Thursday, 20 March 2014

Bulbs flourishing at the Autumn Equinox

Sea squills (Drimia maritima, Syn. Urginea) have thrust up strong stalks of starry white flowers amid mauve obedient plant but elsewhere autumn bulbs have arisen from garden beds rendered husky-dry from rows of 40 degree days where perennials have been reduced to crispy mulch.
At last there are more than a couple of flowering size bulbs of Mediterranean Drimia but I think recent record-breaking hot weather may be the cause of sea squills flowering like there’s no tomorrow; they give the garden some good vertical lines as they reach for the sky.

From South America comes the Sacred Lily of the Incas, white, perfumed, bizarrely-shaped; it’s been flowering for some time (Hymenocallis, above).
Bulbs from South Africa, too, grow well in Victoria; Belladonna lilies (Amaryllis belladonna), especially, have erupted all over the garden. There are so many autumn bulbs and they seem to have appeared to welcome the equinox; fanciful, but reflecting my mood perfectly.

Yellow Sternbergias haven’t flowered yet so the colour palette seems very restricted: red, pink-mauve and white. (Some other colours in the garden are supplied by a few perennials valiantly marching on, particularly blue salvias.)
Elephant’s Ears (Haemanthus coccineus, below) have waxy, scarlet blooms (bracts, actually, around a paint brush head of tiny flowers); the huge, attractive leaves are yet to appear. My favourite (living) garden writer, James Hitchmough, writes that this is `the ideal botanical candidate for a Dali painting!’

Easier to use in the garden is Scarborough Lily (Cyrtanthus elatus, Syn. Vallota, above) which is a bright, orange-red too, but more effective: taller, prettier, and a wonderful contrast to green.

Deep-vermillion red are Nerine fothergillii `Major’ which add a punch to the garden; particularly effective amongst grey foliage, say, Dianthus.
Nerine come in hard candy pink too, in N. bowdenii. Hot pink, saturated pink…use with care!

More subtle pink bulbs that are still effective in the garden include pale pink Rain Lilies (Zephyranthes), Colchicum (above, and see post 26/2/14), and rockery cyclamen, C. hederifolium, the latter 2 a lovely lilac-pink and superb in drifts. And while it’s a bright pink, I have a few – a very few – Belladonna Lilies with candy pink trumpets, white throated (possibly `Parkeri’, below), far from the house, but adding perfume to the garden.

Yes, it’s the autumn equinox and the nights are cooling. Every single bulbous flower at the moment reminds me that the garden is starting to recover from the severe summer and the weather is becoming more benign; time to enjoy the garden again (and plant some shady trees).

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

Friday, 14 March 2014

White Belladonna Lilies

Gardening years can disappear in the blink of an eye; memories of a special flower or plant can flood the senses unexpectedly and transport back in time.
It would have been my mother’s birthday yesterday – a botanist who gardened for, what, 60 years? (starting, as a bride, with crocus in a window box, or, really, her parents British garden during WWII as a teenager, with quite some responsibility); overall a good life.
My sister visited yesterday and admired my white belladonna lilies (or naked ladies, Amaryllis belladonna `Hathor’, see post 26th February) in the garden and in a spectacular vase (with a few pale pink ones). After wielding the spade and producing about 3 bulbs with flower heads attached I was suddenly transported years back. Passing them over to her, I said how these had come from a bulb farm in Gembrook originally, and that almost exactly 25 years ago I’d driven there and been thrilled to have just 2 bulbs dug up, flower heads perfectly shaking out their skirts. I’d given one to Mum for her birthday - and kept one.
I have dozens now and this year – after the hot summer? or the wet spring? – they are flowering prolifically all over the unwatered garden, pink ones nearly over, white still blooming with heavy heads of scented flowers, impressive when they bloom in a crispy-dried garden before almost any other plant stirs after the hot dry summer. (Like planting a tree, planting a bulb or 2 in the early years of a garden can be immensely rewarding a decade or score years later.) Hot pink varieties are hard to use in the garden but one or 2 amongst greenery (and their pale pink sisters) look pretty.
I have been picking belladonna lilies for the house for at least 2 weeks now but – despite the overpowering perfume of the white ones - without thinking about my mother. Then a visceral response occurred without warning; a powerful reaction to handling a simple bulb-with-flower head. Gardens can be filled with memories which add another layer of meaning and joy; an intimate layer for the gardener, unseen to others’ eyes.

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

Monday, 10 March 2014

Cosmos, one of the great annuals for autumn

Cosmos, one of the great annuals for autumn, has started flowering; I love the pink and white ones that reach about 1.2m or so.
From central America, Cosmos comprises annuals – from pink and white Cosmos bipinnatus hybrids to lemon and orange C. sulphureus - and perennials like dark blood red Chocolate Cosmos, C. atrosanguineus from Mexico which, sleepily, pushes up in late spring after all the other perennials have stirred and even, maybe, flowered.
Cosmos must be the prettiest daisy and the height, on (generally) sturdy stems, adds elegance to the autumn garden with its wide flower head described, at times, like a dish antenna – which doesn’t adequately convey its simple beauty.

I was barely aware of sulphur-yellow varieties, let alone orange, until a nephew returned from Japan last year with enchanting images of an urban meadow he loved, of mainly deeply saturated C. sulphureus flowers - hotly orange - floating above a vast green springy cushion; a simple mixture of 2 colour cousins. I believe the meadow is in Hama Riky, a large landscape garden in central Tokyo.

It’s an idea I am tempted to steal - or appropriate, rather, as a possibility for over our bushfire shelter, when it’s approved by council and plonked into the ground. Then we’ll have an ugly large molehill – or a rounded hillock of flowers (rather than a flat field to push through).
Where to find them? I turn to the British Chiltern Seeds catalogue and find 8 varieties of Cosmos sulphureus varying from lemon and gold to orange and red; but it’s the apt flame-orange for me, 10% bright colour against 90% sober green.
This garden of flame and green, Japanese-inspired, will be far flung to the north (whence hot winds and possible bushfires come) beyond my fire-inspired garden of red, grey and maybe black. Let’s hope they do not sit too strangely together.

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

Thank you to Murray Batten for the second and third photos.