"Tropical treats"

February is our most tropical month in Sydney!
Sunday, 01 February 2015     

Gloriosa superba

In the month of February in Sydney, we could really be forgiven for thinking we are living in the tropics. Wild, lush growth threatens to engulf the garden, the spectacular and dramatic leaves of warm-climate foliage plants, in particular those from the Aroid family, such as Alocasia, Colocasia and Philodendron, grow to enormous proportions, glistening lusciously on rainy days - and exotic flowers bloom. I love this time of year, when my garden is at its fullest and most abundant.

Many of the flowers out in my garden at this time of year are far removed from the prim, pastel blooms of spring. They are big and flamboyant, often garishly coloured. They relish the heat and humidity of February. Even though they may sulk during winter, they all survive and come into their own once the heat of summer hits. They generally hail from Mexico, South America, Africa or Asia. Many of my flowers are hot colours of reds, yellows and oranges, adding to the tropical effect.

An annual plant new to my garden that is flowering this summer is the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), pictured at left, which can grow 1 to 2 m tall. It has stunning large orange flowers rather like a Dahlia - the colour of the petals really glows. I am hoping it will self-sow in my garden in future years. It has a backdrop of a thicket of the so-called 'red jacobinia' (Odontonema tubaeforme, ht 1.8 m, pictured in the previous paragraph), a tough shrub with bold, glossy leaves, which grows very well in shade. The spires of shiny red flowers last for ages and look as if they have been moulded from some sort of plastic. It is a member of the Acanthaceae family: many of the plants in this family do very well in Sydney's climate.

Another showy Acanthaceae shrub in bloom now is sometimes called 'golden candles' (Pachystachys lutea). Its bright yellow, upright inflorescences are comprised of many bracts, and are long lasting. It looks very similar to the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana), also an Acanthaceae plant. The shrimp plants bloom almost all year round, and apart from the familiar rusty-red and lime forms, there are other newer cultivars, such as the tall, bright red-flowered 'Big Red', and pink and lime 'Fruit Cocktail'.

An unusual orange-flowered shrubby Bauhinia is also in full bloom now: Bauhinia galpinii (ht 1.8 m). The burnt-orange blooms look like whimsical insects, and they last for a long time. Another flower out now that looks like some sort of other-worldly creature is Gloriosa superba (pictured at the start of the blog). This plant grows from a tuber, and its leaves have tendrils, which wind through other plants for support. The bizarre but beautiful flowers look rather like claws, each with six recurved wavy petals and stamens splayed out below the petals. The flowers are usually red or orange-red with yellow edges.

Canna and Dahlia with bright red, orange or yellow flowers grow among these tropical-looking flowers, and the dark leaves such as those of Persicaria 'Red Dragon', Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' and coleus cultivars provide a welcome contrast. I also like lime-coloured leaves with my fiery-hued flowers: such as the luscious foliage of Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious' (pictured at left), Duranta erecta 'Sheena's Gold' and lime-leaved zonal Pelargonium.

 Reader Comments

1/10  Dominic wong - 2575 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 02 February 2015

My Gloriosa is also blooming in my greenhouse,that"s the only place it will grow in a cool climate like ours.Thank you Deidre for sending me the seeds.I"m looking forward to sowing them in Autumn.I"ll look into the Open Garden Blog that you are starting.Thanks again. Thanks, Dominic. Interesting about growing the Gloriosa in a greenhouse. It is certainly an amazing flower. Deirdre

2/10  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 02 February 2015

I grow some of the plants mentioned, and they certainly add a dash of vibrant colour to the garden. I have not grown Tithonia, but the flowers look wonderful. Currently I have Gloriosa "Rothchildiana" and supurba winding their way through other plants. Thank you for the list of plants - most useful. It is surprising how well the Gloriosa can climb! I am enjoying the Tithonia and will definitely let some of the flowers go to seed in the hope of growing it again next summer. Deirdre

3/10  Judith - 4105 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 02 February 2015

Could you please give me the name of first flower featured in " Tropical Treats". It pops up every year I my garden. Many thanks for all the wonderful information you provide. It is the Gloriosa superba. It does wander round a fair bit but is very pretty. Deirdre

