Plant connections

Sunday, 07 April 2013

Muscari armeniacum growing in the farm garden, Southern Tablelands of NSW in spring

The joy of gardening is that it can engage us on so many different levels. It can mean simply pottering in our gardens and connecting to the natural world to take our minds off the stresses of everyday life. Alternatively, gardening can provide a pleasant way to exercise. Or it can give the enjoyment of mastering the various skills of gardening, such as pruning, propagating, soil cultivation, hedge trimming, compost-making or any number of other tasks. We can also enjoy the artistic side of gardening: working out combinations of plants to achieve satisfying combinations of texture, colour and form. Gardening also has social elements, bringing together people with a shared love of plants whose paths would otherwise never have crossed.

Another aspect of gardening is its scientific side - learning about plant nomenclature and botany. I have no training in horticulture and am extremely vague about the botanical structure of plants, but I find the system of classification of plants to be endlessly fascinating. I thoroughly enjoy discovering by chance the relationships between plants through their membership of plant families, as this often helps to better understand the plants that will grow well in our climate. It can be just as exciting as genealogical research into your own family tree! It is fascinating to observe the broad similarities between plants in a family, even though I cannot discern the more technical aspects of family membership. My recent obsession with the family Acanthaceae has led me to discover many of its members that I had never heard of but which are very suitable to growing in Sydney, especially in dry, shaded spots.

Albucca altissima is a member of the family Asparagaceae

I am currently interested in another family - the Asparagaceae - which contains the edible asparagus as one its members. This is a fairly recently expanded plant family, which brought together seven previously separate families under the existing Asparagaceae umbrella. Many of the plants in the Asparagaceae family (particularly the bulbous ones) do have a flower spike that looks - either before or after the buds open - a bit like an asparagus stalk, including bluebells, hyacinths, Albuca (pictured above), Ornithogalum, Hosta, Lachenalia, Muscari (pictured at the start of the blog) and Veltheimia. I must say that this had never occurred to me until I looked at a list of the members of this family!

Variegated form of Aspidistra elatior

The family Asparagaceae is divided into seven subfamilies (corresponding more or less to the families they originally belonged to before they were combined), and I was interested to learn that one particular one of these - Nolinoideae - has many of its members that grow in dry shade. One of the toughest of these is Aspidistra elatior (ht 50 cm) - sometimes known as the cast-iron plant because it survives almost any conditions. It is a rhizomatous perennial, and over time grows into a wide clump. The plant is useful as a foil to gold-variegated plants that grow well in shade, or coloured-foliage plants of a similar shape. There is a white-striped version of this Aspidistra (pictured above), called 'Variegata' (or possibly more correctly 'Okame') and a very unusual speckled form with shorter leaves, a cultivar of Aspidistra lurida.

Liriope muscari Evergreen Giant

Those tough, grassy-leaved plants from the genus Liriope are also members of this subfamily of the Asparagaceae and will cope with the same conditions as Aspidistra. Liriope muscari grows as an arching clump of shiny, slim, evergreen leaves and flowers in February and March, sending up little spikes of tightly clustered bell-like blooms, rather reminiscent of its cousin, the grape hyacinth, Muscari. The most basic form has plain green leaves with purple flower spikes; 'Monroe White' has white blooms. There are forms of Liriope with white-variegated leaves, such as 'Variegata'; others have leaves striped with limey-gold, paired with purple flowers, which make a very pretty groundcover in shady places if massed-planted beneath shrubs. The cultivar 'Evergreen Giant' grows to 80 cm or more and is an excellent foliage plant in shade, giving the effect of an ornamental grass and providing good foliage contrast to broad-leaved plants from other plant families, such as Clivia, Alocasia, Begonia and bromeliads. Ophiopogon species are similarly grassy leaved, and usually seen in the ubiquitous - but still very useful - common mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) or black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus). Their small flower spikes are similar to those of Liriope.

Polygonatum x hybridum

A quite different looking plant foliage-wise in this subfamily is Solomon's seal (Polygonatum x hybridum). Completely herbaceous, it dies down in autumn then reappears around October, at first visible as a small snout at soil level, soon elongating into elegant arched stems clothed in graceful leaflets and hung with dainty greenish white bells (ht 60-80 cm). There is a beautiful variegated-leaf form called 'Variegatum', which has creamy white edges to its foliage. I used to think that Solomon's seal needed to grow in a cool, shaded spot, in good soil with reasonable moisture; however, I have discovered that it will also grow in less hospitable sites as do the other Asparagaceae plants mentioned above. It can be quite vigorous and eventually, thick clumps will form. They look pretty growing amongst ferns, Iris japonica, hellebores as well as their Asparagaceae relatives the Hosta. I was recently given a rare plant known as the evergreen Solomon's seal (Disporopsis pernyi), which is very similar in leaf and flower but retains its foliage all year round. It will grow in the same conditions as Polygonatum x hybridum.

I can imagine all these plants growing together in a dry, shaded border and with their diverse leaf shapes, they would make a very effective grouping. Growing members of the same family together can give a cohesion to a border that is visually pleasing, because of the intrinsic commonality of the plants, even though they may have apparent diversity. Click here for a full list of Asparagaceae genera.