Unusual plants

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Tagetes lemmonii, the mountain marigold in bloom now, on right

Having been a keen gardener for over 30 years, I guess I have had my fair share of unusual plants in my garden. In fact, there was a time when I wanted to grow only unusual things - I turned up my nose at commonplace plants, convinced that growing them meant I would have a very ordinary garden. I spent many happy hours seeking out rare plants in obscure nurseries - the harder to find, the better, in my opinion. Whenever I visited other people's gardens, I was on the lookout for anything different - and hopeful I might get a cutting! For a few years, I imported seed from the UK and grew many plants unheard of in nurseries here.

For all that effort, not a huge number of these rarities from my earlier days remain in my garden now. Most of them were rare in Sydney because they didn't thrive in our climate (except in small microclimates) - a fact that took me a long time to get my head around. In my earlier gardening days, I was sure that my intense devotion to a plant would ensure its survival - not taking into account the vital aspect of climate. Most of what I wanted to grow were English cottage plants, yet the heat and humidity of our summers and the mildness of our winters meant that these poor plants didn't really have a chance. Other ones I tried turned out to be deservedly uncommon for other reasons - they had a short flowering season or had no presence in the garden, so were turfed out. All that remains of all of these plants and all my efforts is a bunch of sad plant labels.

One of my Salvia plants in bloom now: Salvia Timboon

The turning point came when I realised that the old faithful plants grown by my parents' generation were chosen for a reason - they survived. And that if they were combined in interesting combinations of colour and texture, they could look fantastic. I now grow mainly semitropical plants from South and Central America, Mexico, South Africa and Asia, with a number of plants from China that seem to suit our climate. As regular readers would know, I have a particular fondness for warm-climate Salvia and members of the family Acanthaceae, as well as many other genera.

I still do have a bit of a weakness for unusual plants, but I now look to warm-climate plants to satisfy this craving. And what I seek now are unusual colours, textures or forms, and long blooming periods, rather than rarity per se. Many of them are foliage plants, that look good all year round. There is always the hope that something will do really well and I will be able to spread it amongst my gardening friends to enrich their gardens as well as my own. Such plants are only on probation until they prove themselves worthy, however. I no longer keep something just because it is rare. And I still have to rein myself in from acquiring too many oddities, because each one has to find a place in what is now a very full garden! I wandered around my garden this weekend to see which less-common plants are catching my eye at the moment. Almost all came from other people's gardens or the cuttings table from the local garden club.

Plant known to me as Parthenocissus sikkimensis

Parthenocissus sikkimensis is a plant I have had for many years and can't remember where I got it from (and I am not sure this is even its correct name). It is a relative of Virginia creeper but is not rampageous. It has very attractive evergreen, five-lobed leaves of dark green and can be either a mat-like groundcover or a climber, as it clings onto walls. It is best in shade or semi-shade. Its unique foliage is an excellent contrast to other plants.

Abutilon Souvenir de Bonn

Since I have discovered a way to control the horrid leaf-rolling caterpillar that defoliates this shrub every summer, I have rekindled my love of Abutilon and have a number of them growing in my garden again. They are particularly floriferous in winter and spring, and lend themselves to interesting colour combinations. My variegated-leaf one (Abutilon 'Souvenir de Bonn') doesn't in fact flower much at all (blooms are peach-coloured) but its green-and-white maple-like foliage is a delight all year round. It brings lightness into shaded areas, and is excellent to use in colour echoes with white flowers, including Hydrangea and Plectranthus.

The so-called mountain marigold (Tagetes lemmonii , pictured at the start of the blog, right, with Justicia aurea on the left), a soft-wooded shrub, is a joy at the moment - smothered in a dainty, bright-orange daisies, bringing warmth to the winter garden. Its ferny foliage smells just like passionfruit. The blooming period is quite long, and sometimes the shrub may reflower after being cut back in later winter.

Haemanthus albiflos

Haemanthus albiflos is an unusual little bulb from South Africa and is flowering now. From amongst its flat leathery leaves emerge white flowers very like shaving brushes. These bulbs prefer shaded spots - unlike many other bulbs. I plan to move mine to a position nearby some snowflake bulbs, white woodland iris (Iris japonica)and white Primula in a shaded area with an all-white colour scheme during winter.

I like all Ctenanthe plants, though they do tend to expand fairly quickly into big clumps, so have to be reined in every so often. Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' with its silver-grey, herringbone patterned leaves is a stalwart in dry shade. A recent addition to my garden is Ctenathe oppenheimiana 'Tricolor' (pictured at left), with irregular creamy white blotches on grey-patterned green leaves and distinctive cerise undersides. I have paired this with Iresine herbtii 'Brilliantissima', which has foliage of exactly the same cerise colour, to form a pleasing pair.

If you have an unusual plant that does well, I think it is a great idea to share it with your gardening friends so that more people can enjoy it!