Flowering now

Eucomis, or pineapple lily. This is a large one and so far the stalk has stayed upright. It turns out I also have a miniature one the same colour, which is flowering for the first time.

This nusery website (West Australia) has more information about eucomis. The flowers have a tendancy to sprawl all over the place because the soft stems can’t hold their weight. Te Puna plant breeder Ian Duncalf is doing a lot of work with eucomis and reckons he’s getting it sorted.

PS: They’re called pineapple lilies because of the little tuft of leaves at the top of the flower that looks something like a pineapple.

Meanwhile, here is an article about clematis wilt (we fixed it by replanting deeper so some latent buds were buried and all has been well). You can read more about Mrs Cholmondeley, the plant, here.

Clematis Mrs Cholmondeley. This is the third time it’s tried to flower this season – the first buds were lost to wilt, the second were blown off! Third time a charm, though.

Curious plants: Aciphylla

New Zealand is full of plants that have evolved in odd ways thanks to our long history of having a predominantly avian nature rather than one ruled by mammals.

Let me introduce you to a member of the carrot family commonly known as Spaniard or speargrass, botanical name Aciphylla. Almost all of the 40 species are found only in the South Island and then generally in tussock and upland country.

The leaves are stiff with razor-sharp points and, if that weren’t enough, the flowers have spikes all over them too. New Zealand in Flower by Alison Evans (Bookmakers, 1987) says the reason for the armour is unclear, although some experts suggest it might have evolved as protection from browsing moa (although sheep, deer and rabbits graze them).

Photographed near Middlemarch in central Otago this summer. The thin pieces protruding from the flowers are spikes.

The authors of Gardening with New Zealand Shrubs, Plants & Trees (Collins, 1988) suggest the spikes help mitigate the exposed conditions in which the plants grow. This book also notes the uses both Moriori and Maori made of the plant, including collecting a scented gum from the base of the leaves.

As you might guess from the titles of the books, they can be found in gardens, including at Larnach Castle high on the Otago Peninsula, which has Aciphylla glaucesens.

As well as the large plants (flowers up to 2m), there are also small varieties, some only 40cm high. Aciphylla dissecta is one such plant, found in the Tararua Range in the North Island.

More on Aciphylla colensoi, Aciphylla squarrosa and the aptly named Aciphylla horrida.

Sunday digest

Powdery mildew is annual foe and for gardeners keen not to use chemical sprays there are some ideas for effective alternatives in this RNZIH article.

If you think it all sounds a bit airy-fairy, this article from the Royal Society of New Zealand looks at the commercial use of a milk spray.

The bush fires in Australia are a terrible thing in human terms … but at the botanical level they can be a wondrous thing, as this article about a native orchid shows. Endangered eastern spider orchids (Caladenia orientalis) began to sprout and bloom after the 2009 fires in Victoria – as a direct consequence of the flames.

Why do we garden? English writer Francine Raymond offers a few thoughts. One of them – healing – is one I have come across regularly from people I interview. When life gets a bit tough they head into the garden, not to escape so much as to calm themselves.

Heidi Herrmann is a German-born natural beekeeper in England, a “heroine” of the movement there, it seems. According to Heidi, one of the reasons for the decline of bees is that conventional beekeepers suppress the swarming urge which, she says, is a strategy for survival and diversifying the gene pool. Read some of her thoughts here, as well as about her “sun hive” structure which is taken apart and refreshed (with resident bees) in an 11-minute video here.

The documentary film Queen of the Sun showed in New Zealand a couple of years ago. An interview the director and producer may be seen here (8 mins).

Go here to read a great piece by Abbie Jury on the importance of soil to gardens.

And for all those who think February has rolled around a bit quick … this brilliantly funny column by Toby Manhire appeared in Friday’s NZ Herald (no gardening content).

Drought tolerance

Remember last summer when all we did was complain about the rain? Do you really, because this summer we’re complaining about how dry it is.

A long time ago when I used to do a bit of contract writing/editing work for the council the message was to plant drought-tolerant gardens and mulch, mulch, mulch to save the municipal water supply. Since then smart city dwellers have put in rain-water tanks to see them through the worst of the summer, thoughtful gardeners know to mulch, water meters have been introduced and give pause for thought before the hose goes on, and “spiky, stony” gardens have gone out of fashion.

Putting aside garden trends and council imperatives, there are some  remarkable plants that will do well through the hot, dry months – and plenty of advice on positive action to take is available on the net.

Pachystegia insignis is a great drought-tolerant native, read more about it at the Tawapou Coastal Natives website, a Northland business with an informative website. Note the gorgeous leaves that are stiff and tough.

Pachystegia insignis, the Marlborough rock daisy, is not only tolerant of drought conditions, but also salt-laden winds.

One topic that doesn’t get a lot of play is how unsustainable lawn is – water-hungry (but with high rates of evaporation), energy-hungry, spray-hungry and noise polluters (especially on a Sunday morning!). Would you be less happy with less lawn?

Plectranthus ornatus (dog bane).

