A tropical oasis

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Odontonema growing in the garden of Helen Curran in Sydney

It is always a joy to visit open gardens, and this past weekend a friend and I went to see Tropical Breeze at Seven Hills, created by Helen Curran. An average-sized suburban block has been transformed by Helen into a tropical paradise, and it was like going into another world as we wound our way along paths flanked by garden beds thickly planted with an amazing variety of warm-climate plants. A number of palms were originally used to create a canopy to provide shade and shelter to the plants below - in recent times, the tallest of these have been removed and other specimens, such as Brugmansia and frangipanis, have taken over their role. Helen has thus created a microclimate that now does not experience frost in winter, despite being situated in a cooler part of Sydney.

Crotons in the garden of Helen Curran in Sydney

It began as a tropical foliage garden and there are many beautiful and unusual foliage plants that give brilliant year-round colour to the borders - including a large number of Cordyline varieties, Colocasia species, Calathea of many sizes and patterns, and sizeable bromeliads - some in big pots. Iresine herbstii in its red and yellow forms is used frequently, providing vivid contrast to green foliage. An interesting Hibiscus with white-variegated leaves ('Snowflake') grows in several areas, bringing lightness into the shade. Helen successfully grows some of the more cold-sensitive foliage plants, such as exotically decorated Aglaonema and crotons (Codiaeum species).

Swimming pool in the garden of Helen Curran in Sydney

The garden path leads through a delightful shaded pavilion with seats for relaxing in, then winds past a very inviting swimming pool, which is surrounded by massed plantings of foliage, including some with cascading foliage used to suggest the shape of a waterfall, including Russelia equisetiformis and variegated mondo grass (Ophiopogon jaburan 'Variegata'). There are several water features in the garden, and the sound of running water adds to its tranquil atmosphere. Statues and lanterns add to the Balinese feel of the garden. Some plants are grown on the trunks of palm trees as epiphytes - including orchids and Tillandsia types of bromeliad.

Sanchezia speciosa in the garden of Helen Curran in Sydney

I was particularly excited about this garden because Helen has a particular interest in one of my plant obsessions - the family Acanthaceae - and this family was well represented amongst the foliage features. The polka-dot or freckle-face plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) has various forms with cute spotted leaves, with the markings being white, pinks or red, and a number of these are grown in this garden. The gorgeous Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyeriana) flourishes in several different garden areas, and I particularly admired it growing nearby a purple form of the 'cat's whiskers plant' (Orthosiphon aristatus) that I have never succeeded with in my Sydney garden! There are a number of Pseuderanthemum species with interesting foliage, including P. carruthersii var. atropurpureum cultivars and Graptophyllum pictum in a number of colours. There are Acanthaceae foliage plants I had never seen before, including yellow and green variegated Peristrophe hyssopifolia 'Aureo-variegata', a low-growing shrub, and Sanchezia speciosa, a tall, shrubby specimen with bold green leaves with prominent yellow veins.

Justicia brandegeeana Fruit Cocktail in the garden of Helen Curran in Sydney

Over the years, more flowering plants have been added to the tropical foliage features, and their blooms glow like jewels amongst the leaves. There are many Acanthaceae specimens to be enjoyed - old favourites of mine such as a floriferous pink Justicia brasiliana (also known as Justicia nodosa), the white spires of Justicia betonica, the feathery heads of Justicia carnea, the neon red bells of Ruellia brevifolia, the orange clusters of Crossandra, and the brilliant red spikes of Odontonema. Acanthaceae flowers I had never seen before included some exciting cultivars of the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeeana): one with very limey bracts and pink-red flowers called 'Fruit Cocktail', a tall one with large red flowers called 'Big Red', and one with red flowers and white-speckled leaves.

Dalechampia aristolochiaefolia

Some of the other blooms we saw are familiar ones, such as Pentas and Begonia but many of the other ones are very rare and unusual tropical specimens, and it was inspiring see them growing so well in a Sydney garden. Helen finds many of her plants whilst on holidays in Queensland and the Northern Territory. We saw Ixora, Wrightia antidysenterica, Mussaenda luteola, Tabernaemontana species, the bat plant (Tacca integrifolia) and a number of gingers. One plant that completely stopped us in our tracks was a vine called Dalechampia aristolochiaefolia (pictured above), with gorgeous large purple flowers - it is apparently known as the silk crepe flower and belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family of plants. The result of Helen's knowledge of and passion for plants is a truly wonderful tropical oasis - and an inspiration for Sydney gardeners who love warm-climate gardens.

