Lavish leaves

Sunday, 04 March 2012

Foliage of Rhinacanthus beesianus

Last Friday, I wandered in the Royal Botanic Garden. It was pouring with rain and there were very few people about, so I felt almost completely alone, apart from the omnipresence of the chattering fruit bats in the trees above. The Garden was looking incredibly lush: as everywhere in Sydney is at the moment, after the incredible rainfall we have experienced over the past few months. The one thing that stood out the most that day was the luxuriance of the semi-tropical foliage plants there. They seemed twice their normal size and gave such an amazing sense of verdant exuberance, reminding me of the value of such plants in a home garden.

Alocasia macrorrhiza in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney

Before I introduced some of them into my own garden, most of my plants had very similar foliage - small and fairly uninteresting. By creating a note of contrast with some big, bold leaves, the whole scene suddenly improved. I saw some of my favourites during my wanderings last Friday, including the dramatic shield leaves of Alocasia macrorrhiza, which were glistening with raindrops and looking so much happier than this time last year, when we had experienced a long heatwave and very little rain. I enjoy this plant in a semi-shaded part of my own garden, growing with cane Begonia, giant Liriope, Abutilon and a number of bromeliad specimens.

Melianthus major

Another foliage plant which has truly flourished with the rain is Melianthus major, a most unusual shrubby perennial from South Africa. It has long, arching, blue-gray leaves comprised of serrated-edged leaflets, that look as if they have been cut with old-fashioned pinking shears. The foliage has a strange and rather unpleasant smell when handled, giving rise to one of its common names: touch-me-not! Other common names include honey flower and honey bush. It can grow to a height of 2-3 m in a single season and fills quite a wide space. I cut mine to the ground in late winter - left unpruned, it will produce mahogany-coloured tubular flowers in spikes in spring, but I prefer to sacrifice these for a more compact plant.

As I mentioned last week, Canna have gone mad in the moist soil, and their smooth, paddle-like leaves are providing good foliage contrast in some of my borders, especially nearby to some of the autumn-flowering Salvia that are about to bloom, such as Salvia 'Blue Abyss' and Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious'.

Megaskepasma erythrochlamys in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, which flowers in late autumn and winter

A number of plants from my current favourite family - the Acanthaceae - have wonderfully dramatic leaves, and these are the best they have been for years. In the Botanic Garden last week, the quilted foliage of the Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys) was looking ravishing: this shrub will bear its stunning crimson spikes of bloom later in autumn and winter. Nearby, the mysterious Rhinacanthus beesianus species (shown at the start of the blog), with its large and attractive textured leaves, was also starting to flower, with its unusual scallop-shaped white blooms.

Brillantaisia subulugurica with Lepechinia salviae

Brillantaisia subulugurica is another member of the Acanthaceae tribe, and its big, glossy, toothed leaves provide an excellent contrast in one of my flower borders that has a number of Salvia, Dahlia and Pentas. The spikes of blue flowers on the Brillantaisia appear from late spring until late autumn, giving a lovely blue background haze to the border; at the moment, the cerise spikes of Lepechinia salviae have also come onto the scene, and I love this colour combination.