Winter solace

Sunday, 03 July 2011

Tithonia diversifolia

In the depths of winter, I seek solace in the flowers that brave the chill, and I have written a number of blogs on these special blooms: those coloured in hot hues, some from South Africa and the Mediterranean, scented ones, white ones and some belonging to the Acanthaceae family of plants, along with japonica camellias, hellebores, orchids and Salvia species and cultivars! Today I wandered around the garden finding others that I hadn't ever written about and picked an unlikely posy of blooms, each of which, I realised afterwards, had some sort of sentimental significance for me. The first to catch my eye was the bold golden daisy of Tithonia diversifolia - sometimes known as the tree marigold - from Mexico and Central America. It grows as a tall, rather ungainly shrubby perennial (ht to 4.5 m) so is not the easiest plant to incorporate into a suburban garden; however, this year I was somehow able to weave the stems down through the branches of some nearby shrubs, thus bringing the flowers to eye level rather than having them tower way above my head.

Its brilliant cheery blooms are such a tonic on a brisk July day and evoke memories for me of a time more than a decade ago when I was obsessed with hot-coloured winter flowers to illuminate the winter garden and was to give a talk on the subject to a local garden club. I was desperate for a specimen of the tree marigold to photograph for the talk, so was thrilled when my mother brought back a flowering stem that had been used as part of a still-life subject for her watercolour class. Not only was I able to photograph the flower but I struck the cutting and that is what blooms in my garden today amidst some of the other hot-coloured flowers I collected during that phase of my life!

Strobilanthes gossypinus in bloom

One of the Acanthaceae plants that I grow, which I hadn't realised was a winter bloomer - Strobilanthes gossypinus - has flowered for the first time this year. It is a beautiful plant growing to a little over a metre in height, with exquisite velvety silver foliage - sufficient reason to grow it - however, it is also very drought tolerant and has the added bonus of stunning lilac flowers in racemes, which are making the branches arch over like a fountain at the moment. But ... I have read that flowering is sometimes a prelude to its imminent demise - which may be a myth, but I am going to take cuttings just in case as I would hate to be without this plant in my garden! The nostalgic value of this plant is that I bought it from Belrose Nursery just before it closed a couple of years ago, so it serves as a reminder of that wonderful place, which was a mecca for many Sydney gardeners in search of beautiful plants and inspiration.

White version of Iris unguicularis

Another drought-resistant plant in bloom at the moment is Iris unguicularis (ht 50 cm). This is a rhizomatous Mediterranean plant and it grows far better in inland NSW than it does in Sydney (the garden at the farm, for instance, has huge flowering clumps of this species), but it does survive in our gardens and produces enough flowers to justify its existence. The mauve-blue form is most commonly seen but the one I have out at the moment is a very pretty white one called 'Alba', and it is a joy to see its flowers unfurl from its tight scrolls of buds. Iris unguicularis was one of the first plants I ever read about as flowering in winter, more than 25 years ago, so I am fond of it for that reason; this particular white one came from the garden of one of my gardening 'gurus' - an amazing plantswoman who lived around the corner from me and was an active gardener and plant collector until the age of 95. I cannot see these flowers without recalling her encyclopaedic knowledge, her infectious enthusiasm and her generosity in sharing her plants, so it will always have a place in my garden. I am actually finding that the white one is more floriferous than the blue, which I hadn't expected, as some writers have found it a weaker plant.

Centratherum punctatum

Another plant in bloom at the moment is a rather unusual, short-lived perennial called Centratherum punctatum (ht 50 cm), which actually flowers most of the year but seems to be particularly good at the moment. It has flowers like fluffy round purple buttons, held above interesting leaves that look like they have been cut with pinking shears. I have never seen it for sale anywhere - it came to me originally from a dear friend, and then I was given it again by another friend when it somehow disappeared from my garden. The plants seem to last for a few years and then fade away but they do self-seed and I now make sure that I always have a few coming on to replace the older specimens. The flower has a quaint charm and always reminds me of those kind friends who each took the time to dig up a seedling that has brought a lot of pleasure to me on cold winter's days over the years.