Friday, January 11, 2008

Spikes and all....

I have an intriguing old book on my shelves, a settlers’ guide. It is a compendium of all sorts of information for new settlers heading west across the vast North American landscape. The publishers assumed that there would be a demand for a book that could guide these new adventurers on all aspects of their lives, and they filled the large volume with information on all sorts of things.
There were plans for homesteads and dovecots; information on different cereal crops; details on aspects of veterinary care; sketches of rudimentary surgery needed in times of accident; recipes for fireworks, and of course, a section on gardening.
The gardening section is largely concerned with the provision of foodstuffs for the family, but there are also some pages devoted to ornamental horticulture.
The first time I glanced through these pages I was amused to find a new classification for plant types. This book does not group plants according to their family or genus – instead it states that there are only four types of trees - columnar, round-headed, pyramidal and weeping. It is certainly an interesting way to divide plant types.
This classification system was bought home to me again recently as I have been contacted by a few people about rosette forming plants flowering for their first time, and wanting identification of these plants. In our climes it is almost always one of two plants that people are talking about.
The first of these is one of the most spectacular of all flowering plants, the so-called “Sapphire Tower”, Puya alpestris. This looks for all the world like some kind of weird cactus as it grows. It forms a rosette of greyish-green leaves, symmetrically arranged, and edged with hideously sharp spikes. As the plant matures the rosette gets larger until it is about two metres across.
It then throws up the most amazing flower stem. At first the stem looks like a large silvery asparagus spear, but it grows rapidly until it is about two metres high, then the flowers themselves appear along the stem.
The colour of the individual flowers is almost impossible to adequately describe. I have seen them called “iridescent, peacock bluish-green” by an author, who then confessed that he found the flowers impossible to describe, and said the colour could not be found on any colour chart.
These flowers are set off my bright orange anthers, and last about three or four days, although a succession of flowers will give a relatively long flowering season.
This exotic beauty is in fact of the vast bromeliad family, hailing from Chile, making it a distant cousin of the pineapple. It seems to be quite hardy in our area, as I have seen plenty of plants growing out in the open. Most bromeliads are very particular about having good drainage so I suspect that would be its prime cultural requirement, and plenty of summer moisture.
It is not often seen in garden centres, but if you are looking for a really exciting accent plant for your garden, it is well worth hunting this beauty out. Do not plant it too close to the front door though, unless you are trying to discourage door-to-door salesmen, as the spikes will happily spear anyone or anything that gets to close.

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