Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lapageria up close

This crazy weather has been driving us all mad – even the usually reliable kick start to hotter weather – the return of children to school – has not brought any relief from the dull and cool weather of this so-called summer. Plants are confused too.  I have two types of spring flowering irises that seem to think spring has returned and have put out a few flowers, and Magnolias and Michelias have also been fooled into throwing a few blooms.
Thankfully, a few plants have been able to thrive over the season and have provided their usual generous display of flowers.  One that has impressed me this year is the neighbour’s brightly coloured Bouganvillea, which is clambering over a north facing wall of her house, in a very warm and dry spot. 
These South American plants come from really warm climates – more tropical than subtropical – and need as warm a spot as possible in our climate, away from any frosts, but at the same time sheltered from the worst of the winds.  Ideally, a north-facing wall under the eaves of the house would be the right place.
They are not fussy as to soil, but will not thrive if the drainage is poor.  Remember that soil alongside houses can be quite dry and also thin, so a good application of some humus as a soil conditioner is a good idea.  Newly planted Bougainvilleas need careful watering, with care taken to ensure they do not dry out, but once they have got their feet well and truly into the bed, they will happily thrive with next to no water.
You need to be a bit careful with feeding these beauties though – they do not mind some occasionally, but make sure you do not use any formulation high in nitrogen as that will stimulate leaf growth at the expense of flowers.  It can also cause the plant to go crazy, with long whippy growths that will need careful pruning.
In Wairarapa we are a little restricted to the types we can grow.  The bright crimson ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ and the slightly lurid purple ‘Magnifica Traillii’ are the most vigorous and hardiest varieties for our climate, and are certainly the ones I have seen growing best around here. The more subtly coloured Hawaiian varieties are nowhere near as hardy.  There are also some dwarf varieties, suggested as being suitable for containers, but I have not seem them in any local gardens.
As Bougainvilleas can make a lot of growth over the season, and because they are actually clambering shrubs rather than true climbers, they need to be pruned carefully.  They flower on new wood and can be pruned back quite hard during winter and will bounce back to bloom again the following summer. As a general guide, you can cut back the stems that have flowered to within 5cm of the older wood.   Over the summer just keep an eye on any watery shoots appearing near the base of the plant and remove them.  When doing any pruning, don’t forget these plants do not twine to hold onto the plants they grow over, they grab them with the harsh thorns that line the stems, thorns that are just as happy to grab at the gardener.
If you are looking for a colourful climber, but do not have a hot north facing wall but rather a cool south facing wall, another South American could be the one you are looking for – the luxuriant Chilean Bellflower, Lapageria rosea.
These are evergreen climbers from the cool temperate forests of Chile, and like most climbers, they prefer a situation where their heads are in the sun but their feet are in the cool of the forest floor litter.  Being forest dwellers, they will take colder temperatures but they cannot stand any frost. They have a flush of flowers any time from now until later in autumn, but they have flowers most of the time. And what flowers they are!  Large bell-shaped flowers that have such a heavy texture as to appear almost wax-like, they take weeks to fully open, and then stay on the plant for many more. 
They are generally a rosy red, as you will have worked out, but the flowers usually have a subtle checkered pattern over them, so they look even more intriguing up close.  There are white forms too, which seem to have an even thicker texture.
These are hard to find at the garden centre but I know some local nurseries stock them.  They are never cheap because they are a nurseryman’s nightmare.  They are difficult to grow from seed, as you need two different clones for the flowers to set seed, then they take many years before they are sellable as they are very slow to get under way.  As if that was not enough, snails love them and seem to be able to sniff out a new shoot from a mile away, and quickly (at least as quickly as a snail can) get over to eat them.
I have a couple of plants growing along a south facing wall – a red and a white.  I hand pollinate them each year and get seed about one year in three, and then lose about a third of plants in the glasshouse.  I am not trying to pout you off growing one of these – I think they are one of the choicest of all climbing plants, and if you have got a south facing wall with a cool root run, you should try and hunt one out.  They are very long lived, and apart from the snails do not seem to get any pests.  And even better – they do not seem to be badly affected by a bad string of summer weather.

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