Thursday, 30 May 2013

Season of Slow Senescence

Autumn has been hot and cold, dry and now wet. Confusion reigns in the garden as spring flowers throw bouquets of white May (Spiraea, above) amongst the bedraggled flaming leaves, Mock Orange (Philadelphus) sport perfumed blooms near dogwoods with sanguine foliage (turning ruby when the sun peeps out) and even a tall evening primrose shows some of its delicious lemon colour.

Most of the tiny bulbous treasures of autumn are over now but Cyclamen cyprium continues to toss up its sweet little near-white blooms with swept-up petals over white-splashed leaves; and creamy white hoop petticoat daffodils herald the winter months.

Salvias continue the display of soft purple, deep blue or velvet-palest pink (`Velour Pink’) with `Anthony Parker’, darkly blue, coming into its own.
Autumn regulars arrived last month: lilac Spur-flower (Plectranthus, a great plant for shade); dainty apple-blossom, candy-pink and ice-white Nerines were joined by sparkling engine-red (`Fothergilla Major’) and sweet daisy-faces of grape-purple Easter-daisies and snowy cosmos. Kaffir lily (Schizostylis), fierce red or pale pink, never rests, but I find the white form much less hardy.

But it’s mostly just a flower here or there. Most satisfying is, still, my sun and sky bed where, at the moment,  blue salvias – deep blue and azure – mix with golden Gaillardia `Mesa’, lemon Phygelius and Goldmound Bidens; all are backed by the glossy leaves and perfumed white flowers of Mexican Orange Blosssom.

It seems almost too early to have winter flowers of palest pink Thryptomene let alone spring treasures: sweetly pink Erodium, some deep blue bugle (Ajuga, its flowers mostly nestling amongst the leaves), even a few little Forget-Me-Not-like Brunnera blooms in the shadiest spot. Oddest of all, now that it’s so cold at night, is the one Cyclamen purpurescens tuber (below) with 4 flowers of soft lilac-pink, mouths deeper, almost fuchsia-pink, as if lipstick has been applied. Melbourne’s heat makes it flowers well in summer but these are a definite bonus, on the last day of autumn. I suspect it’s a response to the run of warm weather a month ago and I’m certainly not complaining! The garden throws up interesting conundrums constantly and when it’s extra flowers, I believe we should just sit back and enjoy them.

Monday, 6 May 2013


 Why is it that some flowers appeal, and others do not? The Empress Joséphine is still famous for collecting every then-known rose at the Château de Mamaison, near Paris; local celebrity Otto Fauser grows wondrous little crocus from seed and my friend Peter Leigh has taken winter roses (Helleborus) from England, Japan and other horticultural hot spots and transformed the dullards into duchesses better than any in the world. (His latest catalogue includes the elusive double black (a black prince?): neat, handsome...stand aside!)

Many plants are lovely but my mother – a botanist and, of course, gardener - and my sister Caroline (keen gardener too) probably loved Cyclamen the most. I wonder if my parents property was chosen alone for its potential to have that sweep of little ivy-leaf autumn-flowering cyclamen (C. hederifolium, now popping up in the lawn where ants have spread the seeds); at each leaf fall a delicious sight: lilac-pink petals swept up on 10cm stalks hovering over wonderfully-marbled leaves amongst the dry leaves of the deciduous trees along the drive. (This is no idle surmise; when we looked for land  - for 2 years - at each place I established the probable site for my circle of lawn. My mother was older and had stronger ideas.)

Neither will see the new cyclamen book, alas. Brian Mathew’s (editor) monograph is comprehensive (and big, bold and beautiful); I contributed with a small section about cyclamen grown in Australia. I visited the stunning State Library in Melbourne many times and spoke to some of the most interesting people in the country. The book germinated, I believe, about 7 years ago, and – very bulb-like – flowered after 7 years growth (altho’ the cyclamen is a tuber, like a potato, but let’s not get too pedantic). I saw and photographed catalogues and papers dating back to 1845 and fell in love with these exquisite drawings which seriously rival their subjects.

It’s nearly Mother’s Day and as large cyclamen – giant forms bred of C. persicum - flood into the nurseries I enjoy contemplating their forbears like this one (from a Law and Somner catalogue, circa 1893, top), surely much, much smaller, called Cyclamen persicum giganteum then; now they’d be barely a head turner...depending on that very personal attribute, whether you are a lover of blooms great or small.
Now I like petite flowers.
I like little camellia blooms, and shudder over the largest; same with gladioli, clematis, and so many other plants over-bred – as I see it - in the `50’s. I don’t like cottage gardens much, but at least they brought back near-species gladioli – so sweet – and some smaller dahlias that don’t need staking (what a pointless exercise that was). (Also prickly species roses which don’t flower for long...but rosarians are crazy, we all know that.)
And lately some of the bulb growers seem to be selling species cyclamen which are so hardy here in south-east Oz. Maybe it’s just that I’m a tired working woman – but I love a plant that is:
1.       Pretty
2.       Hardy
3.       Can be tossed anyhow in the ground
4.       Requires no cosseting
5.       Self sows gently
6.       Never needs care
7.       Grow in dry shade under trees
8.       And there are just more flowers – pretty little ones – every year.

Cyclamen hederifolium in particular is hardy, and the easiest cyclamen in south-east Australia. Its flowers are slowing as we head towards winter - the mercury plummeting to 2 degrees last night – but in its place I expect, very soon, the chubby C. coum (above, a nice form with silvery `Christmas tree' markings, I am showing to honour my sister born on this special day) to start its seemingly miraculous winter blooms.

In memory of my sister Caroline Clavarino (neé Weatherhead)
25th December 1950 – 4th May 2013