Saturday, 29 September 2012

Epacris and male colour vision

Don’t you find the pink flowers of native heath (Epacris impressa), whether bright or soft, simply joyous in winter? As they continue to bloom into spring they are doubly impressive, but I’m told that the specific epithet is due to the indentations that you can see near the base of the bells (perhaps where some birds pierce the bell for nectar), not due to the flashiness of the flowers. On the left is a new variety to me: E. impressa `Bega Form’ states the label at Melbourne’s incomparable Kuranga Native Nursery…and the flowers are red. Bright scarlet red, vermillion red, almost blood…red.
Scoffing for years at what seemed to me as men’s poor colour sense, which was even reported seriously, recently, as fact (half the number of brain cells dedicated to this purpose, compared to women; but can I find the relevant 2012 article in The Age: no - apologies), I’d disbelieved – for 20 years - the descriptions of Epacris blooms as white and pink to red. I had to see the scarlet bells for myself, and have to say that I was wrong in this instance.
As a garden designer, one of my first clients wanted to have an `orange’ wall in his courtyard and after a gulp, I took him literally…later I realized that he meant terracotta (a very different beast) – and I learnt a valuable lesson.
I’m afraid that I’ll remain skeptical of many descriptions; colour is one of the most vital component in the garden (after actual living status of plants) for me (before texture, anyhow) and it’s frustrating when (male) writers confess to their colourist shortcoming without consulting a (relative) expert. How often is a violet or bluish-mauve described as blue? (Jacaranda, Campanula, Algerian Iris anyone?) Books, catalogues, magazines…without (accurate) photos of every plant, the writers need to look hard and think harder.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Spring blossom

We are reaching the crescendo of spring: white blossom appearing on the pear trees and pink on nearby crabapples, Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata) covered in bright lemon rods, wax flowers exploding in pale pink, Spiraeas dotted with white buttons and the last of the nodding white daffodils. Half-drowned Mexican Orange Blossom are attempting one last show; it will dry soon for them, surely. Nectarine blossom of candy-pink is over and we are yet to see the apples bloom or the white dogwoods, but anticipation is more than half the joy. My favourite of the spring blossom trees is Japanese Crabapple (Malus floribunda) with its cherry-pink buds opening to white blooms. I’ve planted it here and seen wallabies pull down a branch with a paw or 2, very human-like, and nibble the latest flowers or leaves on the limb; of course they didn’t survive (the crabapples, not the wallabies). But I still sigh pleasurably when I see this crab; the exquisite sharply-pink buds, the wispy white blooms, the delicate arrangement of two-toned flowers that don’t smother the tree.

If I was to travel purely for horticultural reasons, like to the outback after rain when a carpet of wildflowers is promised, then I would choose Japan at cherry blossom time, closely followed by Canada at `fall’. These sound like overwhelming visions but if the treat is nature-made it seems somehow more visceral and meaningful – to J and me, at least. As when we saw glorious carpets of wildflowers in August and September in Western Australia a few years ago, we were moved. Camping amongst the magic carpet, sitting, reading on a rug amid the colour, was breathtaking.

I am sitting at my desk (neither Clancy nor Banjo) looking out at silver-leaf stringybarks, wattles flowering: prickly and blackwoods, and iris and hellebore, both purple and white. Honeyeaters and wrens cavort and dash after each other, the frenzied feeding of insatiable chicks but a glint in their eyes. Spring at its finest.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Clash of the `pink’ flowers

