Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pineapple guava or bad medicine?

In a well-known poem devoted to autumn, the English Romantic poet John Keats, whose relatives live in Masterton, called the season a time of “mists and mellow fruitfulness.”  Writing in the early 19th century, Keats would have had apples and pears, medlars and other old world fruits in mind, but here in New Zealand in the early 21st century, an entirely different set of fruits scent our misty season.
Perhaps the most uniquely New Zealand fruit is the Feijoa.  I am not claiming this as a native plant, but New Zealand seems to be the only place in the world that the fruit is grow on a large commercial scale, and the only place where it is a common garden fruit.
Botanically, the feijoa is member of the vast myrtle family, and thus is a distant cousin to our rata and pohutukawa, a kinship that can be appreciated by looking at the flowers.  They occur in the wild in highland parts of different countries in South America, and are now grown as a crop in New Zealand and a few other temperate countries.
They were introduced to New Zealand in the 1920s, and quickly became very popular as a reliable evergreen shrub that could be used as a small feature tree, but was also well-adapted for use as a shelter tree, and was often grown as a tall hedge.  Even under these conditions, the feijoa will crop, and most of us will have eaten these fruit as children, usually from trees that bore so many fruit that the owners could not cope with it all.
Opinion is divided on exactly what the fruit tasteslike.  Some say the flavour is reminiscent of pineapple, guava and strawberry, while other catch hints of mint.  Those who do not like the flavour usually say it tastes like an unpalatable medicine!
When I was first involved in horticulture there was a very restricted range of varieties available, and they were not that much better than the seed grown plants offered for sale for hedging.  That has changed in the past few years and there is now quite a range of different varieties available.  Some are self-fertile (‘Unique’ is the most reliably so) but most will do better if there is another variety growing nearby.
I have grown ‘Unique’, and it is a very reliable cropper, with medium to large fruit which it carries from an early age but there are many others around.   ‘Pounamu’ is a newer smooth skinned type, with fruit that ripens early in the season – they should be edible by the end of March – while ‘Opal Star’ is a later fruiting form with strong flavours.  ‘Gemini’ and ‘Apollo’ are also reliable forms, although both need another variety nearby for pollination.
Feijoas are very easily grown, but they do best in well-drained moist soils, rich in humus.  They will cope quite well with periods of drought but need abundant watering during fruit maturation if full sized fruit are to be enjoyed.  They need little trimming or pruning, but can easily be shaped and trimmed if that is needed.  Give them as much sun as you can, but they will also cope with partial shade.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Made in Japan

This year’s long and very warm summer has been followed by an equally protracted autumn.  It is nearly the end of May and we have not had a significant frost, and there has been comparatively little wind.   The result of that has been a wonderfully drawn-out autumn display by the many deciduous trees that abound in Wairarapa.  At the weekend we went over to Wellington and the poplars in the Abbotts Creek valley were in full golden glow, while on the other side of the hill the avenue of American oaks opposite the Birchville entrance was glowing rusty red.
We have a fiery purple Japanese maple putting on a show halfway down our drive – or, more correctly, our neighbour does, but the tree comes over the fence and gives at least as good an autumn display for us as it does for them.  I know there are two much-divided schools of thought on autumn leaves.  One hates the very thought of them, and tries to catch them before they land, and sweeps them away to oblivion instantly.  On the other hand, there are those who relish the changing seasons they herald, and delight in crunching through piles of discarded leaves.  I am very much in the latter camp, and am never worried too much about fallen leaves.  It might be different if I had huge London Plane growing outside my front door, but Japanese maple leaves  are airy and ephemeral and any inconvenience of their falling in autumn is more than compensated for by their on-going beauty through the year.
I think Japanese maples are the perfect small deciduous tree for the home garden, with their elegant shape, and their year-round attractions.  In the winter most varieties have an attractive ball-headed shape of interlacing branches.  In some cases they also have very attractive bark, especially the coral bark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’,   which has coral pink young stems which carry bright lime green foliage in the spring.  Come winter the exposed red stems are an attractive feature, although it has to be said that the bark darkens as it ages, and it is only the outer part of the tree that carries this coloration.
