Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Naked Ladies, deep rain and the kindness of a stranger

Summer seems to have turned a corner, or is it a brief cosmic joke?
Cooler – much cooler - temperatures bring a sigh of relief and heavy rains seem to bring this Colchicum (above) to bloom. (It was open the morning after the first heavy rain; surely a coincidence.)
Also known as Naked Ladies, and occasionally as Naked Boys, this handsome goblet has a floral tube arising from the corm (or bulb) well before the leaves emerge, hence its perceived nudity. But Belladonna Lillies (Amaryllis belladonna, below) are more commonly called Naked Ladies as they, too, arise right now as welcome flowers in the parched garden with no greenery to clothe their feet.

Colchicum are often also called autumn crocus but true Crocus (below) are much smaller and have neat little leaves at flowering time.
Common names, again, let us down, as the two Naked Ladies (and what a great moniker!) are very different in the garden; the first beautiful and hardy in great swathes, the second – hardy too – great for picking for a vase.

Both, too, are harbingers of autumn, when my garden starts to recover from the heat and dryness of summer. And maybe we start to have relief from bushfire danger. I can’t help but let out a sigh of relief and pleasure.

And speaking of hardy plants, Plumbago is a tough old shrub found in many a `70’s garden. How tall is it? – well -how high can that resident clip it? Seriously though, in this perfect example of familiarity breeds contempt, Plumbago auriculata can reach 2 or 3m depending on how good your soil is (and if you irrigate well). Baby blue is a horrid way to describe a flower colour so I’ll call it `sky of far northern Europe’…which is far too wordy; the flowers contrast well against the deep green foliage. But a plant that flowers through a Melbourne summer and requires little watering earns respect.
I was in a queue at the green grocers last week when the owner was given 2 sprigs of Plumbago with smoky azure flowers by a nice customer. (You can imagine my excitement.) I admired them but I swear, that’s all. I was offered one to take home for cuttings and was delighted. I asked the cultivar name - `Oh, Mercy Hospital Garden form I call it’ she replied guiltily. I shot back that she was spreading the joy around. (A small cutting off a large shrub is simply not in the same league as (say) digging up a rare bulb or a wild orchid.)
So, is it time for cuttings, and sowings, and plantings?
No, I am sure we will have still many hot days. But I am enjoying these cool days so very much.

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, (

Friday, 21 February 2014

Hyacinth orchids

Deep pink Hyacinth orchids have just finished flowering along our road; pretty late surely? Often blooming at Christmas, maybe these responded to the late, sudden cessation of the good spring rains.
I thought these were parasitic to the handsome gum trees under which they are always found – and they do appreciate the semishade - but today I read that they are actually myco-heterotophic; dependent or parasitic upon fungus (which may be the interface allowing nutrient absorption from another plant). Certainly Dipodium punctatum has no leaves for photosynthesis but the tall stalks (also not green), up to 1m high, are striking with the magnolia-pink flowers, spotted violet, arranged hyacinth-like (although less congested) at the top.
There is a colony of these beauties under 3 stringybarks in our bushland and one year, early in our custodianship, we found most of the 20 or so flower spikes torn off. Distressed, we wrote a note to the area’s children or other wayfarers: `Please don’t pick the orchids – they need to set seed’! Of course it was our old friend wallaby having a Christmas snack, who else?
`Lysterfield clay’ renders gardening at Possum Creek a challenge at times but gives us low gums trees, mainly messmates and wonderful silver leaf stringy bark gums (see post 21/4/13); this in turn gives us winter sunshine in the house, slanting low over the shorter trees to our north. But travel only half a kilometre up the road and the soil changes: not to that fabulous red mountain soil of Monbulk and Emerald, but a more nutrient-rich, well draining loam than ours none-the-less. With it the trees change, particularly to the beautiful, mountain grey gum, tall with clean, soft grey trunks and – except in large clearings – winter shade. Here the orchids arise too.
It’s hard not to be impressed by these showy flowers which bloom just when the summer heat is getting so uncomfortable. But there’s something else important here too. When clearing under gums for bushfire fuel reduction and in our incessant quest for tidiness – and this is not the place for it, surely – we need to look out for these flower buds, and let them bloom and set seed. Then multiply this by 10 and we are then not mowing down all the other tiny, hard-to-see seed heads of orchids, lilies and other wildflowers (like Blue Stars (Chamaesilla corymbosa), below). If we want to live amongst nature we should not kill it off in the process.

