Sunday, March 30, 2014

Parrots, lilies and little ones...

Tulip 'Orange Parrot'
There are quite a number of different forms among tulips, some of which are seldom seen in lour gardens.  Perhaps the most flamboyant of all tulips are the ‘parrot’ varieties, so named because their petals are feathered, curled, twisted, or waved.  Probably the best known of these is the aptly named  ‘Roccoco’, which has swirls of yellow on deep carmine red flowers.  Even brighter is one called ‘Flaming Parrot’, which has bright yellow flowers with a prominent red stripe down the middle of each petal.  Some years ago I saw a bed of ‘Orange Parrot’ – what a stunning sight.
Lily tulips have longer and more slender flowers than most types, with flared ends, suggesting a lily flower.   They look very elegant, but there are not many varieties around in New Zealand.  ‘Pretty Woman’, which has bright red flowers with a small yellow patch at the base, is probably the easiest to find.
There are also the peculiar green tulips, which tend to have a soft coloured flower which features a broad green band up the middle of the petal.  ‘Spring Green’ is probably the best of these.
At the opposite end of the size scale are the rock garden tulips, some of which are very small indeed, but they would need to be sourced from specialist growers.  The varieties available from garden centres will probably grow about 20 cm high, and will have the usual grey-green leaves. Among these ‘Pinocchio’, which is carmine pink with a cream border, and ‘Boutade’, which is bright red, represent good value for the garden.
There is still plenty of time to plant tulips.  Unlike some other bulbs, they prefer quite a chilling over winter, so it will not matter if you don’t get them into the ground for up to a month.  Of course, by then the best selection will have gone, so it pays to get a move on.
Give them a rich, well drained soil, preferably in full sun, and remember to snip the stems when they have finished flowering, as that way they will concentrate of putting down some growth for next year’s flowers.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Faking it

Gloriosa superba

Perhaps the most mis-used word in gardening is “lily”.  All sorts of plants are described as lilies, even though the majority of them have no botanical connection to the true lilies.  Perhaps in this context, the world “lily” just means “great looking flower that usually comes from a bulb” – or something like that.
Having said that, there are some lovely bulbous flowers out at the moment, including the stunning climbing plant, the “Gloriosa Lily’, Gloriosa superba.  There can be few flowers that are so well named, being both glorious and superb.
This is one that definitely is not related to the true lilies – in fact, it is in the same family as the autumn crocus, colchicums.  Like the colchicums they are toxic if eaten, so a little care needs to be taken with them.  They are a rather curious plant, thriving when well suited – in fact, in frost-free situations in free drain in and dry soils can even become a bit of a nuisance, seeding and establishing  too well.  They grow from a round tuber that turns V-shaped as it ages, eventually growing up to a metre long. 
From these extended tubers a succession of wonderfully coloured flowers will appear, superbly reflexed and in shades of orange-red and yellow.  This little climber (it will grow a bit more than a metre high)  makes a very dramatic addition to the summer and autumn garden, although it does struggle with our colder a little.   Find it a warm spot in the garden, or even in a deep pot, and you should have a glorious and superb flower.
At the moment the pots on our back patio that could be used to grow some Gloriosa are filled with some “Blood Lilies” – Haemanthus coccineus.  In keeping with the theme of this article, these are not actually lilies at all – they are South African members of the Amaryllis family, growing narturally in the summer rainfall areas of southern Africa.
I grow two species of the peculiar flowers.  The first, H. albiflos, is fully evergreen, with strap-like leaves that part in the summer to show flower heads that are basically a giant boss of stamen, with sepals guarding white stamen, tipped with gold.  The second species, H. coccineus is altogether  more dramatic.  Its large strappy leaves die off in the early summer, and the plant just shows the top of the bulbs over summer.  But come the start of March the bulb tips slowly part and a red flush is seen appearing.  Within a few weeks, these have lengthened and the bright scarlet spathe valves open  top shows golden-tipped coloured stamen, bearing  a striking resemblance to a coloured shaving brush.
They can be grown in warm and sheltered sites in the garden but my clump has been happily growing in a pot for the past twenty years and has flourished.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rejuvenating the iris beds

