When we think of the places that have contributed to New Zealand’s garden heritage, we tend to think of England and, to a lesser degree, Australia, but surely South Africa has given us many of our favoured plants – as well as a few we could well do without!
Among the South African varieties s in flower now is the Cape Fuchsia, Phygelius. I think these are very much underrated shrubby perennials, with months of flowers over summer and autumn, and a nice range of colours in the yellow, orange and red range.
The tube-shaped flowers are held in clusters on strong stems that are held above the clean foliage. We grow a salmon-coloured form, but there are some lovely deeper red varieties, and a lovely variety called “Yellow Trumpet”, whose flowers are a curious pale yellow with a hint of lime.
The birds seem to love this plant. Having tubular flowers that hold nectar at the base, I would have expected to see tui having a go at them, but we have a resident population of touhau, silvereyes, and they can be found on the plant at most times of the day. Touhau are omnivorous – they will eat lots of different things – and at first, I thought they may have been eating aphids, because the plant has very succulent leaves and aphids can be an issue, but I watched carefully and they were getting the nectar from the flowers.
I wondered why the tui were not doing the same, but it may just be that the flower stems are not sturdy enough to support the larger bird. Whatever the reason, it is a delight to watch the touhau at work.
In another part of the garden, we have a small clump of a pink Dierama pulcherrimum, sometimes called the angel’s fishing rod. Hailing again from South Africa, this is a once-common bulb with stiff – grass-like leaves that contrast greatly to the delicately arching sprays of bell-shaped flowers. In the most common form – the one I have and the one that was in my parents’ garden – the flowers are soft pink, but there are lovely burgundy varieties, and even a pure white form. In the UK, this is a popular plant, and several different cultivars are available, including smaller-growing forms.
The angels fishing rods have three different periods of attraction. The buds are a lovely translucent silver shade as they develop, then the flowers hanging from the stems are substantial enough, and the stems wiry enough, that the slightest breeze makes the stems move in a sprightly way.
Then in autumn, there is another treat – for goldfinches and humans alike. The flowers are followed by small parcels of seeds which ripen over the autumn. As they ripen, they become heavier, and once again the stems wave in the breeze. Once the pods have opened the seeds are consumed, largely by goldfinches, which delight in standing on the stems and pecking at the seeds. As they do the stems bend and twist, and as the birds leave, they spring back to a more upright position.
Gladioli remain some of the most popular of South African bulbs [strictly speaking, corms, but we’ll let that go]. As the florists’ varieties flower almost perfectly on a timeline from planting, they can be planted to give flowers at a particular time. Once very common in gardens, they were a popular Christmas flower, as planting in September, 90 days before needed, would ensure reliable flowering.
I can recall a garden in Masterton where the whole front area was dedicated to this flower, with tiers arranged with rows of gladioli.
The flowers were stunning, but as a piece of landscaping,
it was something of a failure!
We have a few florists’ gladioli in the vegetable garden, leftovers from growing flowers for the house in that bed a few years ago. They happily come up each year and give a few flowers, usually just after Christmas. We have a better view at the start of December – the Gladiolus nanus starts to flower. These are different species from the florists’ flowers and have a more delicate, spidery form. They come in a variety of colours, but mainly red through pink to white, the flowers often having prominent markings on the petals. As the name suggests, they are smaller than the usual types, usually only growing a little more than 30 cm. They also have more refined foliage and work well into a flower border. They look great in a cottage garden, and the flowers can also be picked.
A few years ago, we removed a large swimming pool, filling the hole with concrete rubble, capped with topsoil. A less welcome South African appeared. Strappy leaves appeared the first year, and I left them as I thought they might have been something interesting. This year, the clump has a large bud – in fact, a whole bunch of blue buds. It’s going to be an agapanthus, one of the less welcome South Africans in our garden.