Beautiful bracts

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Crab apple tree in full bloom in the garden of Leanne Parker in Sydney

The warm weather has brought spring blossoms on deciduous trees such as ornamental crab apples and peaches into the peak of their flowering, and I enjoyed a number of these whilst visiting some beautiful gardens last week. I love their fragile, diaphanous beauty, which seems to epitomise the very essence of spring - but as I watched petals fall like confetti around the trees even as I stood in admiration, it set me thinking about how some floral displays are so transient yet others can be so prolonged.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii

A little research showed me that some of the 'blooms' that are so long lived in my garden are in fact on plants where prominent colourful bracts - modified leaves that protect a much smaller inflorescence from pests and harsh weather, and in some cases help to attract pollinators - are the most ornamental feature. Often the bracts are clustered together into an 'involucre'. These bracts are incredibly long lasting in the garden, often for months on end. The genus Euphorbia is an example of this type. At the moment, it is Euphorbia characias supsp. wulfenii (ht 1 m), with its rounded heads of vibrant lime-green bracts that is catching my eye, and these will continue until the end of spring or even longer. I can just gaze and gaze at this spectacle for ages; and it offers wonderful opportunities for creating colour schemes in the garden. For example, they can be paired with the limey leaves of golden oregano or gold-leaved Pelargonium cultivars, or grown nearby blue or purple flowers for a zingy effect. Mine is near violet Babiana (ht 30 cm) and the pretty blue spring-flowering groundcover Veronica peduncularis 'Georgia Blue' (syn. 'Oxford Blue', ht 10 cm), the only Veronica I have ever had any success with. All Euphorbia have these showy, long-lasting bracts - the winter-blooming poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is another of my favourites. The double-flowered form seems particularly enduring.

Sea lavender (Limonium perezii, ht 60 cm) with its papery purple bracts is another example of this type of plant. It is very long flowering and is a stalwart plant in dry, hot positions. It associated well with many of the Mediterranean plants in bloom at this time, such as tall bearded iris, lavender and Marguerite daisies, a look that I love.

Bougainvillea in Rome, Italy

Another classic example of a bract-dominated flower is the Bougainvillea, usually seen in our region grown as climbers (though there are some low-growing, shrubby forms). Hailing from Brazil, they really do give a wonderful display over an extended period in the warmer months, and are decorative on fences, gazebos and pergolas. They do need a sturdy support and have to be cut back to keep them under control. B. glabra (ht potentially to 9 m) is the usual species seen and there are many cultivars, with large, papery bracts in hues of scarlet, purple, cerise, orange-bronze, pink or white. The dwarf specimens, such as the Bambino Series (ht 1.5 m), are good for tubs, low hedges or standards.

Vriesea hybrids in the garden of Alida Gray in Sydney

Many of the bromeliads in our gardens owe their lengthy flowering period to the fact that their inflorescence is chiefly made up of colourful bracts. The compact Vriesea hybrids have amazing flower-spikes shaped like chunky feathers in shades of red, yellow, orange and burgundy, and they give an effective display in dry, shaded areas where little else will grow. Other bromeliads with showy bracts include Aechmea fasciata (ht 50 cm), Aechmea gamosepala (ht 50 cm) and Vriesea platynema (ht 1 m).

Justicia scheidweileri

Numerous plants in the Acanthaceae family of plants owe their decorative effect to their large and colourful bracts - which are often far more visible than the actual petals of the flowers they enclose. The shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana) is one of the best known of the family, and its pinkish-red or lime-green bracts really do resemble a prawn. My lime one grows nearby the Euphorbia mentioned above, and I enjoy the combination. This plant seems to be in bloom all year round; it is best to prune it back every so often to keep it compact. Another interesting Acanthaceae plant is the low-growing Justicia scheidweileri (pictured above, ht 20 cm ), which has been flowering through winter and is still in bloom. It has thick spires of burgundy bracts, containing mauve flowers. Its silvery-marked leaves are an added bonus, as is the fact that it will grow in shade. In summer and autumn, the golden candles bush (Pachystachys lutea, ht 1-2 m), which will show its plump, upright spikes that are mainly comprised of large bracts, quite similar to the shrimp plant. Another interesting specimen that will bloom in summer and autumn is Justicia betonica (ht 1 m), which has slim spires of green-veined white papery bracts enclosing pink flowers and they last and last.

The longer I garden, the more I seem to want plants that will earn their keep with little effort. Those with long-lasting decorative bracts are likely to be safe from my hovering mattock!