Many of the purple foliages varieties also have deep red/purple stems as well, offering another level of enjoyment.  There are very many red varieties around but perhaps the best is ‘Bloodgood’, which holds its bright colouring well into the summer, before darkening and then turning bright crimson for the autumn.  This is quite an upright growing form that spreads nicely as it matures.  Like most purple varieties, it has tiny little purple flowers very early in the season – hardly noticeable unless you go looking for them but very pretty – as well as purple helicopter seeds in the autumn.
If you want a smaller version of this there is a new variety called (rather unattractively) ‘Skeeter’s Broom’.  This arose as a witch’s broom on ‘Bloodgood,’  a tightly growing mass of smaller branches often seen on silver birches but rarer on maples.  It means that this variety has much twiggier and denser growth than its parent, while retaining the same colouring.  It also means its ultimate height is more restrained, growing perhaps two metres tall and about half that around.
Another cultivar that supposedly originated as a sport of ‘Bloodgood’ is the shrubby ‘Shaina’, which forms an outstanding small globe-shaped tree with very dense purple foliage.  As well as being great in the garden this one also makes a tremendous patio plant, and for those who are so inclined, a great bonsai as well.
If you want to go even smaller you are in the realm of the dwarf, weeping maples – among the most desirable of all dwarf trees.  I think ‘Crimson Queen’ is as good as any, with its finely dissected foliage slowly turning from bright crimson in spring, through to deep, dark purple for summer, then switching to scarlet for the autumn.  Like most of the dwarf varieties, it has naturally arching growth that will fall to the ground if left, and looks spectacular at any time of the year, including winter when the clear, clean outline looks very attractive.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thinking of Daphne

At work I have been helping a lovely lady called Daphne with some research, and I guess my subconscious has been hard at work as my mind has been filled with thoughts of those sweetly fragrant favourite plants all week.
I suppose it could also be something to do with my first real acquaintance with the newly-arrived (in New Zealand at least) hybrid that glories in the name of D. x transatlantica, although in our country it is usually met with in the form of ‘Eternal Fragrance.’
This plant is a hybrid, the result of a naturally occurring cross between two species seldom seen in New Zealand,  D. collina and D. caucasica, combining the small stature and strong fragrance of the former with the fragrance and long blooming period of the latter. It is sometimes possible to find D. collina in New Zealand – usually further south than here – and there is a lovely pink-flowered hybrid called, somewhat bizarrely D. hybrida, that can be found in some garden centres.
Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’ is a compact, semi-evergreen, mounded shrub that blooms with gusto in early spring, then continues from October to the first frosts of winter with small clusters of fragrant, pink-budded white flowers.  This plant has become very popular overseas and looks likely to be as popular here, being longer-lived than the more commonly grown forms of Daphne.  It is also a very tidy growing form, and will grow well in pots – in fact, I have even seen overseas magazines that have shown it used as a hedge, but that may be taking it too far!
Overseas there is a variegated form called ‘Summer Ice’, with a lovely white rim around the edge of each of the fine leaves, but I have not seen it offered for sale in New Zealand yet.
I am looking forward to planting ‘Eternal Fragrance’ soon, as over the years I have grown more kinds of Daphne that I care to remember - at least ten forms I would think.
The most popular of these are the various forms of Daphne odora, the daphne that most people know as the common variety.  Nowadays this is usually encountered in the form of the strongly upright growing form known as ‘Leucanthe’, and its white counterpart, ‘Leucanthe Alba.’  These are both lovely shrubs that carry superbly fragrant flowers in great abundance in later winter and early spring.  The scent is very heady and spicy – some have described it as being reminiscent of jasmine, another heady-scented shrub.  However, like many Daphnes they can be slightly temperamental, and it does not pay to get too attached to any one of them, as they are prone to slowly slipping away.
They are a bit fussy as to soil – they need slightly acidic conditions, with humus-rich soil that does not dry out in summer, or become waterlogged in winter.  They can cope with full sun, but I think most do best if they are grown where they will get some shelter from the worst of the afternoon heat.  They do not like being replanted, and are best replaced with container-grown stock.  They are not too fussed about heavy pruning wither – it is best to nibble away at them throughout their life.  I find one good way is to remove the flowering buds, either when they are in flower (they are great in the vase) or shortly after they finish.  It helps keep the plants compact too, as they can get a bit straggly.
