Dunedin

Each sea­son, each month, in­deed each day, brings its own par­tic­u­lar glory.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

Plants with sil­ver leaves leave Mar­garet Barker en­am­oured

In the sharp, low win­ter light of a glit­ter­ing morn­ing in June, sil­ver leaves il­lu­mi­nate the gar­den. They are sparkling high­lights in the mono­chrome scene of deep shad­ows and som­bre greens.

Leaves ap­pear sil­ver be­cause they have tiny hairs which re­flect the light.

These furs and threads evolved to pro­tect suc­cu­lent leaves from des­ic­ca­tion due to sum­mer or win­ter dry, harsh light, and assault from par­ti­cles borne by the wind. For ex­am­ple, the tree daisy Olearia lyal­lii from Snares Is­lands in New Zealand’s sub­antarc­tic ocean have sil­ver hairs on the leaves as pro­tec­tion from salt laden gales bear­ing in from the sea.

I once vis­ited these is­lands, sail­ing through the roar­ing for­ties to­wards the fu­ri­ous fifties, sea­sick all the way. It was calm close to the is­lands where we climbed into rub­ber zo­di­acs and mo­tored around the is­lands. Land­ing is not per­mit­ted. My mem­o­ries are of swirling kelp, busy pen­guins, and the gold and sil­ver is­lands – Brachy­glot­tis

stew­artii with massed yel­low flow­ers was the gold and leaves of the tree daisy pro­vided the sil­ver.

Some years ago I sowed seed of this tree daisy which had been sent to me by a sci­en­tist at the then Depart­ment of Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search. The seedlings which I planted in the gar­den at Lar­nach Cas­tle are now 4m high. It doesn’t mat­ter that they have yet to flower; the white felted stems and large (to 28cm long) crin­kle-edged, wavy, sil­ver-white leaves are glo­ri­ous ev­ery day of ev­ery year.

When I was a tiny tot – I know I was less than four – I was taken to see the large gar­den be­long­ing to our for­mi­da­ble neigh­bour who lived across the road on Napier’s Bluff Hill, who was head of the Girl Guide move­ment for New Zealand. My mother had of course told me to be good and not to tread on the gar­den. I re­mem­ber look­ing down at my blue shoes hop­ing that I could make them be­have as they should.

More im­por­tantly, I re­mem­ber see­ing and be­ing fas­ci­nated by the spi­der­web plant Sem­per­vivum arach­noideum. A clump was gifted to my mother that day. Many years later, my mother gave me a clump from this same plant which is now in my gar­den. Decades have passed, but I still take a child­ish de­light in the “spi­der­webs” that em­bel­lish the small, red-tipped sil­ver rosettes of this plant. It’s na­tive to the Alps of Europe.

Stroking the leaves of the lamb’s ear plant ( Stachys byzantina) is another child­hood mem­ory. These leaves were soft and furry, just like the ears of our pet rab­bit. This plant too went from my mother’s gar­den to mine.

Re­cently, I saw this stachys grow­ing in the Al­borz Moun­tains in Iran.

We were 2200m above sea level. There was a seep­ing wa­ter course from the melt­ing snow which lay all around. It grew in the com­pany of retic­u­late irises, spring-flow­er­ing colchicums and other bulbs. We were there early spring. Come the sear­ing heat of the sum­mer, the bulbs will die down and the sil­ver hairs will pro­tect the leaves of the lamb’s ear.

These plants all thrive in well-drained soil of av­er­age fer­til­ity; the stachys and spi­der­web plants be­ing par­tic­u­larly use­ful where it’s dry. The tree daisy from the Snares might present a chal­lenge in a warmer cli­mate. It is a sen­tinel of the Great South­ern Ocean.

Sem­per­vivum arach­noideum.

Olearia lyal­lii.

Stachys byzantina.

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