September shrubs

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Rhapiolepis Springtime

Spring is here and is showing its usual capricious nature: bestowing a warm, picture-perfect, sky-blue day last Tuesday, then catapulting us back into winter on Friday with miserably cold, rainy weather. Nevertheless, spring shrubs are powering into bloom and it is a joy to see gardens everywhere illuminated with flowers. I don't have much of a spring garden (as I have tended to concentrate on summer and autumn) but I do have some spring shrubs here and there to give me that seasonal boost. They are in general very low-maintenance plants that only need occasional fertiliser and a quick prune after flowering, and they will put on a show year after year. The evergreen sorts help provide permanent structure in a garden where many other plants are cut almost to the ground at this time, and there is a diversity of shapes in their floral form, which adds to their interest.

Azalea cultivar Alphonse Anderson

There are some classic Sydney shrubs that have proved their worth over the years. Interestingly enough, most of the hail from China or Japan and they are very at home in our climate. Azaleas are one of the commonest flowering shrubs to be noticed in Sydney in September; as I have written in a previous blog, I am deeply ambivalent about these plants. They are truly gorgeous in full bloom yet they are victims of a variety of pests and diseases that really need an artillery of chemicals to keep them under control, so I have given them up, apart from two old stalwarts at the top of my long driveway, that I do not spray with anything. They are the old-fashioned sorts, and seem a bit more resilient to some of their attackers, but they still do get petal blight. I tend to deal with it by pruning back the whole plant severely once the petal blight takes hold and disposing of the stems in the green waste bin, to try to get rid of the petal blight spores from my garden.

Spiraea cantoniensis with new growth of Miscanthus sinensis Variegatus

More favoured in my garden are shrubs like the lovely arching may bush (Spiraea cantoniensis, ht 2 m) from China, which is a froth of tumbling white blooms at the moment. I prefer to see this deciduous shrub able to show off its weeping habit to its full potential, so when pruning, I just remove a few old stems at the base and just lightly trim the remainder - an all-over haircut means it flowers in the shape of a dull, rounded loaf. It also needs a bit of room around it; I grow companions that are cut back hard at the time of its bloom, so it can drape itself artfully wherever it likes. I also think it can look good if there are other fountain-shaped plants in the vicinity: I have Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus' near mine and I enjoy its curved new growth; I have also admired some may bushes growing with some dark-leaved Phormium in a garden in my suburb. Rhaphiolepis species and cultivars (ht 1-1.5 m) are good little evergreen shrubs blooming now with simple pink or white flowers. Known colloquially as Indian hawthorn, they do also actually come from China. They are completely undemanding but look good all year round and can be grown as a hedge.

Burgundy-leaved form of Loropetalum chinense

Another of my favourites from China (it is also found in Japan and Myanmar) is Loropetalum chinense (ht 2 m) and these shrubs are looking particularly good this year, perhaps because of all the rain we had during winter. It has an interesting horizontal habit and naturally grows quite wide, though it can be pruned (after flowering) into any shape if preferred. The original species has pretty creamy-white spidery flowers, but my favourite ones have burgundy-coloured leaves and pink flowers. There are various cultivars, including 'Burgundy' and 'China Pink' - their foliage is stunning in spring and early summer but does tend to turn green eventually. A new cultivar called 'Plum Gorgeous' is said to retain its coloured foliage all year round. Loropetalum is another undemanding shrub, which will grow in sun or part-shade. I am enjoying my dark-leaved one with bluebells and Iris japonica growing around its base. It would also associate well with some of the dark pink or plum-coloured hybrid hellebores.

Justicia adhatoda

An unusual shrub flowering now belongs to the Acanthaceae family and has the hooded blooms typical of that group of plants, closely resembling those of the oyster plant (Acanthus mollis). Justicia adhatoda (ht to 4m) is not spectacular but its puple-netted white blooms are interesting and it has gorgeous quilted, limy-green spring foliage, which is looking very lush at the moment. I am enjoying it with lime-green Nicotiana langsdorffii blooming nearby. It is a good background plant for a semi-shaded position and like most of the Acanthaceae plants, grows quickly and easily, and it has no special requirements.

Streptosolen jamesonii

Other spring shrubs I am enjoying at the moment include the scented pink posies of Rondeletia amoena, the floriferous bells of Abutilon in many colours, the brilliant orange flower clusters of the marmalade bush (Streptosolen jamesonii) and the fluffy orbs of the purple mist flower (Eupatorium megalophyllum).

Enjoy your spring garden!