The flow­ers, bulbs and shrubs of this vast con­ti­nent thrive in dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, writes Neil Ross.

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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.

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