AFRICAN PLANTS FOR KIWI GARDENS
The flowers, bulbs and shrubs of this vast continent thrive in difficult conditions, writes Neil Ross.
You might think your garden is not particularly exotic – perhaps you see it as rather traditional, even cottagey in style.
But look around the flower beds in spring and my bet is that you will find a bit of Africa in every corner, from agapanthus to aloes, pelargoniums to pokers and just about every good bulb we grow.
This far-away place has so many great plants to offer that New Zealand gardeners have borrowed its flora and made them their own.
Because New Zealand has been submerged, scoured by ice ages and separated from the botanical gene pool for so long, our plant diversity is not nearly as rich as our Gondwanaland neighbours that drifted in more favourable directions. Africa had the good fortune to split off and head north, brushing up against the supercontinent of Eurasia so that both their plant populations could mingle and evolve over aeons.
South Africa had the added good fortune to avoid both ice ages and an equatorial baking – instead coming to rest in a balmy Mediterranean microclimate with hot summers and kind, dry winters, with just enough rain to make the deserts bloom.
That’s why so many good African plants happen to be annuals and bulbs – because these resilient storage organs are perfectly adapted to withstand the lean seasons before springing to life when the rains return.
Now is the very best time to visit the famous wildflower carpets of the Namaqua National Park, where annual daisies and bulbs carpet the deserts from horizon to horizon if and when the rains return – and that’s why it’s the best time to enjoy an African awakening in our gardens too.
One of my favourite places in spring are the cliff-top reserves around Howick in east Auckland, where sheets of harlequin flowers (Sparaxis tricolor) and freesias have hopped the fence and naturalised in the light soils to offer a glimpse of Namaqua magic.
Road verges and sand dunes in many coastal backwaters have become havens for escaped African daisies – the likes of gazania, arctotis, and osteospermum spilling forth in multi-coloured carpets.
Even that quintessentially Kiwi scene of a sheep-grazed paddock is, to my mind, not complete without the damper parts swathed with African arum lilies (zantedeschia), or the odd crinum, wisely ignored by munching livestock. You may disapprove of these immigrants, but the horse has truly bolted – pasture grass is as alien to these shores as any arum, so surely we can gaze at the intermingling as a guilty pleasure?
Perhaps the most iconic of African plants are the protea family – those tough shrubs so well-suited to our maritime climate but hating our rich, heavy soils. So build up your mounds of grit, put away the fertilisers, and you may delight in those frilled bowls of beauty that are the true proteas.
Alternatively, pick perfect, vaselength stems of lipstick-bright leucadendrons safe in the knowledge you are pruning as you go. Or show off with the more distant protea cousins, the flannel flower (Phylica pubescens) or the spectacular pincushion plants (leucospermum). All have evolved to cling to windswept, rocky cliffs in soils so ancient they have long since lost any goodness, so we have to recreate this microclimate – and a sand dune on the coast might be the perfect place to try.
With these most outlandish and brash of shrubs it’s good to soften the garden border with more delicate pleasures too – a liberal sprinkling of watsonia is ideal, bringing an elegant spire-like shape to counteract all the blobbiness. (Avoid Watsonia meriana, however, which is now classed as a weed.)
In common with other larger African bulbs such as chasmanthe and dierama, the tatty leaf clumps of these plants can need some careful disguising but that’s where those pelargoniums, felicias, and osteospermums be handy.
And if you find red-hot pokers (kniphofia) a bit thuggish and garish, you can scale down the look using veltheimia instead. These classy bulbous pokers come in soft pastels with the added bonus of having lustrous leaves and beautiful, papery seedheads to follow on in summer.
Around these larger spring plants why not recreate a Namaqualand meadow with a tapestry of small bulbs? Traditionally, we naturalised in rockeries the likes of sparaxis, scented freesias, wand-like ixias, and beautiful blue and pink babianas to follow on, but you don’t need the fuss of boulders to create a Persian carpet effect.
Rip up a swathe of lawn, such as a slope that’s hard to mow or a sunny tree base and plant there.
The key is preparing excellent drainage by digging in plenty of coarse sand and grit and then mulching heavily. I find that a 10cm layer of coarse sand mixed with a little fine bark, which the bulbs will love and weeds will hate, is ideal.
You could experiment with some low annuals mingled with the bulbs and extend the season with species of gladioli, and swathes of bright gazanias, ensuring that a sizzling African spring stretches on into summer – and beyond!
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Phylica pubescens: The well-named featherhead or flannel flower bush makes a fantastic foliage plant and cut flower, especially if you place it to let early morning or evening sun catch those intensely hairy leaves.
Rhodohypoxis baurii: If you live in Taranaki, this cheerful little bulb will be familiar as festival gardens are full of wide bowls of them cheering up entrance ways and path corners.
Clivia miniata ‘Yellow’: This has been the breakthrough colour for clivias, after the orange footballs that gardeners have come to love for brightening up dry, shady places.
Leucadendron ‘Waterlily’: Rather than dazzling with the usual hot red bracts and smoky grey foliage, this has architectural flowers – more lotus-like than waterlily – and fresh green foliage.
Protea ‘Mini Red’ is a more compact hybrid reaching only ametre high. The typical goblet flowers are produced in fits and starts throughout the year, peaking in late winter-early spring.