Ageing gracefully

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Ageing head of Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar

In the plant world, there are some flowers that have an innate ability to transition through the life cycle with a mature beauty that reminds me of some of the sophisticated, silver-haired women of my mother's generation. Plants like these have great value in the garden - even more I would contend than the showy divas whose short period of spectacular bloom is immediately followed by a hideous decline that requires swift removal with the secateurs. I was reminded of this by the tints and shades on my ageing Hydrangea macrophylla plants at the moment. They have such a long period of interest, from the thrill of their gorgeous pristine flowers in November, which last a long time in full bloom, to their slow transformation to senescence during which their sepals take on subtle tints of pink, green, deep purple or even crimson, depending on the individual cultivar. This process can take months, and picked stems provide plenty of material for flower arrangements.

Ageing spathe of Spathiphyllum species

I have noticed that it is often flowers that are actually comprised of decorative sepals, spathes or bracts rather than petals that follow this pattern of ageing beauty, with hellebores being another example. Helleborus x hybridus inflorescences are long lasting in any case, and then take on greenish tones that are almost as attractive as the original blooms. The pure white spathes of the peace lily Spathiphyllum species are another instance, as these develop greenish tints with age. Often thought of as an indoor plant, I have successfully grown them outdoors in a shady location in the ground or in pots. They mingle well with rhizomatous Begonia, ferns and other shade-lovers. Their lance-shaped leaves are attractive all year round. There is a large cultivar known as 'Sensation' (height to 1.5 m), which also does well in Sydney gardens.

Seed-head of Ammi visnaga

In some cases, the dignified decay of a flower is because it transforms into an attractive-looking seedpod. This year I have enjoyed watching love-in-a-mist (Nigella damescens) metamorphose from a quaint whiskery blue flower into a spiky balloon-shaped seedpod. In late spring, the simple blooms of honesty (Lunaria annua) somehow turn into large moon-shaped discs, which eventually become translucent silver as the outer layer of the seedpod is shed. Red orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra) is another annual that I enjoy growing each year. It has lovely dark purple foliage and small flowers that become a mass of dainty burgundy seedpods in midsummer, which tremble on their stems with every breeze. Like many plants in the Umbelliferacae family of plants, the seed-heads of Queen Anne's lace (Ammi visnaga) are decorative even after the flowers have fallen, with their umbrella-like formation. Some perennials also have interesting seedpods: I enjoy seeing the prickly hedgehog-like pods of the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) after the petals (which age to an interesting bronze colour) have eventually fallen, and the flowers of some varieties of Sedum age very well, with autumnal tints.

Seedpod of Amaryllis belladonna

Some bulbs produce interesting seedpods too. The spectacular paintbrush lily (Scadoxus puniceus), which blooms in late winter, develops large, shiny red fruit, held within the ageing flower sepals. The bloom of the belladonna lily (Amaryllis belladonna) evolves into an amazing pod of pink, jelly bean-like fruit: something I only discovered in the farm garden last year, where the bulbs had not been deadheaded earlier in the season.

Ageing flower-heads of Miscanthus sinensis Zebrina

The flower-heads of ornamental grasses are extremely long lasting and they mellow to pretty colours of fawn and gold. Miscanthus sinensis cultivars are amongst the best grasses for Sydney gardens and provide many months of interest with their arching foliage and tasselled blooms.

We won't see this palette of colour and form if we are too hasty in cutting off dead-heads in our gardens. It is worth waiting and watching your plants to see which ones have the potential to age gracefully and give an extended period of interest to be enjoyed.

Reader Comments

  • By Jill 3941 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 24 January 2011

    Thank you once again. I loved your appreciation of the plants through all the stages of their lives. Superb photos. Jill

    Thanks, Jill. Deirdre

  • By annette 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 24 January 2011

    Some of those lovely aged flowers will go on to produce seed for self-planting, a bonus I use to justify never having quite achieving a manicured look in my garden Annette, BILPIN

    Yes, I agree with that. I rely on a lot of self-seeders to fill my garden. Deirdre

  • By Carole 2230 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 24 January 2011

    I totally agree and I loved you poetic descriptions. We are most often used to the fruit and berry tree cycle. However I wouldnt miss out on the transient beauties for quids :-) Thank you again Deidre.

  • By Sue 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 24 January 2011

    O that we could all age as gracefully as the garden without too many pills and potions. Thank you for your ongoing thoughts. Cheers Sue

    I agree!Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 25 January 2011

    I agree, and love the aging bits of plants, wish I could say the same for myself:-) My favorite seed head is the japanese windflower when it explodes into fluffiness. Sue

    Thanks for the reminder of those - they are pretty and I always leave the stems on them for a long time. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 25 January 2011

    loved your ageing flowers. Am particularly fond of white hydrangeas which age to a lovely shade of green. Was given a posy yesterday using ageing flowers, mixed with live ones, and it is lovely.

    That's a lovely idea to have them mixed in a posy. I love the aged white hydrangea heads. Unfortunately a lot of mine got burnt in early summer - planted in too much sun! Deirdre

  • By Frances 3941 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 26 January 2011

    beautiful! another flower I love is the flower of Alliums. I have a garden full of garlic flowers bobbing around, they last a long time too :-)

    You are lucky to be able to grow them! I have never had much luck growing them in Sydney but they do well in Victoria. Deirdre

  • By susan 3918 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 09 January 2012

    Happy New Year and welcome back Deirdre. Oh dear, I can echo your comments - every true gardeners quandary. But now added to lack of space and over crowding, are the problems of too many roots, and too much shade. So, pot in hand the walk continues. I too, must learn to resist temptation.

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