"Unusual plants"

I was once obsessed with rare 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.

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.

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.

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 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!

 Reader Comments

1/15  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

Hi Deidre, Great blog and I now know the name of the name of good old reliable Ctenanthe oppenheimiana Tricolor. Must move some clumps around the garden. Always learning from you. It is a great plant; I will be dividing mine and planting in other spots too once it is big enough. Deirdre

2/15  Trudi - 4223 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

An interesting article about "rare" plants. I think, perhaps we gardeners have all experienced trial and error and got more savvy with time to choose what suits our garden best. This year I have planted many different cottage,wild gladioli, and surprisingly they do so well in their period of glory. Iresine is beautiful but it has tried to take over my garden, like many others! Yes the Iresine can get rather large. I hack it back each year. Great to know the wild gladioli do well for you where you are. Deirdre

3/15  Faye - 2210 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

Really enjoying your Blog, it is all very interesting. I am starting a new garden in Sydney after living 40 years in the Central West of N.S.W. where we experienced low rainfall and low humidity plus frost. There are so many plants that I will be able to grow, choosing will be my challenge. Faye Yes it is a very different gardening scenario - I have had experience of inland gardening with my grandmothers old garden near Yass. Good luck with your new garden. Deirdre

4/15  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

In starting my garden, many years ago, I craved "ordinary plants" from my parents" and their neighbours" gardens, e.g. white Easter daisy, snowflakes (we called them "snowdrops"), snowball bush, mock orange, to name a few, all of which are still growing in my garden. However, I developed a liking for the rare and unusual, obtaining quite a few, via seed, from the UK, but found most did not survive. I still like to grow rare and unusual plants, but have learnt to be more selective. It was fun trying all those unusual plants at the time - I enjoyed the dream of growing them even if the reality was not such a success! Deirdre

5/15  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

I have that tagetes but it does seed a bit - love the smell - might put a plant of it near my golden justicia - good idea thanks. and my white haemanthus is putting on a great show this year - so much more reliable than the bigger red one which takes up a lot of room and does nothing for me these days. Mine are in a pot so they don"t get lost. Was up in Sydney yesterday for the last day of the the exhibits in the Bot Gardens. Lovely to see some of my favourite salvias with room to spread. Thanks, Anne. I agree the red haemanthus doesn"t do that well here. Deirdre

6/15  Georgia - 4107 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 16 June 2014

We appreciate beautiful flowers and foliage for their form, the sensuous perfumes and the rich interesting tapestry of colour and texture. I tried to keep a daphne alive here in Brisbane. I had one or two blooms but nothing to compare with the beautiful plants we grew in Sydney where it is much cooler. Needless to say it is now compost. My brother urged me to grow Erlicheer so I could experience some of the pleasure of a cooler climate and they are thriving since I buried the bulbs very deep. A great tip re the bulbs. And where you live, you can grow all the warm-climate plants so much better than those of us in Sydney! There are so many gorgeous ones, too. Deirdre

7/15  Katherine - 3265 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 16 June 2014

Hi Deirdre. Lovely to read your blog and be reminded you are a kindred spirit. After gardening for over forty years I still lust after anything rare and wonderful that I see or read about and then there is the "thrill of the chase" as I try to acquire the plant. I have met many lovely people through our shared interest and love sharing plants with them. Thanks for your blog. I know what you mean - the thrill of the chase was such fun. And I still am interested in unusual things - but I do use more commonplace ones a lot now. Deirdre

8/15  Caroline - 4105 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 16 June 2014

I can so relate to you Deidre in this regard. I have been gardening in earnest now for about the same number of years as yourself and I still look for the unusual and different plants for interest and affect. However, like you I have been left very disappointed with the results. I too believed that care and devotion to that plant would ensure its survival. Not so. Back to basics and now grow tried and true plants, oldies but goodies. Doesn"t stop me looking for new and hardier hybrids! I agree. I am still looking for new plants that can improve my garden but also ways to use the more commonplace ones to best advantage. Deirdre

9/15  Erika - 4061 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

Hello Deirdre I am enjoying the elegance of your blog; both the typeface you use and your photos.Excellent tips about what to pair with what too. And thanks to Georgia. I also live in Brisbane and that is a good tip about how to grow Erlicheer or Early Cheer as we know it in Auckland, where I come from. Erika 4061 Thanks so much, Erika. Hope you have success with the bulbs following the tip from Georgia. Deirdre

10/15  Malle - 2570 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

I have Tagetes lemmonii and it has thrived through drought and humidity for ten years but I am afraid I may lose it so I would like to propagate it. I have been unsuccessful with the seeds so far. Any Ideas ? I would appreciate some tips on this. Thank you It grows very easily from cuttings in my experience. I will be posting an information section about taking cuttings very soon on our Resources page, accessible from the home page of the website. Deirdre

11/15  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 16 June 2014

Deirdre my garden is full of unusual plants and they are doing brilliantly. I have Brugmansias at one end of the scale and this morning have been photographing Galanthus - the beautiful English snowdrops. I think the key is "right plant, right place". I know the microclimates in my garden. If need be I"ll manipulate the space by planting hedges or raising garden beds. Some parts of the garden are in full sun with a gravel mulch, others are shaded and cool and watered often. I love it all. Wonderful to have those microclimates and a cooler climate to be able to grow such treasures! Deirdre

12/15  Pam - 3216 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 16 June 2014

Hi Deirdre, thanks for your great ideas. I have had no luck with Abutilons in the past but seeing your photo of the variegated leaf variety makes me think it is worth another try in a partly shaded side garden I am currently rejigging. Do you have any tips that might help me in my location. In general I grow mine in part-shade. Full shade seems to inhibit blooming but in part-shade they seem to flower well. Give them a decent start by digging in compost before you plant and keep well watered for the first few weeks. I always prune in November (quite hard) and I use Yates Success a couple of times over summer to control the horrid caterpillar. I do not prune at any other time (unless the caterpillars do defoliate the plant before I realise). Deirdre

13/15  Chris - 4034 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 16 June 2014

Deirdre, great blog, I too have tried some rare plants, but find the old tried and true are somewhat hardier, though I get much pleasure out of seeing rare and unusual plants. The Erlicheer seems interesting. I must find a picture of that one. Look forward to the next blog. Thanks, Chris. To see a photo of Erlicheer, look in my Plant Reference under Narcissus. It is the pic at the top of the page. Deirdre

14/15  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Souvenir de Bonn is one of my favourite abutilons, but it can revert to plain green which takes over if not pruned it out. I also grow some of the very dwarf forms to 30cm with a more open flower, which put on a great display for much of the year. The Tagetes is by far my favourite plant to prune, and if cut back after each flush, tends to flower most of the year, although the winter show is by far the most jaw dropping. Dont think I will ever stop being a sucker for the rare and unusual! Thanks for that tip on the Tagetesas I have never been very systematic about pruning it regularly. Will follow your advice this year! Deirdre

15/15  Carole - 2230 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 18 June 2014

I planted my first abutilon in a barrel in 1961, it was an absolute delight to me then and I still enjoy the one I have now have in a far warmer climate (grows beautifully from cuttings too). I truly relate to your chase of the unusual plant - one of my early treasures was sprekelia(Jacobean lily) and I found one again a few years ago but I think the deer loved it to death :-) Thank you Deidre. Thanks, Carole. Abutilons are one of my favourites. Deirdre

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