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, (

Friday, 7 February 2014

Silver-leaf plants, absinthe and rare plant nurseries

Designing a Mediterranean garden (in the line of work) has been fun, creating a semicircle of sage, a near-circle of rosemary and silver-grey lines of olives, globe artichokes and silver wormwood. Continuing the plants-that-are-used-edibly theme, and consulting my mother’s battered, beloved tomes, brought me to a wormwood called Artemisia absinthium, used for making absinthe, available from one mail order nursery in the whole country ( - or so I thought. Paths edged with dwarf French lavender bring the scale back and bring it all together. All these plants will do well here; silver reflecting excess sunshine back from the leaves, just like in their home by the Mediterranean. Green veg and edible flowers will in-fill and give colour. English lavender will be used in many other parts of this large country garden too; the unifying theme.
This week a lecture took me to Mount Macedon (French gardens I’d seen; some were Mediterranean) and while in the west I gleefully visited Dicksonia Rare Plants (Mount Macedon), Frogmore Gardens (Blackwood Rd, Newbury) and Lambley Nursery (Lester’s Rd, Ascot). I picked up various silver Artemisias for my silver and raspberry border – which I’ll plant after autumn rains have come - and a cerise Monarda called `Donnerwolke’ (above) which contrasts with them superbly. Similar in colour, but slightly less saturated, is Agastache `Sangria’ which I bought for the pink and purple beds.
I never thought I could buy a cerise-flowered plant and maybe this Monarda is really pink-cerise but it’s interesting what colour is needed for contrasting with the silver: too pale and it’s all too wishy washy.
(Veronica `Red Fox’, on the other hand, was way too pink; with that name I’d expected a perfect raspberry foil for my silver.)
Returning home and repotting my new plants I looked at the labels more carefully to find, to my surprise, that the Artemisia `Lambrook Silver’ I’d bought (from Lambley Nursery), silver, lacy and fine, is a form of that rare Artemisia absinthium, that plant I’d learnt of just the week before.
A friend has asked me about rare plant nurseries, and the latter 2 sell wonderful perennials, while Dicksonia Rare Plants, on the main road, sells every rare plant imaginable from bulb to tree to creeper by the knowledgeable Stephen Ryan. Opposite is a nursery with some woodland treasures including some good Epimediums.
Closer to home (for me) are Gentiana Nursery (bulbs, perennials, rock garden rarities) on Monbulk-Olinda Rd, Olinda, and closer to Olinda, Cloudehill – which may still have some interesting plants, depending upon what Diggers (the new owners) have decided to do there; the garden will still be beautiful. For rare and interesting trees and shrubs I go to Yamina Rare Plants in Monbulk.
Rare cool climate bulbs are available at the mo’ from Hill View Rare Plants (mail-order; the range of Crocus alone is breath taking) while Cloverhill Plants and Lynn’s Rare Plants sell delicious woodland bulbs and perennials mail-order through much of the year.
Frogmore Gardens and Lambley Nursery send plants by mail too but its fun to look and browse in person, see the garden (if open), seek advice. And buy plants of course. Then return home to a hot dry garden which feels like a desert, with penstemons burnt to a crisp, water-repelling soil, perennial hibiscus opening with a reluctant sigh. `Must the show go on?’ it says. Lambley’s have many Salvias which seem (relatively) drought-proof. Maybe I’ll go back and get some of those.

Jill Weatherhead  is horticulturist, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead  Garden Design. (