Photo courtesy 

Regular readers of this column will know I have a fascination for the members of the iris family, in particular the species and cultivars that make up the Pacific Coast Native Irises of North America.  A large area of the garden is devoted to a bed of these plants, from which I selected likely-looking parents for breeding, and into which I plant a couple of hundred seedlings each year.
But even though these are my favourites, I also grow quite a range of other irises, usually just spotted in between other plants in general beds. 
It might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that I have dug out a whole lot of iris plants over the past weeks, and thrown them away.  They were all bearded iris I had been growing for over ten years, and I decided that it time for me to replenish the bearded iris beds, both in terms of soil, but also in terms of replacing the varieties.
Bearded irises area little bit fussy about the conditions they will do best in, although those conditions are easily enough met.  As with most plants, it pays to consider where the plants you want to cultivate occur naturally in the wild.  In the case of the bearded irises, they almost all grow in full sun, in very well-drained soil that is derived from limestone. 
In the garden it pays to replicate those conditions, with an open sunny site, with fertile, free-draining soil with at least a neutral pH.  For my part, I added some extra compost to the beds, but also added general fertiliser and a good dressing of lime.  Most compost is low in pH and if used for lime-loving plants it pays to add some lime.  I used lime flour, which is quick acting, but coarser material, which releases more slowly, is probably better.
When deciding what to replace my old irises with I had a particular purpose – I wanted to grow some of the irises breed by the late Ron Busch, a Christchurch-based iris breeder who had bred some outstanding varieties over the past twenty years, some of which are still being released to the public.  They tend to be very colourful varieties, often with bold colours in contrast, and stitched with extra colour in a pattern that iris lovers call ‘plicata’.
I had to look around a bit but did find an on-line store that stocked a lot of his varieties, and although I could not obtain all the varieties I was interested in, I did manage to find quite a few, and they will arrive any day soon.
When I plant them out I will copy the way they grow in the wild again, placing the rhizomes on the surface of the soil, with the roots tucked in well into the soil, allowing the sun a chance to mature the rhizomes over summer.  Although some will undoubtedly flower next spring, it will be a year before they are at their best – but they will be well worth waiting for.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Tropical flamboyance

I had an interesting chat with a gardener from just north of Auckland during the week.  She called in at the archive to talk about family history matters and to look at some papers we hold, but talk invariably turned to gardens and gardening. 
She was saying there are lots of plants she wants to grow but just cannot in Auckland – the weather is too warm, or to be more exact, it is not cold enough.  The lack of winter chilling means lots of fruiting plants are useless – her husband complained about not being able to grow currants, gooseberries and cherries – but the plants she clearly wished she could grow successfully were peonies.  When I told her about having half a dozen varieties around the garden she was green with envy.
However, I did say that there was a wide range of plants she could grow that we could not consider, and she said, yes, that was true, but she would happily give up her garden of bromeliads and succulents in order to grow peonies.
For my part, I said I loved tropical hibiscus and yearned to be able to grow them.  She snorted derisively, saying her neighbour had lots of them, as if they were slightly contemptible plants.
And therein lays the rub of gardening.  We yearn to grow the plants our climate will not allow us to, and we take for granted to wonderful range of plants that will flourish for us.  I guess it is an example of the grass always being greener on the other side of the Bombay Hills.
Although a border of tropical hibiscuses is a dream for many of us, there are plenty of places that the shrubs will grow happily enough if given a little shelter.  During my childhood our neighbour across the streets had a large shrub growing up against the chimney on her north facing wall, and each autumn it would be covered with a hundreds of soft pink flowers, each with the prominent stamen that is such a feature of these glorious plants.
Hibiscus flowers are intimately associated with the Pacific Islands, and it is a tourism cliché for a pretty young girl with a hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear to greet a tourist, but it also a reality.  They are native to the islands, among many warm places, and most of the varieties we grow in New Zealand are bred from Fijian or Hawaiian cultivars, or from hybrids between the two types.
Hawaiian hybrids are small-growing and bear the most stunning flowers of all, with bright colours in almost all hues imaginable.  Unfortunately they are also extremely cold-tender and need the warmest sites possible to flourish.  The Fijian hybrids are slightly more cold-hardy and larger growing with smaller, often fully double, flowers, although these ‘double’ flowers are rather messy to my eye.  
The bulk of New Zealand varieties used to be Fijian but Auckland nurseryman Jack Clark worked crossing the two different strains, then reselecting for those that grew well in Auckland, and his hybrids are still very popular, including one named after him, ‘Jack’, which is a bright orange double form.