Forgotten shrubs

Sunday, 04 February 2018

White form of Leonotis leonurus

When I began this website, more than nine years ago, one of my goals was to document in my Plant Reference section - over time - all the plants I have growing in my garden, as a record for myself and hopefully to help other Sydney gardeners with information on some plants that can flourish here. Our climate is challenging and many plants suited for other places in Australia fail to thrive here, as I have found out, to my chagrin, over the years. However, it came to my attention last week that I have overlooked some plants, including some stalwart shrubs, which deserve to be included in my Plant Reference, so this week I have made an attempt to remedy that by adding some of them in!

Some of these shrubs have perhaps been overlooked because they are modest, faithful workhorses, that do not shout out to the world 'Look at me!', but quietly get on with the job of, say, providing a bushy screen, giving welcome greenery in a dark corner, exuding a wonderful fragrance, or displaying small flowers that offer a foil to big, bold blooms that surround them.

Michelia figo

The port wine magnolia (Michelia figo) performs several of these roles. A reliable evergreen shrub from China (ht 3-4 m) with lush green foliage, it can provide an excellent background screen and substance to a border. It grows well in our warm climate. Small, purple-flushed cream-coloured flowers appear in late spring/early summer. The tulip-shaped flowers are not showy like those of its more flamboyant Magnolia relatives, but they are strongly scented, with a fragrance described variously as resembling banana, port wine or bubblegum! Michelia figo can be pruned to shape after flowering to reduce its size. It will grow in sun or partial shade, and enjoys humus-rich, well-drained soil and sufficient water in summer. It doesn't like harsh frost. There are several cultivars of the plant that have larger flowers and that apparently grow faster than the species, including 'Lady of the Night' (ht 4 m) and 'Coco' (ht 4 m). Michelia figo has also been hybridised with Michelia doltsopa (which is a rather large tree) to produce Michelia x foggii cultivars that are small trees with fragrant flowers in late winter or spring.

Sarcococca ruscifolia

Sarcococca ruscifolia is another evergreen shrub that hails from China. It grows only to about 1 m in height and width. It has tiny, white flowers in winter, which are sweetly scented; these are followed by bright red berries. I value it because it will grow in shade, even nasty dry shade. Its shiny, pointed leaves are very reminiscent of the tough, shade-tolerant foliage plant Ruscus aculeatus (sometimes known as the insect plant, because of its strange flowers on its 'leaves' - actually stems - which do look just like little bugs!) and indeed the species name of this Sarcococca references this connection. I like growing the two plants together in a difficult shaded position as they just seem to look so right together. Neither plant needs any attention at all, but I do try to keep them well mulched and provide some water in hard times.

Abelia x grandiflora Compacta

Abelia x grandiflora is one of those ubiquitous shrubs that we do tend to take for granted, but it is an excellent choice for Sydney gardens. It is a hybrid between Abelia chinensis and Abelia uniflora and grows around 1.8-2.4 m tall, with arching burgundy canes with small, shiny, deep green leaves. In summer and autumn, it is smothered in petite, mauve and white blooms, which are held in dusky pink calyces. The calyces persist even after the flowers have fallen, providing continued decorative interest. The foliage turns bronze in autumn and winter: another bonus. It doesn't lose its leaves in our climate. It can be grown in sun or light shade, and tolerates a range of soils. It has no demanding requirements. Pruning in late winter will keep the plant neat. I currently grow a dwarf form, known as 'Compacta' (ht 1m), not being able to find a spot for a larger specimen. I keep it clipped to an informal sphere. I enjoy pairing it with burgundy-hued foliage plants (such as Persicaria 'Red Dragon') to pick up the darker tints of its stems and calyces.

Leonotis leonurus

My final forgotten shrub is another old faithful, Leonotis leonurus, sometimes called lion's tail or lion's ear. I have known this plant almost all my life, because it grew in my family's garden for many years, my mother being particularly fond of its vibrant-coloured blooms. An evergreen South African plant (ht 1.8 m), it flourishes in our climate. Thin, pungent-smelling leaves provide the backdrop to spires of velvety, orange flower clusters in late summer and autumn. Canna 'Tropicanna', with its orange-marked foliage is an excellent planting companion for lion's tail. There is also a white-flowered Leonotis leonurus, which pairs well with white-variegated foliage plants such as Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus' (shown at the start of the blog). Leonotis can be cut back hard in late winter. It grows best in full sun but can also cope with a bit of shade. It dislikes hard frosts. It needs no special treatment.

I hope all readers enjoyed cooler temperatures and some rain in their gardens over the past week. Amazing how one's gardening enthusiasm returns under such conditions!