We really seem to be in the depths of winter right now, with freezing cold nights and crisp, cool days. The sunshine has been glorious over the past week or so, but the short days mean there is precious little time to enjoy it! Many plants flower in response to the shorter length of daylight hours at this time of year, and it seems that a number of them include succulents in our Sydney climate. In recent weeks, I have been scrounging around away from home for flowers to fill a little vase, and several succulent plants have more than satisfactorily filled the bill.
Crassula species and cultivars are some of the really tough old plants in our gardens and they are at their peak in winter and early spring. One I have known since my childhood is Crassula multicava (ht 25 cm), sometimes known as London pride. It is an easygoing groundcover plant with plump, round, deep green leaves, which quietly colonises any unhospitable position in sun or shade. It was one of the first plants I ever grew, passed onto me by my mother as a 'good doer'. From mid-winter to spring it is smothered in a profusion of tiny white stars which open from pink buds held above the foliage. It looks very effective grown with pink- or white-flowered hybrid hellebores which are in bloom at the same time. Like many useful plants for Sydney gardens, it comes from South Africa. In more recent times, I have grown the lovely cultivar called 'Purple Dragon', which has attractive purplish undersides to its leaves and pretty pink flowers.
Another South African Crassula in bloom now is Crassula ovata, often called the jade tree, and indeed, it does grow to resemble a small, many-branched tree, around 90 cm tall (though it can grow taller). It has thick brown stems and plump, shiny, wedge-shaped leaves that can be edged with red. In winter, it has sprays of dainty pale pink or white flowers. I have mine growing in a pot: it is a very structural-looking plant. It likes a sunny position.
In the same family (Crassulaceae) as the Crassula, hailing from Madagascar, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is just coming into bloom now. Often sold as a disposable houseplant, it is actually a perennial plant to 30 cm tall for pots, hanging baskets or garden beds. Many cultivars have been developed. It blooms for months, its waxy flowers held in lacy posies, in colours of white, pinks, orange, rust, yellow and various reds; there are single- and double-flowered varieties. A lightly shaded, well-drained position is ideal, though it seems also to cope with full sun and drought.
Zygocactus (Schlumbergera hybrids) are a genus of succulent cacti originating in south-eastern Brazil. The unusual, silky flowers usually appear in late autumn and winter (hence they are called Christmas cacti in the northern hemisphere) and are held at the stem tips, in colours of pinks, purples, magenta, white, orange, yellow and red. Some develop a cascading habit with age. They seem to look best when grown in pots under trees or in a dry rockery situation, and need protection from frost in a part-shade position. They can also provide a bright splash of colour on an outdoor table or in a hanging basket in a filtered or morning sun position in the cooler months. They seem to enjoy being pot bound and can last well for years in the same pot; they can be moved into a prominent position when in flower then hidden away in an inconspicuous position for the rest of the time. At the moment, I have a pot of a bright-pink zygocactus nearby flowering Aechmea gamosepala and a patch of Crassula multicava. Being epiphytic, zygocactus can also be affixed to trees, in a pouch of loose compost held in a length of old pantyhose.
Though I don't grow them myself, I have seen some spectacular-looking Aloe species in flower at the moment. The upright, torch-like flowers are very striking. These plants need a lot of room, though there are smaller hybrid ones around these days that can suit compact gardens, in a rainbow of colours.
I'd love to hear of other winter-blooming succulents that do well in Sydney gardens, to brighten up these chilly days!
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Earlier this year, I visited Callan Park in Sydney's inner west.