More winter flowers

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Strobilanthes anisophyllus

We have met a number of winter blooms over the past few blogs, but there are lots more to mention! I have often expatiated on the merits of the Acanthus plant family (Acanthaceae) for Sydney gardens (especially shady areas with pretty ordinary soil), which includes the well-known oyster plant (Acanthus mollis) that grows only too well in our gardens; winter sees some different ones come into bloom. In the recent blog on hot winter colour, I mentioned Justicia rizzinii and Justicia aurea, and now we can encounter some more of them.

An old favourite, the goldfussia (Strobilanthes anisophyllus, ht 1.5m, shown above) has soft mauve flower bells which appear amongst dark purple-suffused leaves in winter and early spring. It comes from the Himalayas. The colour of the waxy lilac-pink starry blooms of the bulb known as sweet garlic (Tulbaghia simmleri, ht 40-60cm) makes it a good companion to grow nearby, as it will also tolerate dry shade. The snowflake (Leucojum aestivum, ht 45cm) is another bulb that is easy to grow in Sydney in shade, and has pristine white nodding bells marked with tiny green spots; these also associate well with the goldfussia's flowers. Both of these bulbs can be left in the ground for a few years and will form big clumps.

Ruellia macrantha (left) with Aechmea gamosepala

Another shrubby member of the Acanthaceae is Christmas pride (Ruellia macrantha ht 1.5-2m), a soft-wooded shrub from Brazil with gorgeous, large, bright purplish-pink flared funnels from winter into early spring. It grows in sun or part-shade. Its petals are exactly the same colour as the winter-blooming bromeliad Aechmea gamosepala (ht 50cm) - also from Brazil - with its thick bristles of purplish-pink bracts tipped with iridescent blue bead-like flowers. Like many members of the bromeliad family it will grow in hopeless, shady corners and even in places where there is hardly any soil, where it can form an attractive, low-maintenance groundcover.

Megaskepasma erythrochlamys in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

An even more eye-catching member of the Acanthaceae is the frost-sensitive shrub known as Brazilian red cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys, ht 2-3m). It has vibrant crimson bracts in bold spikes held above huge, glossy, veined leaves. The foliage provides a useful tropical-looking effect for the rest of the year, like some of the other members of the Acanthaceae, such as Justicia carnea and Rhinacanthus beesianus. It grows well even next to trees. There are many specimens in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, where they start to bloom around May and continue through winter.

Another member of the family is the shrimp plant from Mexico (Justicia brandegeeana, ht 1m) which has flowers of lime-yellow or russet red. It is not specifically winter flowering: it seems to be always in bloom. It is tough and shade tolerant. A shrub of the reddish one that I pass on my walk around the neighbourhood grows luxuriantly in the shade of a tree near a big clump of the rhizomatous groundcover Begonia 'Erythrophylla', known as the beefsteak plant, with its big, glossy, reddish-brown foliage, and I always think this is a great combination.

The Acanthus family has much to recommend it as a source of colour for our gardens all year round - but the winter flowering ones are particularly welcome to me!