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 clich√© 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.

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