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Treasures then are treasures still

When I first became seriously interested in gardening, nearly 50 years ago, I was living in a flat on the east side of town.

Each day I walked to and from the Blue Bus depot in Queen Street, to catch a bus out to my job at Waingawa Works, and each day I would pass a particular garden that held three special treasures to me.

Along the footpath fence line, it had a lovely light pink calico bush, Kalmia latifolia, and a lively purple Kurume azalea, while up against the house, it had a rare pink statice, Limonium peregrinum.

I walked past the garden again recently, and although the statice and kalmia have long since disappeared from the heavily-altered garden, the Kurume azalea is still flourishing along the fence line, a testament to its hardiness and resilience.

I think this was the first Kurume azalea I ever saw, and it fascinated me. I was familiar with the more common larger flowered varieties [sometimes called florists’ azaleas] but these smaller-leaved and smaller flowering varieties were a novelty.

All these varieties originally hail from Japanese hybridisers, where selections and cross-breeding among the small-leaved species to be found on the island of Kyushu gave rise to this group of shrubs. Their small growth and diminutive flowers and leaves made them a particular favourite among bonsai growers. Others liked to shape them in larger containers, trimming them to take an umbrella-like shape.

There are several different varieties of Kurume azalea, in a range of colours from the purple form I first saw all those years ago, through bright reds and pinks, down to very light-coloured forms.

Limonium flowers.

My absolute favourite is the coral rose form called ‘Kirin’. She has masses of flowers in mid-winter and the usual tight growth of Kurume varieties. In our last garden, I planted a group of these underneath a purple Japanese maple, and they provided lots of winter colour when the maple was bare.

I also mass-planted them in our current garden, this time in the shade under a large evergreen magnolia, and it grows readily, although it would probably prefer more light.

There is a lighter-coloured form with the same semi-double flowers called ‘Peach Kirin’, and an even lighter form called ‘Apple Blossom’, which flowers later in spring.

Kurume azaleas are easy to grow if they are planted in reasonably fertile soil with good organic content. Because they are members of the rhododendron family, they need slightly acidic soil, so do not plant them in heavily limed areas. Although most of them are very tidy in their growth, some can get a little twiggy, but they can be pruned successfully. I have seen them trimmed and used as a bright green alternative to a box hedge, so that’s something to consider!

The larger flowered varieties will also be appearing in garden centres now. There is a large range of colours available among these too, so it pays to check out what colours are available to suit your garden.

I was so taken with the kalmia in that garden that it was one of the plants I sought out when we came to this garden 25 or more years ago, and now have four different varieties here. The oldest of them is a slower-growing light pink form, like I first saw all those years ago.

I purchased it at Tikitere Nursery near Rotorua, and it is still under two metres tall and looks fantastic when it is covered in the lightest pink flowers popping out of deeper-coloured buds in spring.

Light pink kalmia flowers.  

Kalmias are distant cousins of the rhododendron tribe, so they need similar conditions – cool, humus-rich soils with a low pH. They will grow in either sun or semi-shade but need extra moisture over the summer if it is dry.

I left working at the Freezing Works and started at Gardencraft garden centre. By that time, I had left the flat I had been in and was living in Kuripuni. Oddly though, one of the customers I got to know at the garden centre was the owner of the house with the three special plants. As it turned out, I had worked with her husband when I first left school, although he had died by the time I met his widow.

I was, fortunately, able to get some seed of the pink statice from my new friend, as it is seldom available in New Zealand. It makes a shrub about 1.5 metres tall, with pink disk-like papery flowers in fan-shaped clusters. This unusual plant needs dry conditions, and probably does best when it is neglected and left alone! It is hard to find in the trade, but its purple relative, Limonium perezii¸ with rosettes of triangle-shaped leaves is easier to find, and more amenable to cultivation.

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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