Out of all of the daffodils I love the lemon-yellow, so called `sulphur’ ones, the most. Buying a few in my 20’s means that now I have quite a few clumps here and there. Winter-flowering Narcissi are wonderful too.
Maybe it’s the sunny position – near the dwarf white peach – but lots of so called pink ones are flowering and I’m not sure quite how that happened. White petals (perianth segment to be precise) are centred with a trumpet (corona) of yellow leading to apricot at the mouth. It’s not just that apricot-pink is my least-favourite colour, or that the description that has me bothered (`pink’! - what are you breeders on?); it’s just awkward to use in the garden. Being right next to pink and plum hellebores (below) has brought this difficulty into sharp focus.
(Can I dig up every bulb? And put them where? I really don’t have the space or the inclination for any flowers remotely connected to orange. And I don't wish to give away plants I consider imperfect.)
Blue roses, too, are woefully mis-described. Sky-blue? No, they are a cloudy, dirty, rather pale violet, neither pretty nor unusual in the flower world. Yes, I know they are relatively-blue, as are the accursed relatively-pink Narcissi. And it rather begs the question: who wants a blue rose? Clearly someone out there will buy the newest thing but why? My aunt was fond of green (here we agreed) and apricot (here we did not) but even I was startled when she bought the latest Heuchera with its yellow-brown leaves imitating morbid illness too well. So (I think) I understand the breeders creating new hybrids with Frankenstein glee and dollars sparkling in their eyes; they may be having a lot of fun. Who’s to stop them? I have a suggestion.
Just as (I recently learned, with a snigger I’m afraid) the fabulous Chelsea Flower Show prohibits garden gnomes (yes really – other far worse atrocities have flown under the radar) so other garden shows could have a taste squad…rather like the upper class True and Prue; what could possibly go wrong?
Taste is incredibly individual and I guess my aunt saw beauty where I could not: lucky her. But shamelessly aiming for big bucks is pretty universal. Self censorship and self regulation do not work. But naming and shaming might work. And please, if you think that interesting new plant might be ugly then it probably is. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Rhododendron Ruminations

Over the past decade’s drought years I’d thought all the Rhododendrons in Melbourne gone - death by a thousand dry days - but last week I noticed a few deep candy-pink flowering forms which seem to be the only survivors – or are they just the oldest (perhaps the first variety introduced) with roots so deep that they could withstand many consecutive, cruel drought years and even the furnace-heat of Black Saturday 3 years ago while others perished, limb by limb?
Unsurprisingly, they are on the cool south sides of houses and appear to be in old, well maintained gardens; I envision elderly owners surreptitiously hobbling out (looking about them for signs of neighbours they don’t like) to water them (the rhodos, not the neighbours) on cool evenings after the hottest days.
Similar in ubiquity are the funereal lilac ones (R. ponticum I believe) peskilly self-sowing and layering over many years along the morose London-encircling motorways, all too comfortable centuries after introduction from southern Europe, bathed in misty rain ever since. Other than high in the mountains of Tasmania, it’s impossible to imagine a rhodo becoming a weed here – even this species is static in a friend’s garden in chilly Ferny Creek (see last picture).
Queensland boasts one rhodo species (R. lochiae, a dwarf shrub at home, unsurprisingly, in the mountains), the Himalayas has many, and I’ve seen Alpenrose (R. ferrugineum, below) in the mountains of Switzerland, just opening on a cold misty day in June; exciting. In nature rhodos seem at home, more gentle on the eye, less glaringly there.

