On bare branches

Sunday, 07 August 2011

Prunus campanulata

One of the hardest gardening lessons to learn is that it is possible to enjoy a plant without necessarily having to grow it in one's own garden. It has taken me many years to be comfortable with this concept. The desire to acquire is very strong and can lead to an inability to admire a plant for its beauty, if we are feverishly trying to work out where we could put one in our own garden, or feeling frustrated and annoyed because it is from such a different climate that it won't grow in our region. Now that my garden is very full, I am finding it easier these days to simply stand and appreciate plants without these complications.

And what I have been admiring over the past week is the profusion of early spring blooms appearing on the bare branches of shrubs and small trees in my neighbourhood. They have such a dramatic look that really seems to announce that winter has lost its grip and that spring is in the air. I have no room for any of these in my garden, which is centred mainly around summer- and autumn-flowering plants, but I just have to walk around the local streets to get my fill of these delights.

Prunus cerasifera Nigra

The cerise bell cherry - Prunus campanulata (ht to 8 m, pictured at the start of the blog) - is the first of these to bloom and it has been out for a number of weeks now. Next come the ornamental plums, probably the most commonly seen blossom trees in our suburbs. The purple-leafed cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Nigra') with its pale pink blooms followed by deep purple leaves is very popular (ht 4-6 m), flowering in August. The honey-scented flowers of the plum trees contrast well with their bare dark branches.

Chaenomeles speciosa

Japonica is the colloquial name for the ornamental quinces (Chaenomeles speciosa, ht 2-3 m, C. x superba, ht 1.5-2 m): hardy, deciduous, spiny shrubs with cup-shaped scarlet or orange-red blooms along bare branches. These angular, suckering shrubs can be espaliered against walls or grown as a clipped or unclipped intruder-resistant hedge, and can tolerate relatively poor conditions. Japonica flowers best in a sunny position and benefits from old, unproductive wood being removed regularly from the centre of the shrub after flowering. Cut branches make long-lasting and delightful oriental-looking flower arrangements if picked before the buds open.

Magnolia x soulangeana

One of the highlights of August in Sydney is the flowering of the various deciduous magnolia trees: showy divas that are perfectly at home throughout our region. The one most commonly encountered in Sydney is sometimes referred to as the saucer magnolia or tulip tree (Magnolia x soulangeana), an excellent small tree for any garden, growing to around 5-8 m with a short trunk and rounded canopy. Big furry buds appear early in winter, and are decorative on the bare twisting branches until they open into large white, pink or purplish-pink goblets, a breathtaking sight against perfectly blue late winter skies. These are lightly fragrant and often stained with rosy purple at their bases, or on the outside of their petals in some cultivars. The thick, fleshy petals open wide into a saucer shape, before falling to create a carpet on the ground. There is some variation in the time of flowering amongst the different cultivars, which include 'Alba Superba' (white with purple-flushed base), 'Alexandrina' (white inside, rosy-purple flush on the outside of the petals), 'Lennei' (purplish-pink outside, white to pale purple inside) and 'Lennei Alba' (pure white). The deep rosy-purple of the darkest cultivars (such as 'Rustica Rubra') gives a deeper note of colour.

Flowers of Magnolia denudata from the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

The Yulan tree (Magnolia denudata, syn M. heptapeta, ht 7-10 m) opens its large, chaste-white tulips now, giving the appearance of doves roosting amongst its bare branches. The flowers have a sweet lemony scent. The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata, ht 3-4.5 m) with perfumed flowers of drooping long petals of white or pink, is suitable for places where there is no room for one of the more tree-like types.

All Magnolia need a sheltered position in the garden to preserve their flowers but they do require a fair amount of sun to bloom well. They thrive in a good, well-drained, humus rich soil slightly on the acidic side. Pruning is unnecessary and can actually destroy the naturally attractive shape of the tree. Possums are a terrible menace, eating the buds and flowers, and I have yet to hear of a truly effective deterrent for these creatures ...