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Making a universal connection

Sometimes, there is a synchronicity happening in the universe, and you wonder quite what is going on.

You think about a friend you haven’t seen for years; then they are passing through town and call in. In a dream, you are walking along a beach you went to in your childhood, and that night it features in a television programme.

That has happened to me recently. I wrote about South African plants last week, largely after watching the tauhou [silvereyes] flitting about in the Cape Fuchsia, and weeding the bed where the angel’s fishing rods were shivering in the breeze.

Then I caught an interesting episode of Country Calendar, where the team visited a commercial flower grower on Banks Peninsular whose business is largely growing various South African shrubs, mainly members of the large protea family.

Later in the week I had a phone call from a writer who is researching the life of the famed New Zealand iris breeder Jean Stevens. I was able to help her with some information and put her in touch with another friend who had some of Jean Stevens’ records. The garden she lived in on Bastia Hill in Whanganui has recently been sold, despite great efforts put in by garden heritage proponents trying to keep an important part of New Zealand history in its original state.

Jean Stevens was a world-recognised breeder of bearded iris – some of her varieties can be found in the background of huge numbers of cultivars. But the garden is just as famous for its South African connections.

Together with her husband Wally she developed Australian and South African plants for the floral trade, probably being the first person to cross two different Leucadendron species L. laureolum and L salignum in the search for better flowers.

This work was continued by her son-in-law Ian Bell, and he eventually released the best of these onto the market – ‘Safari Sunset’ was to become one of New Zealand’s most important floricultural exports and the spur for many growers to plant paddocks of these plants.

Although the craze for these flowers has diminished somewhat, leucadendrons are still an important group of plants for the garden, doing especially well in places where the soil fertility is low, and plants that can cope with extended dry periods are requires.

The Latin name means ‘white tree’ and was given in reference to the glorious small tree L. argenteum. This has silky silvery leaves and small, relatively insignificant flowers. It tends to be rather short-lived, and although I can recall seeing some lovely specimens around Wairarapa in the past, there are not so many now. I sometimes came across them in the Archive too, as World War One soldiers sent postcards home from the Cape, complete with silver leaves.

However, there are plenty of smaller, shrubby varieties for the home garden, most growing to about two metres high. It is a good idea to harvest the flowering branches as that will help keep the shrub to a more confined space. The branches can always be displayed in the house, of course.

Leucadendron flowers are carried at the tips of the branches and are usually inconspicuous, but they are surrounded by brightly coloured leaves – technically they are called bracts – so when talking about the various cultivars, remember I am talking about the bracts rather than the flowers.

‘Safari Sunset’ is still the most popular variety, with its golden yellow bracts deepening through the colder months until they become deep wine red. There is a brightly variegated cultivar derived as a sport from this, called ‘Safari Sunshine.’ The flowers tend to be
pinker than in ‘Sunset Safari’.

One I am fond of because I knew the man it is named after – ‘Jack Harre’. Jack grew proteas and their relatives at Rewa, on the Vinegar Hill Road from Feilding to Mangaweka. An ex-dairy farmer, I visited his nursery with my boss, as we picked up a load of plants for the garden centre and visited the boss’s family who lived nearby.

‘Jack Harre’ is a compact growing form with flaming-red star-like bracts at the end of arm-length branches from early in winter. The cooler the weather becomes, the deeper the flowers become. This is a rapid-growing form suitable for most gardens and becomes a nicely rounded shrub at about a metre. Being a form of L. salignum, it has finer foliage than most other cultivars.

‘Plum Supreme’ is another smaller growing cultivar with fine foliage, this time being [as the suggests] deep plum/purple in autumn. ‘Amy’ is another smaller form, this time with rosy-red bracts in winter that turn yellow for the spring.

If you are looking for more subdued tones, ‘Candy Delight’ is a pretty little plant with cream flowers brushed with candy pink, while ‘Cream Delight” is a few shades deeper.

All these should be easily grown, provided they are not in shady, damp positions. They need full sun, and an open site, ideally in poor and somewhat acidic soil.

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