Asking 20 knowledgeable Sydney gardeners for their favourite early spring flowers might be expected to throw up a wide diversity of answers, but in a group I belong to there was a surprising consensus of opinion as to what are the best doers for our climate for blooms at this time of year when this topic was discussed recently! Of course, we are all influenced by one another, through swapping cuttings and visiting each other's gardens, but overall I feel this collection represents a good guide to those who might be looking to add some colour to their spring gardens - how I wish I'd had this list 30 years ago!
Amongst shrubs, the one most frequently mentioned was the white may bush (Spiraea cantoniensis), which is in glorious frothy bloom right now. It thrives in our climate and, having grown up with this in my childhood garden, it shouts 'Spring!' to me like no other plant can do. A most unusual form with a white variegated leaf is an interesting variant. Other excellent shrubs include the pink or white versions of Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica), tough beauties with simple flowers like fruit blossoms. Taller versions can be used as screens or hedges. Our group agreed that this time of year is when the Chinese bellflower (Abutilon hybrids and species) are at their absolute peak: though they have been good during winter and will continue to bloom until the end of November, which I think is the ideal time to prune them back hard. Colours include pinks, white, red, yellows and oranges, and there are compact versions as well as the traditional taller ones.
Other good shrubs out now are the brilliant orange marmalade bush (Streptosolen jamesonii); fragrant Rondeletia amoena, with its posies of tiny pink flowers; exquisite Pieris japonica, with lily-of-the-valley white or pale pink flowers, a shrub I have been growing (and enjoying) for the past year; and the pink version of the Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense), which seems to be blooming its head off particularly madly this year. Acanthaceae shrubs Justicia floribunda (syn. Justicia rizzinii), Strobilanthes anisophylla and Eranthemum pulchellum also garnered a few guernseys, especially for their ability to flower well in shaded area. I was interested to note that no one in our group mentioned azaleas as a favourite spring shrub - one of the few spring plants I knew 30 years back. Whilst they are undeniably stunning when in full bloom, they suffer from so many pests and diseases (including petal blight, which can ruin the floral display overnight), and all these problems seem to be only remediable by spraying with some truly awful chemicals (including Confidor, implicated in the worldwide decline of the bee population).
Daisies in all their myriad forms are also firm favourites for spring - including the classic pink, white or pale yellow Marguerite daisy (preferably the old-fashioned tall types, which live on for several years in the garden); the robust sailor boy daisy (Osteospermum hybrids), of which there are now apparently more than 60 types; resilient ground-covering Arctotis and Gazania, with many different hues available; annual cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida) in rich shades of purple and blue; and old-fashioned spidery-petalled Gerbera, which I am only just starting to grow, and still trying to find the best spot for. Sun and well-drained soil, with perhaps a dash of lime, seem to be its preferences. If anyone can give me any further hints for growing Gerbera, I'd be pleased to hear them!
There aren't a lot of spring-flowering Salvia that do well in Sydney (most flower in summer and autumn) but fragrant-leaved, pink-flowered Salvia dorisiana is a firm favourite, along with ever-flowering Salvia 'Amistad' and some of the big-growing forms such as salmon-hued Salvia karwinskii and burgundy Salvia 'Timboon'. Salvia fruticosa 'Greek Skies' is an unusual spring-bloomer specimen for Sydney gardens: a Mediterranean plant that looks a lot like the culinary sage but grows better and forms a small shrub shape, with scented, silver-grey leaves and attractive blue flowers.
Colourful and exuberant Pelargonium plants are often at their best in spring, and the zonal, ivy and scented-leaved types all perform well in Sydney, given a hot, sunny position in the garden. They are best renewed from cuttings every few years. Hybrid hellebores are a perennial favourite for cool, shaded areas and they look stunning right now. Amongst bulbs, a favourite amongst our group is the bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)! The species which grows in Sydney is the Spanish bluebell, and is beloved because of its lovely blue hue. It multiplies well (maybe too well at times?) and is shade-tolerant. Other bulb choices included the brilliant purple Babiana, the huge trumpets of Hippeastrum papilio and elegant pink Watsonia 'Wedding Bells'. Orchids - including Cymbidium hybrids and native Dendrobium species - are also popular with the group.
Many thanks to the 'Friday Group' for sharing their favourite spring flowers. I'd love to hear about yours!
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