Last week as I plucked out a rhizome of Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' to give to a gardener and extolled its virtues of looking fabulous all year round in a dry shady spot, I pondered on how we evolve as gardeners over time. In my younger gardening days, I was totally consumed by flowers and hardly ever thought about foliage. Then, 13 years ago, I paid a visit to historic Bronte House to view the garden there, and my ideas changed forever. On a more recent trip back there, I was able to see how much I had been influenced by this experience, when my husband commented, 'You have the same plants as this garden!'
The area of the garden that made the most impression on me during my first visit was the shaded rainforest walk on the lower level of the garden adjacent to a gully, which didn't have a single flower in bloom at the time. Tall banana plants, tree ferns and palms created a canopy overhead. The ground was massed with thousands of Clivia plants, their strappy foliage contrasting with the giant elephant ears of Alocasia and Colocasia, their shape repeated on a smaller scale by green and cream Syngonium, which scrambled up trees.
One plant family which was well represented was the Marantaceae, an excellent group of exotic foliage plants from tropical America, Africa and Asia, which grow from underground rhizomes or tubers. Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea), used in cooking as a thickener and for its easily digestible starch, is a well-known member of the family. Other genera are grown as houseplants in cooler climates, but in Sydney we can grow them outdoors in shaded parts of the garden. Maranta leuconeura (ht 30 cm) is a typical example of the family. It has some decorative cultivars with coloured blotches and veins on the leaves. At Bronte House, it was very effectively mass-planted at the edge of the paths. The leaves have the strange habit of rolling up at night to look like praying hands, giving rise to its common name of the prayer plant.
This was also the first time I had seen imposing clumps of Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' (pictured at the start of the blog) in a garden. This is a tall perennial (ht 1.2 m) from the same family, with elegant, silvery-grey oblong leaves, richly marked with dark veins and with deep purple undersides. I have since added it to shaded parts of my own garden, where it looks attractive at all times and asks very little of me, except to occasionally pull up bits that have wandered a little too far - but I don't regard it as an invasive plant. There are other species, including Ctenanthe lubbersiana (pictured above, ht 75 cm), which has yellow-green bands on the foliage, and Ctenanthe oppenheimiana 'Tricolor' (ht 45 cm), which has blotches of creamy yellow on its leaves with distinctive red underside. I also have one that has plain lush green foliage to a bit over 1 m in height, perfect for filling a dry corner under trees or masking unappealing fences. Although these plants reputedly need moisture, I find mine cope well in dry shade.
Calathea also belong to the Marantaceae family and there are some beautiful species and cultivars with various patterns and colours on the leaves, reminiscent of gorgeously patterned feathers in some cases. Some are a bit marginal in Sydney, preferring a warmer climate than ours; but velvety Calathea zebrina (ht 60-90 cm) with its striking stripy leaves does reasonably well and I have also had success with what may be Calathea lancifolia (pictured above, ht 50 cm) with decorative slim leaves and dark markings. I like to grow it near darkish-coloured leaves to echo the markings.
Members of the Marantaceae plant family generally thrive in shaded garden areas and need little attention once established. Such foliage plants provide colour, texture, interest and form over a long period and with little maintenance, and have made my garden a very different place. Many can be grown as houseplants or outdoor pot plants as well. Though most members of this plant family are grown for the decorative foliage, having insignificant blooms, Thalia dealbata (ht to 1.8 m) - an aquatic plant from North America - has tall spikes of violet flowers in summer above its canna-like leaves; it grows best in full sun.
Bronte House is open several times a year: visit their website at www.brontehouse.com for details.
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