Reader Comments

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 March 2013

    Garden sounds wonderful - must keep an eye out for when it is open again - thanks for sharing. Thanks, Anne. It is well worth seeing. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 March 2013

    Helen"s garden was inspirational, a true oasis, very restful, but full of interesting plants - food for the soul! The Dalechampia was very striking. I was excited by the number of Pseudenanthemum varieties there are - perhaps another plant to add to the "must haves". Her successes encourage one to try plants previously thought unsuitable for our climate. Thanks, Margaret. Yes, it was certainly inspiring as to what can be grown if there is enough overhead shelter. Deirdre

  • By Peter 2008 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 March 2013

    Thanks Deirdre & a pleasure to see you at Helen"s impressive Tropical Breeze yesterday, where she VERY generously gave me a precious struck cutting of Justicia coccinea that"s found its way into my tiny inner city patch IMMEDIATELY after pushing the door open late Saturday .. thanks Helen Curran for your very special garden that proves anything is possible in Sydney with enough interest :))) Great to see you too, Peter. Fab re the cutting. My friend and I bought some of the different shrimp plants that were on sale at the garden and were thrilled with them. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 March 2013

    What a lovely garden. I bought a Strobilanthes dyeriana a couple of years ago at the Cottage Garden Club having fallen in love with it at one of the garden trips to Lane Cove, and this year it is just brilliant! Am so pleased with it and when cutting it back this year hope to have success with striking to pop elsewhere in the garden as I have a lot of shade and it stands out so. Currently it shows itself off in a section with lime green foliages. Cheers Maureen It"s one of my favourite plants! I find it a little cold sensitive so good to have some cuttings on hand in a sheltered spot through winter. I find it strikes easily. Deirdre

  • By maree 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 18 March 2013

    Hi Deidre, Sorry to miss you as I was there first thing in the morning. I was very impressed with Helen"s garden, and her collection of tropical plants.She very cleverly layered the plants to create a tropical rainforest landscape filled with colour and interesting shapes.It was cooling on a very hot Saturday! Maree Glad you liked it, Maree. I found it inspiring. Deirdre

  • By Sheree 4055 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 19 March 2013

    Lovely garden! trying to learn the botanical names. Can anyone help me track down a tropical shrub? Acalpha hispida, common name Chenille plant, red hot cat"s tail, I have the ground cover, but would dearly love to find the shrub version to add to my tropical garden. Sheree Have never seen that one, Sheree. Maybe someone will let us know. I grow Amaranthus caudatus, which looks similar, but is a tall annual not a shrub - it lasts for about nine months then self-seeds so is always there the next year. Deirdre

  • By Julie 2097 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 19 March 2013

    Hi Deirdre- I visited the 2 Balmain Open Gardens last weekend - but next year I will definitely try for this garden in Seven Hills. What a stunner for plant varieties! a true plantswoman garden- love it. Where does she source her plants from ? I"ll be there for plant sales next time.Julie Helen gets a lot of her plants from Queensland and Northern Territory. There is a plant fair in Nambour, Qld, every year - around July, I think. I hope to get to that one day! Deirdre

  • By Rowena 4560 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 20 March 2013

    Don"t waste your time going to the Nambour Plant Fair; very expensive, parking costs and all the plants can usually be found at local Sunshine Coast nurseries. For much better prices and some more unusual plants try the Saturday markets at Yandina in the summer when plants are prolific. Great fun! There are also still a few backyard growers around with the rare and unusual. Thanks for the feedback, Rowena. The markets sound great. Hope I will get there one day. Deirdre

  • By Rowena 4560 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 20 March 2013

    I have the amaranthus mentioned but it is a bronze-leaved version. Sorry, no rooted plants, cuttings only.

  • By Bren 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2019

    THis is my ideal type of garden, and actually what I am trying to achieve. Water is the problem though; I wonder how the gardener featured in the article above deals with times of drought (such as now!).... Thanks, Bren. It would be interesting to know how the garden is watered. I haven"t been back to the garden since 2013 as I don"t think it is regularly open now. I am finding a drip system to be working better than I expected this hot summer and my water bill is half that of last summer. I also use tank water when I can -- but we need the rain to fill them! Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 March 2019

    Hi Deidre, Thanks for your reply above. I put in a drip system for three different sections of my garden, and unlike you I have found it works worse than I expected! I wonder how long you turn it on for, and how many times a week? I thought such a system would at least give me some healthy looking shrubs/perennials (eg Abutilons) amongst the dry, but alas! Sorry to hear that you have not had good success with the drippers. I run mine three times a week in summer for about 40 minutes per zone. I did add a wetting agent to the soil last spring and I mulch heavily. I do think these factors may have helped the garden get through summer with just the drippers. Let"s hope we get the promised rain soon! Deirdre

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