One of the lessons we learn as we garden is that life is not permanent. We know that our annual plants – marigolds and petunias – are ephemeral – one flowering season, and they are gone. Similarly, most of our vegetables.
We even learn that shrubs and trees can also have a truncated life – most will eventually lose their vigour and slowly fade away.
I always try to be optimistic about it. An empty space in the garden presents an opportunity to try a new plant. However, there are a few plants that I have repeatedly tried to cultivate. After an attempt or two, I usually get the hint and accept they are not for our climate.
For years, I tried to grow the wonderful Crown Imperial, Fritillaria Imperialis, one of the most beautiful flowering bulbs. I had seen two glorious beds filled with them in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens and became determined to grow them here. It took about five years of bulbs rotting before growing, rotting while growing, and rotting while nearly in bud before I finally accepted that they would not acclimate to our garden.
I had the opposite problem with the dwarf pelargonium ‘Splendide’, sort of like a very dwarf regal pelargonium. I could get this wonderful little plant with its brilliant red and white flowers to grow and flower, but I could never get it to survive the winter. After a couple of attempts, I gave up.
This year, we have had two substantial losses in the garden, both shrubby hibiscus, both more than twenty years old.
The most grievous loss is the large Hibiscus syriacus ‘Diana’. This is a shining, pure white example of the hardy hibiscus, also known as the Rose of Sharon. These are deciduous plants and fully hardy in New Zealand. They produce masses of flowers over summer and can be found in white, pink and mauve shades, often with a distinct maroon ring around the centre of the flower. They are available as both singles and doubles, but I think the doubles tend to be a bit messy, and I prefer the singles.
‘Diana’ is one of the very best, with large pure white flowers that shimmer in the light. Although each flower is not long-lived, the flowers will be borne right through until the frost stops all growth. ‘Diana’ also has another unusual attribute – the flowers stay open at night, unlike most other cultivars.
The other hibiscus we lost this year was also over twenty years old. It was an unnamed “indoor” hibiscus, a type that was popular all those years ago. They are essentially smaller flowering varieties of the more usual outdoor types, and the one we purchased was gold with a red-flushed centre.
We never actually grew it inside; instead, we kept it in a large container on the covered patio, reasoning that it would get sufficient first cover by being near the wall. It really did not get the care it deserved and has struggled for quite a few years. It was prone to infestation by white flies and seemed to become more and more reluctant to break its winter dormancy.
Replacement of these two is not going to be easy. ‘Diana’ was being smothered by a large grapefruit tree on one side and a rapidly expanding feijoa on the other, so I am guessing that we will just remove the dead shrub and leave the space temporarily blank.
The indoor hibiscus might be easier to replace, but then that has become a bit of a problem. Some years ago, I harvested some zonal pelargonium cuttings from my late mother-in-law’s garden, and instead of putting the cuttings in pots in the glasshouse, I quickly popped them around the edge of the hibiscus container. I have since potted some of them, but others have been left in the container and have outgrown the hibiscus.
There are two very different types – the subtly wonderful ‘Apple Blossom Rosebud’, with its fantastical, very full double flowers, white trimmed with a picotee of red, and an unnamed variety which is bright red with a prominent white splash in the centre of each flower.
I confess that I am a sucker for red and white flowers, and I love the way the pelargonium smothers itself with festive flowers over Christmas. They make an irreplaceable component for Christmas posies and table settings, so I think the container will be given over to them.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, I could probably grow ‘Splendide’ in that container, as it would be protected from the winter frost. The only problem is that the plant is much harder to find in the nursery trade now, so I will have to do a bit of sleuthing work to track it down.
Still, it could be worth one more attempt.