"Forgotten shrubs"

Some stalwart shrubs for Sydney.
Sunday, 04 February 2018     

White form of Leonotis leonurus

When I began this website, more than nine years ago, one of my goals was to document in my Plant Reference section - over time - all the plants I have growing in my garden, as a record for myself and hopefully to help other Sydney gardeners with information on some plants that can flourish here. Our climate is challenging and many plants suited for other places in Australia fail to thrive here, as I have found out, to my chagrin, over the years. However, it came to my attention last week that I have overlooked some plants, including some stalwart shrubs, which deserve to be included in my Plant Reference, so this week I have made an attempt to remedy that by adding some of them in!

Some of these shrubs have perhaps been overlooked because they are modest, faithful workhorses, that do not shout out to the world 'Look at me!', but quietly get on with the job of, say, providing a bushy screen, giving welcome greenery in a dark corner, exuding a wonderful fragrance, or displaying small flowers that offer a foil to big, bold blooms that surround them.

The port wine magnolia (Michelia figo) performs several of these roles. A reliable evergreen shrub from China (ht 3-4 m) with lush green foliage, it can provide an excellent background screen and substance to a border. It grows well in our warm climate. Small, purple-flushed cream-coloured flowers appear in late spring/early summer. The tulip-shaped flowers are not showy like those of its more flamboyant Magnolia relatives, but they are strongly scented, with a fragrance described variously as resembling banana, port wine or bubblegum! Michelia figo can be pruned to shape after flowering to reduce its size. It will grow in sun or partial shade, and enjoys humus-rich, well-drained soil and sufficient water in summer. It doesn't like harsh frost. There are several cultivars of the plant that have larger flowers and that apparently grow faster than the species, including 'Lady of the Night' (ht 4 m) and 'Coco' (ht 4 m). Michelia figo has also been hybridised with Michelia doltsopa (which is a rather large tree) to produce Michelia x foggii cultivars that are small trees with fragrant flowers in late winter or spring.

Sarcococca ruscifolia is another evergreen shrub that hails from China. It grows only to about 1 m in height and width. It has tiny, white flowers in winter, which are sweetly scented; these are followed by bright red berries. I value it because it will grow in shade, even nasty dry shade. Its shiny, pointed leaves are very reminiscent of the tough, shade-tolerant foliage plant Ruscus aculeatus (sometimes known as the insect plant, because of its strange flowers on its 'leaves' - actually stems - which do look just like little bugs!) and indeed the species name of this Sarcococca references this connection. I like growing the two plants together in a difficult shaded position as they just seem to look so right together. Neither plant needs any attention at all, but I do try to keep them well mulched and provide some water in hard times.

Abelia x grandiflora is one of those ubiquitous shrubs that we do tend to take for granted, but it is an excellent choice for Sydney gardens. It is a hybrid between Abelia chinensis and Abelia uniflora and grows around 1.8-2.4 m tall, with arching burgundy canes with small, shiny, deep green leaves. In summer and autumn, it is smothered in petite, mauve and white blooms, which are held in dusky pink calyces. The calyces persist even after the flowers have fallen, providing continued decorative interest. The foliage turns bronze in autumn and winter: another bonus. It doesn't lose its leaves in our climate. It can be grown in sun or light shade, and tolerates a range of soils. It has no demanding requirements. Pruning in late winter will keep the plant neat. I currently grow a dwarf form, known as 'Compacta' (ht 1m), not being able to find a spot for a larger specimen. I keep it clipped to an informal sphere. I enjoy pairing it with burgundy-hued foliage plants (such as Persicaria 'Red Dragon') to pick up the darker tints of its stems and calyces.

My final forgotten shrub is another old faithful, Leonotis leonurus, sometimes called lion's tail or lion's ear. I have known this plant almost all my life, because it grew in my family's garden for many years, my mother being particularly fond of its vibrant-coloured blooms. An evergreen South African plant (ht 1.8 m), it flourishes in our climate. Thin, pungent-smelling leaves provide the backdrop to spires of velvety, orange flower clusters in late summer and autumn. Canna 'Tropicanna', with its orange-marked foliage is an excellent planting companion for lion's tail. There is also a white-flowered Leonotis leonurus, which pairs well with white-variegated foliage plants such as Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus' (shown at the start of the blog). Leonotis can be cut back hard in late winter. It grows best in full sun but can also cope with a bit of shade. It dislikes hard frosts. It needs no special treatment.

I hope all readers enjoyed cooler temperatures and some rain in their gardens over the past week. Amazing how one's gardening enthusiasm returns under such conditions!

 Reader Comments

1/7  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 February 2018

I bought Leonotis leonurus last year & put in my garden. It"s really taken off & is almost 2 metres already. The flowers are just beautiful ! Thanks, Kerrie; glad you are enjoying the plant. Deirdre

2/7  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 February 2018

I have not so fond memories of of Leonotus leonurus.I once had a huge clump the orange flowered form hich proved extremely difficult to remove. Attempts to grow the white form, including bringing home a cutting in a lunch box from Taronga Zoo, were not succesful. Thanks for reminding us of these old faithfuls. Aargh, that does sound a bit daunting trying to get that big one out. I have generally replaced them every few years as they get woody and less floriferous (as with many shrubby perennials, including my many salvias). The white one seems less expansive. Deirdre

3/7  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 06 February 2018

Both forms of Leonotus are vigorous, and do self-seed, but can be controlled. Although probably a small tree, crepe myrtle is my favourite summer plant, with its beautiful flowers, silvery bark, and it is loved for its seeds, by the parrots. Abutilons are flowering profusely, along with the abelias. Sarcocca resicfolia is not known to me, but it sounds great. I have Ruscus aculeatus, (given to me as the "blowfly plant), but situated in the sun, so am about to move it to shade. Thanks, Margaret. Interesting that your Ruscus was given to you as the blowfly plant -- mine was given to me as the insect plant! Whatever its common name, it is intriguing, and such a good doer in dry shade for nice evergreen foliage throughout the year. Deirdre

4/7  Roger - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 08 February 2018

Hello Deirdre, I"m enjoying reading your blog each week. I remember my father had the orange form of Leonotis growing in his garden in New Zealand for many years, it was one of his favourites. Abelia is a shrub I didn"t like for many years, too plain somehow, but now I have two large ones and have come to appreciate their long flowering period and popularity with the bees. I too dismissed Amelia for being a bit ordinary, for a long time; but I now have a greater appreciation for tough and undemanding shrubs like these! Deirdre

5/7  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 08 February 2018

I had Ruscus aculeatus years ago. i knew it then as Butcher"s Broom. Thanks, Sue; I had forgotten that name! Deirdre

6/7  Angus - 2750 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 16 February 2018

I have both the white and orange Leonotus on either side of a Canna "Cattleya" which is yellow splashed with orange. The combination looks fresh even when the Canna is not in flower the leaves contrast with the finer leaves of the Leonotus

7/7  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 February 2018

On a different theme, i finally got to the delightful Ivy Alley at Hunters Hill! Spent a good hour & a half chatting with the lovely Rachel about art & plants & exploring all the gorgeous little nooks of this amazing place. Came home with a few nice bits & pieces. Thanks for telling us about this special place Deidre!

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