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.