Growing South African plants

Sunday, 07 June 2009

Stunning Kniphofia ensifolia in the garden of Alida Gray in Belrose

As I was watching Monty Don visit South Africa in the wonderful Around the World in 80 Gardens TV show last week, it reminded me of how well most South African plants grow here in Sydney. They are stalwarts for surviving our hot summers, and our mild winters are also to their liking. Though a few types - such as Protea and Leucadendron - are a little fussy in their requirements, most of them are very easy to grow in a well-drained spot, and they include some of my favourite shrubby plants: many Salvia and Plectranthus species, the beautiful orange-flowered Bauhinia galpinii, Mackaya bella, lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus), fragrant Buddleja salvifolia and the eye-catching, tooth-edged foliage plant Melianthus major.

As I wrote in a blog last October, South Africa has also provided us with some of the best bulbs, rhizomes and tubers for our gardens. Babiana, Clivia, Agapanthus, Freesia, Ixia, Gloriosa, Gladiolus, Amaryllis, Scadoxus and Watsonia all thrive in our climate, not needing a cold winter to flower well. In late autumn and early winter, there are some other examples of these which have been flowering well in my garden.

One group which I am fond of comprises the various species of the so-called red-hot poker (Kniphofia). These clump-forming rhizomatous perennials are tough plants, which like to grow in full sun. Although in their natural habitat they often occupy quite moist places, they tolerate normal soil in a garden and cope with quite dry conditions, though don't mind some occasional moisture and mulch. They provide a strong vertical element in the garden, and mix in well with my other warm-climate plants. Some of them flower in spring and summer, but others choose the cooler months to appear. Around April or May, Kniphofia ensifolia (pictured at the start of the blog) sends up its lime and yellow spikes, to 1.5m tall. It is a stunning partner to some of the vivid blue-flowered Salvia which are out at that time, such as Salvia 'Costa Rican Blue'. At the moment, yellow and orange Kniphofia 'Zululandii' (syn.'Winter Cheer', ht 1.5m) is in full bloom, its thick brushes providing a bold, heart-warming sight on cold days and associating well with other hot-coloured flowers of early winter, such as Tagetes lemmonii, Salvia gesneriiflora 'Tequila' and poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Also out now is Kniphofia sarmentosa, an interesting coral-coloured poker. After flowering, the foliage of these pokers can be cut back to about 15cm to keep them tidy. They are easy to divide in spring to produce more plants.

Nerine bowdenii (ht 45cm) is a beautiful South African bulb which is in flower at the moment in my garden. It has long spidery petals of a lovely sugary pink, combined with graceful stamens. It is a member of the Amaryllidaceae family, whose bulbs generally do well in our Sydney climate. Like most of this family, the Nerine should be planted in a sunny position which is relatively dry in summer: mine are right underneath a silver birch tree which takes all the available moisture in the warmer months. These bulbs dislike division so I just leave them alone. This species seems to be the best one to try in our climate. The exquisite white Nerine flexuosa 'Alba' alas does not do well in Sydney, as it seems to require a particular drop in temperature at a critical time for bud formation as well as cooler, shadier conditions than the others.

Another winter-blooming bulbous perennial from South Africa is Tulbaghia simmleri (syn. Tulbaghia fragrans), which is a relative of the familiar and robust 'society garlic' (Tulbaghia violacea) many of us grow in our gardens. Tulbaghia simmleri (ht 45cm) has larger flowers, though of the same pretty lilac colour as society garlic, and these are scented. The more-or-less evergreen leaves are broader, and whilst it does well in a sunny spot, it will also bloom in dry, partly shaded sites. It is a pretty companion to the winter-flowering goldfussia Strobilanthes anisophyllus or burgundy Salvia elegans Purple, and is also attractive with a skirt of silver-striped Tradescantia zebrina growing around it.

There are a number of winter-flowering South African shrubs for Sydney gardens, but they will have to wait for another day! For those interested in learning more about South African plants, this is a good website to start with: PlantZAfrica