Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shining examples

When we select new plants for our garden we go through a sort of checklist.  We will include all sorts of different attributes for consideration as we think about our garden – flower colour, foliage colour, foliage shape, maybe even foliage texture – but we seldom think of how well the foliage reflects light. 
It might sound like a slightly daft thing to be weighing up when choosing plants, but it does have quite a bearing on how we perceive the plant in the garden, especially in winter when light levels are lower.  A plant that has a soft surface, covered with fine hairs for example, will absorb much of the light it receives, giving a soft reflection.  On the other hand, plants with highly glossy leaves will reflect back much of the light, giving them a brighter appearance.
Perhaps the greatest examples of the power of reflection –“shining examples” I call them – among native plants are the many Coprosma species and varieties.
There are over 100 species in the genus, distributed through the Pacific Rim but centred on New Zealand, where about half the species are found.  Many are dwarf shrubs with tiny leaves, but there are also some small trees to be found among the species.
Until recently the best known plant was undoubtedly, C. repens.  This is a soft-wooded shrub that will grow as a prostrate shrub in exposed conditions, but in sheltered and humus-rich sites can grow up to nearly ten metres.  It has dark green, very glossy leaves, earning it the common name of Looking Glass Bush, Mirror Plant, New Zealand Laurel or Shiny Leaf.  I am sure you get the idea!
What has made it very popular as a garden plant is the wide range of coloured sports it has given rise to, which has meant it has become a very popular garden plant in coastal areas in particular.  Unfortunately, its reliable performance in windy and exposed sites is matched by its tenacity at setting seed, and it has escaped from the garden in parts of Australia where it is now classed a weed. Perhaps that just our revenge for the magpie!
Over the past few years a lot of coloured hybrid coprosmas have been released onto the market, with so many options for the gardener that it is a little confusing.  A trip to the garden centre and a stroll down the “dwarf natives” section will certainly be a colourful experience, especially at this time of the year when so many of the cultivars colour up.
‘Lemon and Lime’ is a small leaved form with very interesting variegation of green and yellow.  As the cooler weather appears, the yellow deepens and hints of orange appear.  This is a tidy growing form, and like almost all of these hybrids, it is very disease resistant. It is the child of an even better variety – one that has become one of the best selling shrubs in New Zealand, the unremittingly cheerful ‘Evening Glow.’  This has golden foliage over the summer but as autumn arrives it takes on rich orange and deep red hues.  That is not a bad achievement for an evergreen shrub, and it has made it into one of the most popular natives.


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