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.