Fluffy flowers

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Perennial Ageratum houstonianum

Busily occupied with the big task of cutting back my semi-tropical shrubs this week, I paused to admire a clump of perennial floss flower (Ageratum houstonianum), which has been blooming non-stop during winter. Its curious blue powder-puff flowers reminded me of other blooms with similarly unusual textures that are around at the moment: in many cases it is the prominent stamens that are the most decorative feature of these 'fluffy flowers'. They just cry out to be caressed, giving a tactile enjoyment to those who encounter them.

Eupatorium megalophyllum

My Ageratum is a tough plant from Mexico that forms a mound 60 cm or more wide and about 30 cm in height. It is more often grown as a dwarf annual but this perennial form has been grown in our region for a long time. It takes root where it touches the ground and seems to flower almost all year round. I just hack it back occasionally and pull up any stems that have wandered too far. It is like a miniature version of the shrubby Mexican Eupatorium megalophyllum (ht 1.5 m, pictured left) - which is just about to open its huge panicles of fuzzy lilac bloom in a shady area of my garden. Ageratum and Eupatorium are both unlikely members of the Asteraceae family of plants - though they don't look like most daisy flowers! Both have nectar-rich blooms that attract butterflies.

Scadoxus puniceus

Another fluffy-looking flower that is about to open in a shady border is the amazing paintbrush lily from South Africa (Scadoxus puniceus, ht 45 cm). Its flower is basically a mass of red stamens with neon orange bristles, and reminds me of one of those fibre-optic lamps from the 1970s. It is a spectacular sight in full bloom. Mine grows amongst orange Clivia and red and orange Abutilon and I enjoy visiting this area of the garden in August. A related plant - Haemanthus albiflos (ht 20-30 cm) - has smaller white flowers that look like shaving brushes, and it bloomed earlier in winter this year in my garden. Like the Scadoxus, it grows well in shade.

Tetradenia riparia

Another winter bloomer with fleecy-looking flowers, sometimes known as the nutmeg bush, has just finished its display. It has had a few name changes over time but is currently known as Tetradenia riparia (previous names have included Iboza and Mochosma). It is an old-fashioned soft-wooded shrub from South Africa growing to between 1.5 and 2.5 m and has panicles of fluffy pale mauve blooms in winter. It needs to be cut back very hard in late winter, otherwise it will become hopelessly straggly. Its leaves have a spicy scent. It does best in full sun but will cope with a little shade; it needs protection from strong winds, which may snap the stems.

Acacia podalyriifolia

Our Australian native plants have many species with fluffy flowers comprised chiefly of clusters of decorative stamens, especially among members of the Myrtaceae family of plants, which includes Eucalyptus, Syzygium, Melaluca and Callistemon, which will all flower once the weather becomes warmer. Some wattles offer their clear yellow, downy, fragrant blooms from the very start of winter, with the Queensland wattle (Acacia podalyriifolia, ht 4-6 m) being one of the first to open in June, followed by the feathery-leafed Cootamundra wattle in July (Acacia baileyana, ht 6 m). These wattles in full bloom are a brilliant sight against a perfect blue winter sky. Both have decorative silvery foliage and require a well-drained soil but are generally easy to grow in a sunny or slightly shaded place. Both trees are suited to coastal gardens, but note that they can become weedy in our climate so caution should be exercised if you live near a bush reserve. One of the best wattles for seaside gardens is the Sydney golden wattle (Acacia longifolia, ht 3-6 m, shorter in very exposed coastal positions), which started to show its long, bright yellow chenille fingers in July and looks stunning at the moment . Like most wattles, these are fast growing trees, but their life span may be limited to 10-15 years, which may be extended by pruning after flowering and vigilance for signs of borers. Even if their life is relatively short, they will have provided much adornment in the winter garden during that time, as well as providing useful screens or background foliage whilst more permanent trees are establishing.