Plectranthus ornatus flowers in my garden for months over the hottest part of the year. It forms a spreading mat so can be used as a groundcover or in a rockery (and doesn’t mind being cut back). It covers itself in sky-blue flowers that are attractive to bees and butterflies and can be easily grown from cuttings.

One of my cuttings ended up at the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park (always on the lookout for floriferous plants that are a bit tough) and volunteer Shona Purves says it has a bit of a funny odour (hence the common name of dog bane, supposedly it keeps cats and dogs away) if you happen to stand on it.

The Fragrant Garden Nursery in Feilding offers it for sale, along with a number of other Plectranthus and the show garden is home to the North Island Plectranthus collection.

And here’s a useful list of fire-resistant plants (mostly trees) – natives and exotics.

(Updated March 5, 2014 to remove a broken link and add the fire-resistant plants links.)

Postcard from Sydney

Just back from a long weekend across the Ditch where one of my ports of call was the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens.  The gardens occupy a prime position in the central city, running around the edge of Farm Cove and almost to the Opera House. Needless to say, they’re popular with joggers, walkers and office workers on lunch breaks.

Thankfully, the record 45.8deg ocurred the day before we arrived and we had something of a cool change – early to mid-20s and overcast skies. And despite spending several hours at the gardens I didn’t see all of it (it’s always motivating to leave something for next time). There are also two other branches of the gardens. One is at Mt Annah, about a 45-minute drive from Sydney (the Australian Botanic Garden), and the other, known as the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, is a 2-hour drive at Mt Tomah.

In the “downtown” garden there are several glass houses and various theme areas, including a “First Contact” garden and a Rainforest Walk which is punctuated by a small group of Wollemi pine, discovered in 1994 and rated as one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants.

There was a frangipani show on in the entry to the glass houses and a guest speaker had attracted a good audience. Potted trees and seeds were for sale and with blossoms in all sorts of rich colour combinations, I was left thinking it’s a shame our climate isn’t better suited for them. Visit the Frangipani Society of Australia website to find out more.

Lei-making using frangipani blossoms was one of the activities at the show.

I have seen frangipani grown here (there’s at least one outside the Tropical Display House in Cliff Rd) but a touch of frost leaves them looking tatty, while a good cold snap can kill them.

Xanthorrhoea (Australia grass tree) species, which aren’t seen too often here, are popular as corporate and hotel plantings in Sydney, and cycads are all over the place – there’s a mass planting outside the arrivals terminal and  they’re even being combined with marigolds and salvias as temporary street plantings!

A couple of youngsters sort out how to stay cool by using a public water feature (note the potted cycad at the front left).

One of a pair of potted Xanthorrhoea at the pedestrian entry to the Intercontinetal Hotel.

Butterfly notes

Don’t have any monarch butterfly caterpillars on your swan plants? I haven’t for a while, which has given the plant a chance to recover, but neither have I seen wasps which predate on every stage of the butterfly’s life.

Mary Parkinson, who founded and runs the butterfly garden at Te Puna Quarry Park, tells me that wasps are probably the culprits though – they don’t change their diet until about the end of February.

Passion-vine hoppers (fluffy bums) will also eat the caterpillar and chrysalis and although they’re about in smaller numbers than last year, they’re still about.

Mary advises moving potted swan plant indoors or covering the plant (mosquito netting, fine-mesh shade cloth, old net curtain) as there are likely to be eggs on it. “The trick is to protect caterpillars as much as possible. I have even seen an ant carry off a tiny caterpillar.”

The fine seeds of a swan plant – if you snap off the pods before they open you won’t have plants coming up everywhere.

If you suspect you have too many eggs for your swan plant to support, wipe some off and cover the plant – it won’t stop more eggs being laid but it will reduce the number able to be laid.

Pumpkin shouldn’t be used for supplementary feeding until the caterpillars are in the end part of that stage of their life (2cm long or more). Younger caterpillars fed pumpkin will emerge from the chrysalis with deformed wings.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much a caterpillar will eat,” says Mary, a member of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. “But the faster they eat, the faster they’ll go into the chrysalis stage.”

A monarch feeds on cherianthus (wallflowers).

Any garden that wants to support a butterfly population must be spray free and must provide nectar all year round – old-fashioned flowers in strong colours is the general rule of thumb.

The butterfly garden at the Quarry has a new butterfly house – much roomier. Mary moves her caterpillars indoors so they build their chrysalis and emerge inside before being released into the garden.

Today’s column

The Pfennings, Kate, a Kiwi, and Kent, an American, and their three school-age sons bought Katikati Motel last year and although they wanted to do something with an overgrown corner of the property (an infilled swimming pool) didn’t have the dollars or the energy. Then they read about the local Permablitz group … and now offer their guests free run of a bountiful organic fruit and vege garden.

Read all about it in the Bay of Plenty Times!

Kate recycles tin lids as name tags in the motel garden.

The Permablitz group is looking for new hosts and volunteers to help with garden designs. If you are able to help email the group.