 Compared to nearby Melbourne, we have cooler and wetter weather in the Dandenong Ranges so it’s no surprise that rhodos have survived up here much better and they can be seen en masse (why is everyone literally using my phrase?) in the National Rhododendron Gardens near Olinda.
But apart from Rhododendron fragrantissimmum and a few others with soft-coloured flowers, they are a blobby lot. Big dumpy heads of often screaming-pink blooms hardly make for a subtle look, or so I think. Butter-yellow Rhododendron lutescens (see post 2nd August) is the exception – perhaps the dainty species versus the (too) showy hybrids bred by gardeners and nurserymen wishing to impress has gone too far. (Heck, yes.) An example is Rhododendron `Cilpinense’ (below) with thankfully soft coloured flowers on a mercifully dwarf – to 1m – shrub. It’s also saved somewhat by the profuse trusses – bunches – of blooms being in threes rather than a dozen or so bell-flowers per bunch.
After seeing Gladioli species and digesting their prettiness compared to – let’s face it, the over-the-top size and rigid presence of - the modern `improved’ hybrids, people can be heard to say: `why did they try to improve them?’ Admittedly I’m kicking a phenomenon already rather low (Thank you Dame Edna) and, I hope, dying out with other trends like 1950’s roses without scent (what were they thinking?) but it needs remembering that big is not always better. Most horticultural trends need careful thought and moderation. (One of my heroes is horticulturist Professor James Hitchmough who says that when he was a teenager in the 1960’s and planted nothing but fashionable conifers, his parents would occasionally, wistfully, enquire whether they could just have a few flowers as well. Please.) Fashion plus time equals…well, let’s not get rude.
Maybe we should go back to the meaning of the word derived from Ancient Greek: `rhodon’ (rose or red) and `dendron’ (tree) and plant only the depressed-looking dark red-flowered forms with class winning over vulgarity…I wish. Retina-piercing colours may be cheerful on gray winter days but on a 10m-high shrub it’s overwhelming. Maybe I’m just a girl who doesn’t appreciate pink.
My mother’s cosseted R. fragrantissimmum was always twiggy despite watering, deep mountain soil (I, alas, am sitting on Lysterfield clay; she was in nearby Emerald) and loads of attention; and if she couldn’t make it look good then I really don’t believe that anyone – on this continent, anyhow – can force it into becoming a garden-worthy shrub. A shame, it has a nice perfume from pale pink flowers opening from deeper pink buds.
All rhodos need frequent watering to `keep themselves nice’ so I can’t see myself planting a species (let alone a cultivar) (we have only water tanks and besides, I’m pretty forgetful); moreover, we are in the foothills, so we are much lower than the Rhododendron Gardens at its elevation of about 500m. And to paraphrase comedian Ed Byrne (as he says of breasts): I don’t want any myself but I’m happy to enjoy those belonging to other people.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Fifty Shades of Green

Melbourne’s first days of spring have been a happy, sunlit, mild preview of upcoming searing summer days; a little tasty dukkah before the fiercest curry. (It’s unfashionable but no, I don’t like summer; bushfire risk is just part of the story.)
Sunshine, longer days and fewer frosts have wrought changes to the garden; it’s doffed its drear winter greens and tossed its bare branches and exploded (ahem) into fifty shades of green. (Someone had to say it.) Although I am not sure who is really in charge here (dare I say dominant), the garden or me.
Lichen-green tree leaf buds are appearing, iris are thrusting up swords of fresh gray-green leaves (topped by dark purple buds), and appearing in the lawn (as we optimistically call our circle of rough grass) are patches of Leprechaun-chartreuse. Handsome  Trillium leaves, in neat threes about the flower (below), vary from purest cucumber to pea-green charmingly dappled with markings reminiscent of the best Lindt milk chocolate giving a trout-like effect to rival the trout lilies (Erythronium) themselves. Unfurling shrub leaves are pure citron; all rather edible it seems, as well as delicious to the eye and the spirit.

Corsican winter roses (Helleborus argutifolius) continue to show off blooms of apple-green….I don’t just mean the green of leaves, by the way; I love green flowers too. Paris in particular (top) is a choice perennial, dormant in winter, which has not yet raised its flag of surrender – the nights are still too cold (less than 3 degrees last night). Soon the shoots will rise, unfurl geometrically (see below) and display (mainly) green flowers in late spring. It’s a joy but best in some shade.
Friends in my garden club, the Alpine Garden Society (Victorian chapter), also like green flowers but I’m afraid they are more sophisticated than I; they see beauty in a brown flower too (such as Scoliopus) but this is a step too far, if not an Olympian leap, for this gardener.

Incidentally, the garden is not all green; soon we’ll be at the equinox and saying farewell to the last of the gold and amber daffodils for another year.
Back to 50 shades of…green. (Oh my.) In my garden, as in the book, there’ll be love, pain, pleasure, reproduction and whipping into line…if I get around to it (the latter, that is). After all, a bit of soft tumbling of plants looks natural and suits my country garden. Just as well.