Sunday, September 19, 2010

It has been another wet week, but it has been an interesting one for me.  An old gardening friend called in to see me with a potted daffodil bulb, wondering what variety it was.  It was a small cupped variety and the petals seemed a very unusual colour – sulphurous green/yellow, with deeper green infusions.  It has me quite flummoxed so I took it up to see another gardening mentor who has a passion for dwarf daffodils.
She thought it was probably the variety known as ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’, saying it was variable in colour depending on where it is grown, and that it would probably go more yellow as it opened up.
I have never grown ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’ despite growing most of the common members of that tribe of narcissus, and knew it mainly from selling it for many years, always in packets that show it as bright gold.  Turns out the packets were very misleading – it is actually light yellow, fading to almost primrose, and does sometimes take on a decided greenish cast, depending on exactly where it is grown as soil conditions can alter the flower colour.  It does, however, have a delightful scent – less heady than ‘Cheerfulness’- and I will hunt it out next autumn for my garden.
That little matter disposed of, we took a walk around my friend’s extensive garden, and she clipped little flowers from her many treasures for me to bring home in a couple of delightful tussie mussies, featuring all sorts of precious little bulbs and perennials.  But funnily enough, it is the rhododendrons that I am enjoying most now, including a couple of un-rhododendron-like looking species.
My friend has a small glasshouse in which she grows all sorts of interesting plants, including one of the most oddly named rhododendrons – R.. goodenoughii.  This is a lovely species of from the Vireya section, hailing from Goodenough Island in Papua New Guinea, a dramatic species with large fragrant white flowers held above large deep green leaves.  The Waitara nurseryman Mark Jury likes this plant, saying it was not “nearenoughii” when he was first given this splendid but rare species.  He clearly liked “wellenoughii” though, as he grew it commercially for a number of years!
Vireya Rhododendrons come from the subtropical and tropical areas of the world, and are best known for their dramatically colourful flowers.  In the wild they tend to grow in the tops of trees, in a big pile of leaf litter, although there are also some terrestrial species as well.
As you can imagine, they are easier to grow in the milder areas of New Zealand, but even in cooler areas such as ours, they can easily be accommodated by being grown in unheated glasshouse, or even in patio areas.  They prefer cooler conditions over summer, so need to be kept shaded and well watered.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


This has been a remarkable season for deciduous magnolias – the best I can remember in years. We have gone through a sustained period without any strong frosts and that has meant that the buds, so often cleaned out by the cold weather, have been able to mature into full blooms, and have been spectacular.

Among those to look their best this year have been the various forms of Magnolia campbellii, with their stunning pink flowers, and the amazing white M. denudata ‘Alba’. There are not too many of these trees in our inland location, partly I guess because the flowers are so frost tender that it can be a heartbreaking occupation growing these beauties. They are also very reluctant to flower early in their lives – we always used to tell people it could take up to 15 years before they would settle into flowering.

If you want to play it safe there are always the very hardy old forms of M. x soulangeana, which are reliably hardy although they are perhaps not as entrancing as modern hybrids, tending to be thinner, tulip-shaped, and often rosy purple flowered. These are the giant magnolias that grace most suburbs in established New Zealand towns. We don’t have any in our garden, but in our neighbourhood there are trees nearly 20 metres high, and they are covered with flowers at this time of the year.

As they grow they take a very pronounced rounded form, which looks slightly eerie over winter (some kids call them witches trees!) but come the spring, when covered with their multitude of two-toned flowers, they are just amazing.

The newer hybrids are a great advance, and over the past fifty years or so, New Zealand has led the world in producing M. campbellii derived hybrids in an amazing range of colours, with increased hardiness and more precocious flowering, as well as reduced size.

The initiator of this progress was Felix Jury, one of the well-known plant breeding family from Taranaki. He had ordered a plant of the M. campbellii form called ‘Lanarth’ from England, but when it first flowered it was immediately obvious that it had been sent in error and was not true to type, but was nonetheless very attractive so he released it, calling it ‘Mark Jury’ after his son.

But things did not stop there. He used this as a parent, crossing it to more compact forms, and developed a wonderful collection of hybrids, including the enormously flowered pink form, ‘Atlas’, the lovely two-toned ‘Athene’, the delectable pink ‘Serene’, two stunning white forms, ‘Lotus’ and ‘Milky Away’, and the remarkable creamy pink ‘Iolanthe’, with its long lasting flowers.

‘Iolanthe’ flowers young, with giant saucer shaped creamy pink flowers that are borne along the branch, not just at the tip as is the common way, meaning the flowering season lasts longer than most other varieties.