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A bit of everything from freesias

I was picking some flowers for the house at the weekend, including our first freesias. We have a couple of spots where these old-time favourites bloom – in pots around the back patio and in some sunny borders down in the back garden.

The ones in pots are generally birthday presents – the Head Gardener and I both have birthdays in March, and because we are both at the stage in life where presents are almost redundant, we tend to buy each other bulbs.

Naturally enough, about six months later we both have the delight of watching the new hyacinths, crocuses and freesias flower. The freesias are particularly interesting, as they are the product of many years of plant breeding, designed for meeting the exacting desires of the floral trade rather than the more modest desires of the home gardener.

The result is a metamorphosis in almost every particular of the plant. Where freesias were once less than 30cm high, they are now at least twice that height. The colour range which was once at best muddy has been transformed. You can now buy bright yellow, red and purple varieties, and the familiar tubular flower with a single cluster of petals has been enhanced by the addition of double-flowered forms.

Some modern freesias have double flowers.

I have to say I enjoy the large flowering stems of the newer creations when it comes to picking, but they tend to look a little ungainly in the garden, and my favourite remains the once-ubiquitous ‘Burtonii’, the New Zealand-raised hybrid with white flowers marked with a delicious golden throat.

And that brings us to the other real difference between those older strains and the modern ones – the diminution of the signature attribute of freesias – their glorious scent. The modern ones do have a hint of the fragrance we associate with these South African beauties, but the warm, floral scent that signifies these old favourites is surely less noticeable among modern cultivars.

It might seem odd to most of us, but in some places, these older and more vigorous plants can become a weed in the right growing conditions. They have jumped the garden fence and can be found growing wild in many places in Australia, and I have seen them growing enthusiastically among sand dunes at Wainui Beach, north of Gisborne.

It seems they largely spread by seed, although they also make small cormlets along the stem, just above the mother corm. This explains why the older forms were so easily multiplied in the garden, and quickly formed decent clumps if in a dry and warm spot.

However, the old favourite ‘Burtonii’, almost certainly a hybrid of the vigorous species F . alba, is almost totally sterile – I have never seen it set any seed – so it should be a safer bet for those worried about it escaping. The modern cultivars are probably not as environmentally robust either, do are less likely to become a problem.

Speaking of pretty plants that become a bit of a problem, I had a ring during the week from a gentleman enquiring about killing off the alstroemeria growing in a bed along the front of his house. He had planted them several years ago, but they have slowly taken over, and he wants to remove them. He tried taking off all the foliage but noticed they came back very quickly.

Alstroemeria going mad in the iris bed.

I have had some experience with this issue. Alstroemeria are wonderful plants, long-lasting and hardy enough in our climate. They can provide a great succession of cut flowers, and they are lovely to have in the garden. Unfortunately, they are also the devil’s own problem to get rid of.

They grow from rhizomes that bury themselves deep in the ground, and unless you can dig all the rhizomes out, they are almost impossible to eradicate. I have some growing in thee different beds. Two of these are mixed beds, and I don’ t mind if they go a bit feral – their foliage is pretty enough, they are a lower growing form with nice flowers.

On the other hand, one variety is growing in a bed alongside a precious peony and other shrubby plants, and it is a nightmare – tall growing, lanky looking and with an unattractive burnt orange flower. I have tried to dig this out numerous times, taking bucketloads of rhizomes away, but almost as soon as I turn around, the leaves are popping up again.

So how do we get rid of alstroemeria? I guess the first answer is foresight – do not plant it in an area where it is likely to become a hindrance!

Secondly, dig, dig, dig, and be persistent. You will exercise some control over it that way.

Lastly, if it is growing somewhere where you can use a spray, try the herbicide Amitrol. Attempt to dig it out first, then when the new growth is nice and lush, apply the weedkiller. It is translocatable, meaning it will work at its best when the plant is actively growing.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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