Humble plants

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Variegated form of Aspidistra elatior

Looking through my plant reference directory recently (which I started in order to document the plants that grow well in my Sydney garden), I noticed there are still a fair few omissions. Some of these relate to plants which to my mind have not yet proved themselves yet to be entirely suited to our climate, but others are for plants which are so humble that I have overlooked them.

Such plants are not the flamboyant stars of the garden that demand attention with stunning flowers or exotically coloured foliage. They are the modest stalwarts that ask for almost nothing from me yet quietly get on with the job of furnishing difficult garden areas every single day of the year, with pleasant foliage that provides a backdrop for the ostentatious prima donnas. We take them for granted and regard them as almost second-class citizens of the garden - or even as close to weeds - which I have realised is a shameful attitude to have to such hard-working specimens.

Chlorophytum comosum Ocean (left) alongside a shaded path

So I decided to pay homage to some of the humbler plants in my garden for once, and in doing so add them to my plant reference this week! They are all very familiar plants, because they grow so well and easily (maybe all too easily, some might say) - they are the sort of thing passed on from one gardener to the next, especially when a new garden is being created by young people. The white-striped spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), for example, was actually one of the first plants I was ever aware of - it grew out of a teapot in the kitchen of the share house I lived in as a uni student. I have always had a plant of it in a pot or the garden ever since. I now grow a cultivar of it known as 'Ocean' (ht 30-40 cm), as a weed-suppressing groundcover along a shaded path beneath a large shrub of Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group. It seems to have larger and more upright foliage as well as crisper white stripes than other spider plants. I do admire it every time I walk along that path yet never thought to add it to my plant reference - perhaps fearing it was too common. In more recent times, I have used its many rosetted 'pups' to fill in an extremely dry and shaded strip alongside another path, where nothing else would grow.

Neomarica northiana

Along that same narrow strip I have planted Neomarica northiana, which is another almost indestructible specimen that copes with dryness and deep shade. Like the spider plant, it sends out pups on long stems, thus effectively colonising an area in quite a short time. It has a very short-lived flower, but I grow it primarily for its arching fans of lush strappy leaves. The two plants together have made a desolate space into an attractive feature - both plants with the same-shaped outline but varying in size and colour - and I enjoy looking at them as I traverse the path. I would not plant them in an area where there were nearby specimens that could get swamped, but here they do a wonderful job.

Aspidistra elatior

Another plant that I have had for decades is Aspidistra elatior. It has long been regarded as very ordinary and often grown as a dusty houseplant because of its ability to tolerate low light situations. I planted it in a dry shaded area many years ago and it has grown into an attractive large clump of elegant elongated foliage, requiring basically no maintenance. It provides an effective foil to gold-variegated plants in the same border, balancing their 'busy' leaves. In another area of the garden, I have paired it with the silver-grey leaves of Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' to provide an echo of the shape of that plant's leaves. I have a cream-variegated form, Aspidistra elatior 'Variegata', (pictured at the start of the blog), which doesn't grow quite as robustly as the plain green species, but it too is a sturdy, low-maintenance filler of dry, shaded areas.

Philodendron Xanadu with Ardisia crenata in the background

Another attractive foliage plant that is often taken for granted is Philodendron 'Xanadu'. It has beautifully dissected foliage and just unobtrusively grows into a wider clump every year, its leaves providing an excellent contrast to surrounding foliage. At the moment in my garden, it has a backdrop of the red berries of Ardisia crenata, a heart-warming sight on a cold, bleak wintery day like today.

These and many other humble plants play vital roles in the difficult area of my garden, and I salute them!