Quirky characters

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Brillantaisia subulugurica

The older I get, the more I love the idea of quirkiness: of things, people and ideas that are a bit different and out of the ordinary and unexpected. I like this characteristic in my garden, too, and have included some plants with unusual features that catch my eye and hold my interest as I wander around outside each day. Whilst of course I find great pleasure in classically beautiful flowers, it is these slightly eccentric specimens that make me smile, and provide welcome diversity of form and texture in the garden.

Amaranthus caudatus

At the moment, the long, burgundy dreadlocks of the so-called 'love-lies-bleeding' (Amaranthus caudatus) are giving me joy. A tall annual (to 1.2 m), this stunning plant self-seeds each year in my garden, coming up in its thousands like mustard and cress each spring. I weed most of them out, leaving just a few to grow on to maturity. It's hard to believe that this statuesque specimen can grow from such a tiny seedling. The fountain-like pendulous flower heads are comprised of thousands of tiny clustered blooms, and the effect lasts for at least seven months. In fact, if the flower heads are picked and hung upside down for a few weeks to dry, they can be used in dried-flower arrangements.

Grass seed heads of Chasmanthium latifolium

Another unusual plant I am appreciating at the moment is a small herbaceous grass, which seems to be Chasmanthium latifolium, grown from seed given to me by a gardening friend several years ago. It grows about 50 cm tall with cane-like foliage and has the quaintest nodding seed heads like tiny, spiky fish, which shiver in the slightest breeze. Like the Amaranthus, these can be dried for indoor decoration. I am not sure if it might become a weed, but I have had no self-seedlings so far!

Seed pods of Lunaria annua, in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

The curious seed pods of the annual known as 'honesty' (Lunaria annua) have developed on plants I left in the garden after flowering. The large rounded discs that contain the seeds can be rubbed off to reveal an ethereal silvery inner layer - again an unusual addition to a flower arrangement. My honesty plants have variegated leaves and white flowers in spring, and I leave the most striking specimens to go to seed then scatter the seed around for new plants to germinate next autumn. I weed out any that don't show the leaf variegation, to try to keep the strain pure.

Vigna caracalla

The snail vine (Vigna caracalla) is another oddity I enjoy in my garden and it is just coming into flower now. A member of the bean family (Leguminosae) it grows as a herbaceous perennial or annual vine, developing over summer into a lush cover with very bean-like leaves. The strange, corkscrew-like pink and cream flowers do look like surreal snail shells, and they are perfumed. The strange and exotic moonflower (Ipomoea alba), which I have written about in a previous blog, is another very unusual annual climber: each bloom opens in the early evening and lasts for one night only but is quite glorious when it does so!

Justicia betonica (at left) with Shasta daisies

Some of the Acanthaceae family, of which I am inordinately fond, have unusual flowers. One interesting one that is out at the moment is sometimes known as the white shrimp plant: Justicia betonica. It grows to about a metre in height and has very upright spires of papery white bracts, which enclose tiny pink flowers. Because the main part of the inflorescence is comprised of bracts, the effect is very long lasting. Another out-of-the-ordinary Acanthaceae specimen is sometimes called 'golden candles' (Pachystachys lutea), growing to 1-2 m, with golden-bracted inflorescences enclosing white flowers. The effect is rather like a glowing candelabra and this plant can be in bloom for many months. Like many Acanthaceae plants, it grows very well in a shaded position. Brillantaisia subulugurica (shown at the start of the blog) is yet another Acanthaceae plant with unusual blooms, which are like clouds of large, purple-blue claws at the moment, on a tall majestic shrub to 3 m.

Though I don't yet have much experience of growing Australian native plants, many of them have unusual and interesting characteristics quite different from Northern Hemisphere flora: think of kangaroo paws, banksias, bottle brushes, eucalypts and waratahs.