Big flowers with short lives

news: Big flowers with short lives

Who would have predicted heavy rain in August? While the holidaymakers made a dash for the shops, muttering ‘we might as well be at home’, gardens woke briefly from their summer stupor and flourished as never before. The sudden change in humidity brought some really amazing flowers into bloom, including some which seldom appear together.

Most rare was Radermachera sinica, commonly known as China doll, which is mostly used as a small shrubby houseplant, distinguished by attractive leaves, but no flowers. It took some time to identify them as they were supplied to us last year in the form of beautiful specimen trees and wrongly classified as Catalpa. They flourished throughout the winter and developed a canopy of evergreen, dark, shiny green foliage.

One PlantScape customer, Rosamund Gale, called recently to say that her China doll, planted in a pot on her terrace, was about to flower. Unfortunately, this rare event was all over in a couple of hours and, by the time I arrived, its large scented white trumpet flower was on the ground. But, following an early morning call, a second flowering was caught on camera a few days later and is shown here. Originating from Southeast Asia, they need a bit of care, but add a tropical look to any garden or patio.

Lush decadence

Cacti and succulents are well known for brief, but spectacular blooms and an old Epiphyllum burst into life in a forgotten corner of the garden centre one sweaty afternoon. Originally rescued from a rubbish tip, it lived up to its common name of orchid cactus by producing an exotic flower more than 25cm long and 10cm in diameter. No photo could capture the lush decadence of this yellow flower. Formed into a yellow chamber, it was packed with silky stamens surrounding a star-shaped stigma hanging down like a bizarre tongue. It barely lasted two hours, but certainly earned a few ‘wows’.

Epiphyllum tend to be treated badly under the misunderstanding that they can survive on minimum water. ‘Survive’ is the operative word here, as they shrink and shrivel unless watered regularly, while a lack of nutrients produces a pale yellow, washed out appearance.

I have seen them languishing among agaves in desert style borders, when, in reality, their natural habitat is in pockets of rich soil among tree branches. Given reasonable attention in a moist border or partially shaded planter, they will flower throughout spring, summer and autumn.

When a plant has the common name of giant granadilla, you can be sure it won’t be a shrinking violet, and our resident Passiflora quadrangularis burst into bloom a few days after the first spell of August rain. Even without flowers, this fast growing climber displays huge heavily veined leaves. Robert Lee Riffle, in his highly descriptive (and weighty) book, The Tropical Look, states: “The five inch wide fragrant flowers are sweet dreams of red, purple and white.” Ours were this and more, firing salvo after salvo of blooms. In a genus renowned for exotic forms, Passiflora quadrangularis is top gun beyond any doubt. The downside is that flowers only last an hour or two if you are lucky, then close and shrivel. But if you have an outhouse or dull wall that needs transforming, then this is definitely worth a try – ideally, they need to grow from shade to sun.

Pick of the month

A frequently asked question during late summer is what can be used to replace fading petunias and other perennials planted during spring. With careful deadheading and feeding, many perennials can be coaxed into September, but one missed watering session or one very hot day, and they turn limp and lifeless, never to recover. In my view, nothing beats Portulaca umbraticola, which is a no-nonsense ground cover that is not fussy about soil, does not need deadheading, and flowers continuously through autumn – provided it gets full sunlight and regular water. It usually produces a proliferation of different coloured rose-shaped flowers on one plant. Because of its ability to self-seed, Portulaca seems to behave like a perennial. Ugly, bare, fleshy stems in early winter seldom flower for a second year, so treat it like an annual and dig it up once flowers stop appearing.

If you are looking for something different for pots and planters, or garden areas that receive infrequent watering, then consider trying Euphorbia milii. It can be brought back to life after periods of neglect, rewarding you with masses of small, button-shaped, brightly coloured fleshy flowers. Its drawbacks are long spines, and it only bears leaves on new growth, which can lead to leggy stems. The most common colour is red – reminiscent of that Christmas favourite, Euphorbia pulcherrina, better known as poinsettia. Given time, Euphorbia milii will grow into a striking, thorny shrub that is useful for low hedging, which deters animals and invaders of the human kind. It resists salty air and is normally only killed by over-watering, cold weather or a combination of both.