Once upon a time, I was thrilled by the brief flowering of some Himalayan or European rarity or other, which would be in bloom for barely a few days. It was enough to know that I had succeeded to grow my treasure well enough to allow it to flower. The fact that I had to wait another 12 months for the performance to be repeated was irrelevant! (Though often it never was repeated, as the plant would die, being totally unsuited to the Sydney climate.) My approach to gardening was to peer closely at individual plants, not to see the big picture of how the garden actually looked as a whole.
These days, I look for plants with the longest flowering period possible, so that my garden can be colourful for months with little effort from me. I do love seasonal highlights, but I also want continuity of colour. A lively discussion with some gardening friends last week centred on our favourite long-blooming plants. There was a surprising level of agreement with what we came up with, and the plants, by definition, are tough enough to survive the horribly hot conditions of our most recent summer! All of these plants will benefit from deadheading to help keep them tidy and to prolong with their lengthy display. Eventually, they will become woody, exhausted by their extensive flowering: then it is time to propagate or purchase a new specimen!
1. One plant that was probably mentioned the most often was shrubby Pentas lanceolota. Hailing from tropical Africa, Madagascar and the Arabian Peninsula, this compact plant (ht around 1 m, though some are a little taller) is continually covered in cute posies of dainty, star-shaped flowers, in colours of white, varying shades of pink, cerise, purple, mauve and red. It will grow in sun or part-shade and only stop flowering (briefly) in the depths of winter. It does not turn a hair on the most torrid of summer days. It suit semitropical style gardens or more cottagey style. I am not a fan of the dwarf hybrids, as they don't seem to have the staying power of the larger forms.
2. Salvias can be very long flowering, especially the smaller-leaved ones: those with large, soft foliage tend to be seasonal in their blooming patterns. Cultivars mentioned by the group as being 'good doers' included 'Indigo Spires', the 'Wish' series ('Wendy's Wish', 'Love and Wishes' and 'Ember's Wish'), Salvia splendens (the taller forms, rather than the miniature ones, and especially the red- and salmon-flowered specimens), cerise-pink 'San Carlos Festival' and creamy-flowered 'Heatwave Glimmer'. The cultivars mentioned all do best in full sun.
3. Another shrub mentioned by many was Abutilon. These lovely plants, with their Chinese lantern blooms, come in colours of oranges, yellows, white, pinks, reds and cerise, and they flower for most of the year, having a rest in November (when they can be pruned). The will grow in sun or part-shade. Their main foe is the nasty leaf-rolling caterpillars that turns up in summer; I use the non-toxic spray Success to combat them. Abution plants sometimes self-seed, producing offspring with interesting colours, such as the pinkish-red one pictured, which appeared in the garden of a friend in the group.
4. Cane Begonia varieties are exceptionally long-flowering, and they flourish in inhospitable dry shade. The old-fashioned white and pink ones are probably the toughest, rather than the fancier cultivars (though these still do pretty well), and will basically bloom all year, only stopping (momentarily) when they are pruned in early September!
5. Pelargonium plants have done well in our recent hot, dry summer; our group unanimously agreed that 'Big Red' is one of the very best. This is a zonal Pelargonium that seems to be always in bloom. It does best in a sunny, well-drained position; it can also thrive in a pot. In my experience, its cousin 'Big Rose' is also a good plant, though perhaps not quite as exceptional as 'Big Red'. Ivy Pelargonium specimens are also very good value for lengthy flowering.
6. Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), a small shrubby perennial, was mentioned by a number of people as being long-flowering. The heads of tiny flowers are mauve, deep purple or white, and have a sweet vanilla fragrance. The cultivar 'Aurea' has attractive lime-hued foliage. Heliotrope does best in sun.
7. The perennial form of Cleome is an amazingly floriferous plant that was lauded by the group. It has a shrubby shape, quite different from the annual variety, and it has pink, purple and white forms. It can be cut back a few times over summer and will rejuvenate and continue on blooming most of the year. It is best in a sunny position.
8. A plant I haven't yet grown but which was much recommended by others in the group was the tall annual Zinnia. Apparently simple to grow and blooming for many months, these have bold flowers in a range of hues and a stately presence in the garden, carrying on from year to year by self-seeding. It is excellent as a cut flower. I came away from the meeting clutching some seeds to grow next spring!
9. Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' is another highly recommended long-bloomer. It seems to be always covered in a cloud of dainty, white flowers. It can be cut back when it becomes untidy and will soon be in bloom again. It grows in sun or part-shade and also looks good in a pot. It is a great filler in a garden bed. There is a miniature form, but it is not as striking as the taller form, which gets to about 60 cm in height.
10. The good old shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana) is another stalwart in our gardens. The classic form is brownish-red, but there are lime-yellow, pink and yellow, and burgundy varieties. Like many of these plants, they only stop flowering when they are pruned! I usually cut them back (as with many of my semitropical shrubby perennials) in late winter. Other recommended Justicia that are long flowering include Justicia carnea and Justicia scheidweileri.
Planting some of these plants will ensure that your garden will have long-lasting colour! Don't have them in your garden? Visit the huge charity fundraising plant sale at Lane Cove North next Sunday 29 April 2018, which will stock a number of them plus other great specimens for Sydney gardens that are hard to find in mainstream nurseries.
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