I have always loved the many spires of flowers that arise majestically at this time of year. They remind me of my cottage gardening years, when I wanted to have a garden just like those in England. Eventually, I realised the Sydney climate was not ideal for many of the gorgeous perennial plants that grow in English cottage gardens and I embraced subtropical plants instead. However, I still do have a few of the English-y plants in my garden today - the 'good doers' that can cope with Sydney's humidity and mild winters - and some of them have their blooms held on spires.
Some of these come from the family of plants once called Scrophulariaceae but which is now known as Plantaginaceae (although some plants previously grouped with the original family have been dispersed to other families). Many Plantaginaceae plants have tubular flowers that flare open with lobed lips. Annual snapdragons (Antirrhinum) are a classic example of the family, and I loved these as a child when they grew in our garden, though I have never grown them myself. Another well-known member of the family is the foxglove (Digitalis species and cultivars) and this autumn I yearned to have these in my garden again after many years, so I grew some from seedlings of the annual form, Digitalis purpurea 'Foxy'. They are in bloom now, towering over a metre tall, their spires covered in exquisite pink or cream bells, spotted beguilingly within. I am hoping they might self-seed and return next year. I wanted to see how well they grew in light shade, and I am pleased with the results. They mingle delightfully with late-spring flowering shrubs such as Brunfelsia and Mackaya bella (which both do well in a shaded spot), as well as Philadelphus and deciduous Viburnum. I have never had any success with any of the perennial foxgloves, alas.
However, recently, I acquired a most unusual plant marketed as a 'Digiplexis', a cross between Digitalis and Isoplexis (which is another plant in the same Plantaginaceae family, a soft-wooded evergreen shrub native to Madeira and the Canary Islands, with orange-yellow flowers). Digiplexis is said to be a shrubby perennial plant with multiple flower spikes from spring through to early winter, forming a clump and growing to a metre in height. Mine has raspberry-red flowers, and looks very like my annual foxgloves. I will be intrigued to see how this performs in my garden over the coming months. It may prove to prefer a colder climate but I am keen to give it a go!
Linaria purpurea is a perennial from the Plantaginaceae family that does do well in my Sydney garden. The plants last two or three years, and generously self-seed (but not in a bad way, to my way of thinking). The ethereal spires (ht 70-90 cm) of tiny pink, purple or white tubular flowers are everywhere in my garden at the moment and I find I can gaze in wonderment at them for ages. They bloom over a long period. They do best in a dry, sunny position.
Another perennial from the family that does reasonably well in my garden is Rehmannia elata, which has spires of large, deep pink speckled blooms rather like a foxglove. The plant expands to form a clump when it is happy and seems to do best in sun with good soil. The spires can rise 60 to 90 cm in ideal conditions and can appear for many months.
A less likely member of the family is Russelia equisetiformis, a shrub with long, thin stems bearing tiny, red tubular flowers basically all year round. A fairly lax plant, it doesn't hold its spires up tall like other plants in the family, and is at its best when it cascades over a retaining wall. There is a pretty pale yellow version. I have found that Russelia performs quite well in part-shade.
Other members of the family with similar snapdragon-like flowers are climbers rather than clump-forming perennials: Lophospermum erubescens, Maurandya and Rhodochiton. I have grown the first two of these in my time but find they can become a bit rampageous and self-seed too much.
Spired members of the family that I have had no success with include Penstemon (though I know some talented gardeners in Sydney grow these well!), Angelonia (which seems to want a warmer climate than I have), Hebe and Veronicastrum. Anyhow, I am enjoying the spires I have in bloom at the moment!
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Coleus can make wonderful pictures in the garden.
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Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.