koromiko has long been used my Maori as a cure for dysentery and diarrhoea – many pakeha use an infusion for this purpose too- and was an important ingredient of Mother Aubert’s patent medicines.
In most cases the best way to use koromiko is to collect the green unopened tips of a robustly growing plant and steep them in water. Crushed and bruised leaves can also be used as a poultice for a boil.
The other featured native herb is the manuka, Leptospermum scoparium. My back garden features a lovely variety of the ‘Electric Red’, which I limbed up this morning to allow the perennials underneath it to get some light. I’m feeling a little guilty now.
Most of us will be familiar with manuka oil and its many uses – mainly in the pure oil form or in soaps. It has proven antifungal and antibiotic properties, and manuka honey is widely regarded as having beneficial effects on the immune system.
All of these plants are easily grown – in some cases all too easily grown – so present no cultivation challenges. I suggest that they can just be planted in flower beds (except dandelion of course) and treated as part of the normal garden rather than as special herbal plants.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Summer blooming iris

I grow my Pacific Coast Iris seedlings in a slightly unusual manner. Our climate is quite different to their homeland – we have wet and cold winters, and hot and dry summers. They would not survive the summers very well without extra watering, but they do not like having wet feet. My answer has been to grow them in a mulch of bark from Pinus radiata. The Monterey Pine is the most common timber tree in New Zealand, having a phenomenal rate of growth in our climate. As this is so well drained I need to apply summer water.
I think a consequence of that is early flowering of seedlings. I sow my seed in March, prick the seedlings out in late spring and usually plant out the following March. Some of the seedlings will flower the following spring, but usually only one or two each batch. Sometimes a larger number will flower in the summer, probably as a result of the extra watering.
This year one of my older seedlings has had a summer flowering season, a seedling called 2003-109, grown from ‘Cross Purpose’ seed from the SPCNI pool.
It’s pretty enough and I would have kept it in the garden, but it might be useful to breed with more extensively if it passes on its re-blooming characteristics in the following generations. The I can look forward to irises all summer too!