4/10  Janna - UK Monday, 02 February 2015

A lovely post - I do love all the warm tropical colours. I am about to experiment with some more subtropical plants in my garden in Mosman. Can you tell me which of Odontonema, Pachystachys, Bauhinia and Gloriosa you find cope best through the dry Sydney spring/early summer without too much supplementary water (I have rather sandy soil)? Thank you. I think any of those you have listed should be OK in Mosman. In general, I find the Acanthaceae plants such as Odontonema, Pachystachys (and Justicia, Strobilanthes etc) do not need a lot of water. I do always dig compost in before I plant anything - in my case it is because my soil is heavy clay but the compost is equally beneficial for sandy soil. Probably the easiest of all the four plants you mention to grow is the Odontonema, and it is great for shaded spots. Deirdre

5/10  Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 02 February 2015

From my view point you do live in the tropics! The gloriosa lily looks wonderful and the tithonia is a beautiful orange. Thanks, Helen! Deirdre

6/10  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 02 February 2015

The Tithonia does look fantastic - I take it from the mention of seeds that it is an annual? I have grown the Tree Marigold T.diversifolia for many years, with its large yellow daisies in mid winter, but it is a large non woody perennial shrub which I prune almost to the ground, keep it in check through summer, then let it go to reach it"s full size in time for its amazing flush of flowers mid winter. It does very occassionally seed in my garden although I usually propogate it by cutting. Yes it is an annual. This is my first year of growing it. I hope it will self-seed. I used to have the tree marigold but it did get rather too big and in the end I took it out. Do love the flowers in winter, though. Deirdre

7/10  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 02 February 2015

Hi Deirdre - yes the Tree Marigold is very very vigorous, which is why I really go to town on it wth the secatures a few time over the warmer months - still gives it time to produce flowers for the winter! I do the same with some of my larger winter flowering Salvias - possibly S. x karwinskii or very large S iodanthe cultivars?? (the person I got them from originally wasn"t sure!) Also give the cut to the ground treatment with my Tree Dahlias after flowering. I agree that these big plants need to be pruned pretty savagely to keep them under control! I do some of the big salvias several times over summer. Deirdre

8/10  David - 2068 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 03 February 2015

I tried planting 3 Pachystachys Lutea near Chatswood in part shaded spots two to three years ago. They haven"t done all that well, and I"m wondering how to do better. The soil is clay, rather acidic, although I did add rotted compost. The positions weren"t ideal, being almost full shade in winter, and perhaps too sunny in summer. Any advice much appreciated - thanks. Sorry to hear they haven"t done well so far. It may be that they are suffering from cold in winter and maybe too much sun in summer might be scorching the leaves? From my experience they do need some sun (eg morning sun). I have also found they take a while to really take off. Maybe give them some regular liquid feeding and a mulch of compost, and maybe see if you could move one of them to a different spot (in autumn) to see if it does better. It isn"t the easiest of the Acanthaceae to grow in Sydney except in the warmer coastal areas, but it is worth perservering. The best specimen I have seen in my suburb was in a sheltered spot growing against the brick wall of a house, which must have been giving it some reflected heat. Deirdre

9/10  Lyn - 4570 (Zone:11B - Tropical) Tuesday, 03 February 2015

Your Tropical treats make Western Sydney sound like the Tropics! However,I removed Gloriosa from my garden after learning that it can be poisonous to native animals. Proably not a problem in suburban gardens? Always a delight to read your blog. A good point, Lyn -- the tubers are poisonous if eaten so gardeners should be aware of that when handling them and if there are small children around. I find that my Gloriosa tubers are very deep in the ground so it is not a big problem here. Deirdre

10/10  Florence - 4070 (Zone:11B - Tropical) Monday, 23 February 2015

Hello Deirdre, I am not sharing your enthusiasm about Gloriosa superba. It is pretty, but also a very invasive weed the Stradbroke Island has been fighting for years. It spread very quickly in neighbouring gardens and parks, and its fruits are poisonous to native wildlife. Thanks very much for your feedback, Florence. I will amend the plant reference for this plant. Deirdre

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