Strange flowers

Sunday, 03 April 2011

Arisarum vulgare

The blooming last week of a plant given to me by a friend when I was collecting 'black-flowered' plants made me think of some of the rather strange flowers I have growing in my garden. This one is (I think) Arisarum vulgare (or a subspecies of it) and has weird blackish-purple stripe hooded spathes on a plant just 15 cm tall. These inflorescences are compelling: reminding me of either large leeches or tiny cobras lurking amidst the spotted, heart-shaped leaves. Arisarum belong to the Araceae (or aroid) family of plants (which includes Anthurium, Alocasia, Colocasia, Spathiphyllum, Syngonium and Zantedeschia) that have characteristically unusual spathe flowers. They are not beautiful in the conventional sense of a rose or a lily, but they offer unusual shapes and an element of surreal intrigue to the garden when they flower - as well as being conversation pieces when showing people round! My current garden, which is sub-tropical in nature, lends itself to including these odder type of blooms, which would have been completely out of place in my erstwhile cottage garden.

Arum palaestinum

I was recently given a plant of Amorphophallus (possibly A. konjac): another member of the aroid family and a diminutive relative of the giant titan arum from Indonesia (Amorphophallus titanium), which drew huge crowds to the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney when it opened its enormous deep purple spathes (1.5 m long) a few years ago, so I look forward to growing my one and observing its flowers. Another member of the aroid type is the genus Arum, and in early spring I have Arum palaestinum (ht 45 cm, pictured above) in bloom - another plant given to me by a friend for my 'black' collection. This one has large velvety purple-black spathes - quite striking when in bloom. I have some other 'black' plants waiting in the wings to add to the border, including the eerie bat plant (Tacca integrifolia, ht 60 cm), which really does look like a bat.

Vigna caracalla

Another rather bizarre flower out at the moment is that of the snail creeper (Vigna caracalla), which has fragrant, corkscrew-like flowers coloured pink, purple and cream. One can only wonder at what evolutionary process led to such a floral form. It grows quickly from seed as a light, twining vine and tends to die back during winter, to re-sprout in spring. It is related to the edible bean, as can be seen in its palmate foliage. It comes from tropical South America, so is frost tender. I have yet to plant mine out but even growing in a pot it has sent out tendrils to cover the roof of our chook-pen!

Strelitzia reginae

I have always thought that the bird of paradise plant (Strelitzia reginae, ht 1.8 m) has remarkable flowers, which really do resemble exotic birds. A big clump of it grew in my parents' Blue Mountains garden and the flowering stems were often used in vases indoors. I have recently planted one in my own garden and it has flowered for the first time. I planted it in a semi-shaded place nearby a mass of Clivia, as I think I once read that these two plants grow naturally together in the wild in South Africa, so I am hoping they might flower together in late winter this year. Strelitzia has a very long period of bloom, from autumn until spring, making it good value in the garden.

Bilbergia vittata

Bromeliads often have quite wacky inflorescences and this time of year sees a number of them come into bloom. In my cottage garden days, my friends and I used to recoil in horror from these oddities, but now I enjoy the varying forms and colours that these plants provide. Bilbergia vittata (pictured), one of my favourites, flowers several times a year, and is out at the moment, with large pendulous spikes of pink and blue claws held within a large pink bract. Bright scarlet Bilbergia pyramidalis is also in bloom, with shaggy-headed flowers that always make me think of teenage boys with gelled-up hair. Other bromeliads have flowers that look more like beads, often brilliantly coloured. There are so many different sorts of bromeliads, with a variety of leaves and flowers, that a mass of them grown together in a difficult shady spot under a tree can provide a most attractive low-maintenance garden area.

Scadoxus puniceus

Mid-late summer saw the strange flowers of Gloriosa superba in my garden - reminding me of insects that had drifted in from another world, with their upturned, brilliantly coloured petals. And the recent flowers of Lycoris bulbs were another example of an outlandish bloom in my garden, with their elongated stamens like enormous whiskers. In late winter, the enormous red paintbrushes of Scadoxus puniceus (pictured above) will appear from nowhere to fascinate me once more.

I look forward to discovering more strange flowers as my journey into gardening continues!