Sunday, April 25, 2010

Little berried treasures

A recent trip to the South Island had many highlights, but one of the was an early Sunday morning stroll through the Christchurch Botanic Garden, looking and photographing the many horticultural treasures the garden contains. 
I spent some time conversing with another early morning riser in the Curator’s House vegetable patch.  He was, he delighted in telling me, a European, although he seemed to me to have a perfectly New Zealand accent.
His origin was a talking point as we discussed the flavour of the little New Zealand cranberries, Myrtus ugni, that were heavily in fruit.  He pinched a few of the bright red berries and chomped on them enthusiastically.  He said he was puzzled that I did not share his predilection for this Chilean native.
For those of you not familiar with this little shrub, it is a small growing evergreen shrub from South America, with small glossy dark green leaves that are spicy if crushed. In spring they bear small drooping white flowers which are followed by small pink to red fruit, which can be born from March to May.  They have a very peculiar fragrance and taste – something sweet surely, but underlain by a turpentine flavour. 
My fellow visitor insisted that I was displaying my British origins, and if I was European I would love the flavour, as the more sophisticated European palate prefers the slightly turpentine flavour of the berry.  I cannot say I was convinced, but being a basically affable sort of guy I agreed with him, and we happily went our separate ways.
The clever gardeners had used the cranberries as a hedge at the edge of the vegetable plot because it forms an easily trimmed barrier that can be kept relatively short, and will also not rob the garden of too much nutriment. This smart little plant will also look good as a part of a shrubbery, and I have even seen it used an espalier and as a subject for topiary.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Christchurch plants

I was standing at the counter in my local supermarket when a lady came up to me, asking me to identify a plant she had seen on a garden tour.  She did not have it with her and could only give a vague description – it was a perennial with blue flowers and did not grow very tall.  I was very confused at first, but then she gave me the crucial piece of information – the flowers were sort of everlasting.
I knew then what it was – but it took a bit of head scratching before I finally managed to dig the name out of the dark recesses of my mind – Limonium perezii.  It is not a plant I had seen for a few years, but at one time it was very popular.
In the late eighties there was a bit of a passion for growing everlasting flowers for the market, and lots of small paddocks were planted with row upon row of everlasting daisies and annual statice plants.  The fad did not last very long and the paddocks were returned to ponies, or perhaps upgraded to alpacas.
But the craze did engender a bit of interest in some of the more unusual members of the statice, including this intriguing plant, so I was intrigued to see clumps of this Canary Island native in a perennial border in a recent visit to the Christchurch Botanic Garden on a recent visit.
The border stretched along a long stretch from the museum entrance down towards the hot house, and featured a great range of cool climate perennials, as well as a few warmer ones.  It was long past its best, with lots of dead flower heads on view, but it still had lots of interest.
Limonium perezii is sometimes called Prez’s sea lavender, and is one of many valuable garden plants from the Canary Islands.  It has a woody rhizome, from which tough bright green leaves about 30 cm long, emerge, followed by a stiff panicle of flowers.  The flowers are small, with purple sepals and white petals, but they are carried exuberantly.  They look fine on their own, but even better when grown in clumps.  They associate well with other Mediterranean plants like lavender, rosemary and bearded irises.
As a matter of interest, these have slightly naturalised themselves in warm parts of California.  I do not think they would be a problem here, but I also know they are relatively easy to grow from seed, as I have done it!
There are many species in this genus but not that many worth growing in the garden.  The very best is almost impossible to buy in New Zealand – the wonderful pink flowered shrubby South African species I knew as L. roseum, but now called L. peregrinum. This grows to about two metres and with bright green leaves.  It is covered with panicles of pink flowers, which fade as they age.  It is very difficult to grow and not even easy to propagate, but it is a thing of rare beauty.  I grew some from seed gathered from a friend’s plant and was able to sell them all very quickly.

Monday, April 05, 2010

All the way from Amsterdam

When I say I have a mania for tulips I do not want you to get the idea that I have caught the obscure Dutch disease of the 17th century and mortgaged the house, sold the car, traded in the Head Gardener and bought sacks filled to the brim with tulip bulbs.  Because things really did get that extreme in Holland at one time. The rarest of the varieties sold for 10 times the annual salary of a tradesman.  Assuming you plumber makes about $60,000 a year, that is $600,000 for one bulb!
Now I am mad about bulbs, and I love tulips, but that amount of money almost beggars belief.  And of course, it was not about the bulbs at all – the whole sensation was perhaps the first economic bubble.  As long as more and more money kept chasing less and less bulbs, the price was forced up, and up, until it all fell down in a heap.  Remind you of anything that has happened recently, with finance companies and house prices?
Still, we can count ourselves lucky because we can buy bulbs at a severely discounted price to 1637, and can afford to splash out and buy enough of these bulbs to make a solid effect.
Normally, I would be against the idea of bulk planting bulbs.  The flowering season is too short and if you get bad weather in the middle of that season, you miss out on a whole year’s worth of blooms.  But I am prepared to make an exception for tulips.  The effect of the massed plantings in the Wellington Botanical Gardens is genuinely amazing – even our non-gardening son was impressed with the display and wandered around taking photographs.
Tulips are relatively easy to grow and flower, for the first year at least.  They will have been grown in ideal conditions over the previous growing season, and the flower will have been formed and lock in deep within the bulbs.  All you need to do is provide it the right conditions and it will sprout forth for you next spring.
There are a few little tricks to bear in mind.  In our conditions it pays to plant tulip bulbs a little later in the season that most other bulbs.  They need a proper period of chilling before they will bloom properly, so it pays to buy pre-chilled bulbs, or to hold off planting until the season is a little cooler.  For warmer areas you can even plant into June, but I would think you would be best to get your bulbs in by the end of this month, or perhaps into early May.