Spidery plants

Sunday, 06 April 2014

Spiderettes on Chlorophytum comosum

I seem to be obsessed with garden creatures at the moment but instead of writing about spiders in the garden, I have decided to talk about spidery plants: those that have 'spider' in their common name. Once I started thinking about it, there were quite a few of them! Flowers seem to be given this epithet because of having long, thin stamens like a daddy-long-legs spider, or because their petals are elongated and narrow. In some cases, it is the overall arachnid shape of the plant that gives it this name. I find something mesmerising in such plants that mimic the distinctive form of these creatures, a number of which are helpful in our gardens because they eat pest insects. I am always on the lookout for flowers and plants with an unusual shape to add interest to more traditional plantings.

In fact, the very first plant I was ever really aware of is one usually called the 'spider plant': Chlorophytum comosum (ht 30-40 cm, pictured above). It grew out of a teapot in the kitchen of the share house I lived in as a uni student. It has a rosette of long thin leaves (variegated in some species) that I suppose do look a bit like spider legs. The plant sends out little 'pups' with tiny roots, held on long, thin stems from the mother plant, and these really do look like baby spiders hanging from a silken thread. These plantlets are apparently even called 'spiderettes'! I was astounded in 1977 when told by my flatmate who owned the plant that it was possible to propagate it by detaching these pups and planting them in the ground or in a pot. It is probably one of the easiest plants in the world to grow as it survives in dry, shaded areas where other plants struggle, or it can be used as an indoor plant. I grow a cultivar of it known as 'Ocean' (ht 30-40 cm), with crisp white and green stripy leaves, which lighten up a dull area of my garden.

Cleome Senorita Rosalita in the garden of Kathryn Hipkin in Brisbane

For many years, I have grown the tall summer annual Cleome hassleriana in a sunny border - it is often called 'spider flower' because of its long, whiskery stamens on pink or white blooms, which added a flamboyant touch to my more traditional plants. In recent times, however, I have grown tired of it and have now developed a fondness for a Cleome hydrid called 'Senorita Rosalita' (pictured), which is a more bushy version and is perennial in the Sydney climate. It grows to around 1 m tall and has pretty pink flowers over a lengthy period. It likes a sunny, dryish position. Though not as dramatic as its taller cousin, it is not sticky, has no thorns, and does not self-seed. There is also a nice white form (with a pink tinge to the buds and dark stamens) called 'Senorita Blanca'.

Late summer and early autumn see the blooming of the so-called 'spider lilies' - Lycoris species (ht 40-60 cm), from China and Japan - the most commonly grown being the golden yellow one (Lycoris aurea, pictured) and bright red species (Lycoris radiata). They both have narrow ruffled petals and protruding whiskery stamens, and appear on leafless stems in February or March; they do look very spidery. I find them unpredictable - some years they flower well and others they don't. It is exciting when they do appear from nowhere with their exotic inflorescences. Some people recommend they are grown in a hot, dry position with the top of the bulb exposed; others regard them as woodland plants, best grown in semi-shade with morning sun, with their necks buried. I'm still not sure which is the best way!

In summer, another 'spider lily' is in flower in my garden: a Hymenocallis species, possibly Hymenocallis littoralis (ht 75cm) or Hymenocallis caribaea (ht 80cm), with stout stems of large, scented, crisp white flowers: with long thin petals around a daffodil-like cup and prominent, quivering stamens. They form thick clumps, and though mine are grown in full sun, they apparently will also do quite well in shade and can also thrive in either very boggy soil or well-drained spots. I have seen them growing in the sandy soil of a seaside garden. They can be grown in pots. In short, they are most adaptable plants!

Hemerocallis Black Plush

Amongst daylilies (Hemerocallis cultivars), there are what are known as the 'spider' forms, with really elegant, narrow petals rather than the very full, wide-petalled types that are most often seen. These spider ones are my favourites amongst the daylilies that I grow, such as ever-flowering 'Lime-painted Lady' with gorgeous lime-yellow blooms and 'Black Plush' (pictured), with purple-black petals and a bright yellow centre (ht 50-70 cm). They seem to mingle better with other flowers than the bigger daylily blooms.

Australian native plants with a spidery look include many of the Grevillea species, some of which have been given the common name of spider flowers, such as the red spider flower (G. speciosa), the pink (G. sericea), the grey (G. buxifolia) and the green (G. mucronulata). With their profusion of blooms, the shrubs look as if they are covered with spiders!

One can only wonder at how or why plants developed this characteristic shape. Whatever the reasons, such plants add variety of form to gardens - as long as you don't hate spiders!