Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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A happy trip down memory lane

Last weekend the Head Gardener and I stepped back in time a little.

We were visiting whanau in Tawa and went with them to buy some tomato plants from a small nursery in a residential street. It certainly brought back memories for us – pricking out lots of plants, shifting them around when frost threatens, and then preparing them for sale. Even though the Tawa nursery was on a small scale compared to what we ran, it was still an evocative visit.

The young couple who run the nursery has also established a food forest on their urban section, with a wide variety of unusual and rare edible plants growing on the hillside, some of which they propagate for sale. There were some dwarf peaches and nectarines, which the owners proudly pointed out, ecstatic that they had finally been able to conquer the leaf curl that is such a problem on these fruits. Applications of copper during the leaf bud time had kept the diseases at bay.

They also showed us a plant that were called the “Mexican Marigold”. This was a bit of a surprise to me, as the true marigolds – members of the Tagetes genus – all come from Mexico. The garden varieties are often called African and French marigolds, but these are anomalous names – all true marigolds hail from Central America.

It turned out that the plant was one I had not seen before – Tagetes lucida, sometimes called the Mexican mint marigold, a perennial plant in warm areas, with typical golden marigold flowers. The leaves have an unusual scent. Most tagetes have a slightly unpleasant odour, but this plant has a herby, almost tarragon-like scent.

It was used by Mexicans as a medicinal herb – modern trials have shown it has some anti-bacterial activity. It was also used in flavouring soups and stews.

As we walked around the garden, I noticed there were a lot of pelargonium species in flower, mainly of the scented-leaf variety. These, along with most pelargoniums, are commonly called geraniums. The two genera are closely related but are different. Oddly enough, they were separated in the late 1700s, but to many gardeners, most pelargoniums remain geraniums!

There are many different species of true pelargoniums [more than 275] including perennials, shrubs, climbers and even succulents, and many of them have scented leaves, including the common zonal varieties. Zonal pelargoniums, with kidney-shaped leaves often marked with a dark band, are having a resurgence of popularity with many new hybrids on the market with amazing flower power. There are even some new variegated leaved varieties, with bright splashes of colour.

The true scented types are much more subtle in their colouring, most being in mauve shades with deeper coloured highlights, although there are some that have more prominent flowers.

There is quite a range of fragrances too. I was lucky enough to be able to grab a small cutting of the lime-scented variety. This had quite dark foliage and will grow to a little over 60cm high, with a similar girth. The flowers are not that important – it is the sharply-toothed leaves with their strong fresh lime fragrance that will surprise you. The leaves can be used for a variety of purposes, including adding tang to potpourri.

Where there is a lime there will also be a lemon, and sure enough, there are several different lemon-scented pelargoniums. The most common one also makes a shrubby plant with a large number of stems and it can be trained as a topiary standard. The flowers are slightly bigger and showier than most. As well as lime and lemon, there is also an orange-scented variety, this time with quite large pink flowers.

Moving away from citrus scents, there is the fabulous ginger-scented variety called ‘Torento’, which has fan-shaped leaves that are somewhat rigid but have a delicate ginger fragrance – not really what you would expect from a pelargonium!

One of my favourites is the peppermint scented species called Pelargonium tomentosum.

The name gives a bit of a clue as to the growth habit of this delightful plant – the leaves are covered with tiny hairs, giving the effect of a silver sheen. It has a clean peppermint scent when crushed and is best in a sunny or semi-shaded spot. It can grow quite large when in a favourable site. The flowers are quite small – white with red markings, but not really that noticeable. The leaves can even be used in baking – pop them at the bottom of the batter for a chocolate cake and end up with a delicious peppermint note.

There are plenty of other fragrances – rose, apple-nutmeg, eucalyptus, rose-mint and even ‘fruity’. All these are derived from South African species and will do their best in a warm spot sheltered from the worst of frost. They are all easily grown from cuttings and will do well in pots.

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