I find the provenance of plants a fascinating subject, as it seems to help to know where plants originate in order to decide if they will grow in our gardens. This information also helps to determine what sort of conditions they might like.
At this particular time of year, I am struck by how many of the plants in bloom are fairly tough customers which originate in dry climates such as Mediterranean regions and two places in the Atlantic Ocean off Africa: the Canary Islands and Madeira. Many plants from these localities do not like our humid summers and fail to thrive in Sydney but these particular late-winter bloomers seem to survive well in a fairly dry, sunny spot in our gardens, all combining well together to bring a splash of colour that is very welcome.
A sunny, well-drained corner of the garden is just the place for a bush or two of lavender, and the French version (Lavandula dentata) is one of the better choices for our climate. It forms a rounded bush to about 1m tall, with plump lilac flower heads which appear throughout the year but are particularly profuse in winter and early spring. It comes from the western Mediterranean region and Atlantic islands. To continue the colour theme, you can add some clumps of the very tough winter-early spring flowering purple flag iris - the original Iris germanica - which is also a Mediterranea native, thrives in the same conditions and blends in well with look of the lavender. It is a plant which has been grown for years in old country gardens (such as the one shown in the picture, which belonged to my grandmother) and passed from gardener to gardener.
From the Canary Islands, perennial statice (Limonium perezii, ht 60cm) with its thick rounded leaves and clustered heads of starry white flowers held in papery purple bracts, also looks perfectly at home with the lavender and the iris, whilst providing a contrast of form. It flowers for a long period, but particularly in the late winter-early spring period. Another tough native of the Canary Islands is the wallflower (Erysimum mutabile), a shrubby perennial with narrow leaves. The cultivar 'Winter Joy' (ht 80cm), which is shown at the start of this blog, has pretty clusters of purple flowers from winter into spring.
Also at this time the wonderfully profuse cultivars of Marguerite daisies (Argyranthemum frutescens) - which originated in the Canary Islands and Madeira - are bursting into bloom, in single and double forms and colours of white, pinks, purple, cerise, yellow and lemon. Argyranthemum maderense, also from the same provenance, is another lovely daisy, with greyish-green leaves and primrose yellow flowers. Again, these plants enjoy best a well-drained position in full sun, on the dryer side.
A fragrant little plant which likes similar conditions is the Canary Islands and Mediterranean annual known as sweet Alice or alyssum (Lobularia maritima, ht 10cm). It produces a bobbled mat of minute white, purple or pink flowers which match the look of all the other winter blooms mentioned here. Where it is happy, it will self-seed for years.
Unlike many hellebores, the Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius, syn. H. corsicus, ht 60-80cm), a Mediterranean plant, will grow in sunny, well-drained soil. Its pale-green cup-shaped blooms last a very long time and look stunning with blue or purple flowers. It too will self-seed to form colonies if it likes the place you plant it. Another Mediterranean plant with green flowers (or in fact bracts) is Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. My specimen is in full flight at the moment and I find I can just gaze and gaze at it for ages to admire its amazing form.
One thing I have noticed about many of these plants is that they tend to exhaust themselves after a few years in our Sydney climate, so it is worthwhile to take cuttings of them every couple of years or keep a lookout for self-sown seedlings.
Adding some of these easy-going plants to a corner of your garden will brighten it from late winter into early spring!
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