There are a couple of other forms of D. odora that are with looking out for.  The old form, ‘Rubra’ has the deepest coloured flowers, although I have to admit it is a slightly untidy grower, the branches dipping off at their own behest.  This is the form our grandparents grew.
As a general rule variegated plants are not as hardy as those that are fully green – it is obvious when you think about it as they have less chlorophyll and as such are not so efficient at growing as their more complete cousins.  But this does not seem to be the case with daphnes, as the classy ‘Aureomarginata’ seems to be tougher than its green counterpart.  I love this lovely plant with its lively yellow rim around the edge of each dark green leaf, and it does seem to survive longer in the garden than the plain-leaved types, which can be a little transient.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Camellia 'Little Liane'

As winter approaches most of the garden goes into a slow decline.  It is the time of the year to take care of the perennial garden, cutting back last year’s growth, dividing where necessary, and applying a little bit of fertiliser for the upcoming year.
This is also the time of the year that the autumn/winter flowering shrubs kick into their blooming season, especially those wonderful autumn flowering sasanqua camellias.
The arrival of camellia petal blight has seriously curbed my enthusiasm for the majority of camellias.  The way their flowers turn brown almost as soon as they open has driven even the most ardent camellia growers to rethink their passion.  The trouble is a fungal one, and it seems there is no chemical cure for it.  It spreads very rapidly,   and survives through the summer as spores in the ground, only to reappear as the flowers open in late winter early spring.
The sasanqua camellias seem much less prone to the disease, although I suspect it is largely because the fungal spores are not about at this time of the year.  Either way, it does mean we can enjoy these lovely camellias before the blight strikes.
We currently have one in flower, the very compact growing ‘Little Liane’, one of the Paradise range of sasanqua camellias, raised in Australia and released onto the New Zealand market in the past few years.  It is small-leafed, compact shrub growing to around a metre tall, although our’s has assumed a rather odd shape.  When freshly planted it was knocked over and, it being of sight, I did not notice for a year or so.  It grew almost horizontally before sending up some vertical branches, so it is now wider than it is high.  The flowers are small white, of loose informal peony form and supposedly with a faint pink margin, although my spectacles must not be rosy enough because I have never noticed that.  The flower centres is a scramble of stamens, petaloids and small petals, making for an interestingly informal flower. Because of its dense compact flowering habit, this variety was specially selected suitable for low hedges and topiary.
It is probably most like the older form ‘Mine Yo Yuki’, which was once the most common white sasanqua camellia, and still has many fans.  It is taller growing but is still quite compact in form, and is often used for hedging.
The other white sasanqua often seen in older gardens is the fabulous ‘Setsugekka’, which carries an abundance of large wavy white blooms with prominent yellow at this time of the year, each bloom being softly scented.  This makes a great sight in the garden, growing taller than the other white varieties mentioned above, getting up the three meters after many years.
Perhaps the best-known the sasanqua camellias is not one – the old favourite ‘Hiryu’ is actually a form of the closely related species C. hiemalis, but looks for all the world like one of its cousins.  It has masses of beautiful, large deep rose semi-double flowers, shading to red at the petal edges, and is as hardy as can be. 
Another old form to keep an eye out for is the venerable variety ‘Plantation Pink’.  This has been grown in gardens for many years now, but it is still as popular as ever, with its cheerful clean and clear pink flowers providing such good garden value at this time of the year.
Among the Paradise varieties that are worth looking out for are ‘Belinda’, with large, glowing pink flowers; ‘Blush’ with flowers that open from deep pink buds, to become almost white with a pink reverse on the outer petals; ‘Gillian’, which has delicate semi-double blooms, white faintly edged with soft pink; ‘Glow’, which is basically  an improved version of ‘Plantation Pink’, with large deep glowing pink, single flowers with a centre of bright yellow stamens; ‘Joan’, which has very showy large red loose informal double flowers, and ‘Vanessa’, with very large brilliant white flowers which have a pink flush on the outer petals.