Monday, 10 November 2014

Jacobean splendour

One of my favourite spring flowering bulbs is Sprekelia formosissima. This Mexican bulb of the Amaryllis family is best known as the Jacobean Lily, but is also called the Aztec Lily. Whatever name you choose, this plant looks best when planted as a group in a pot.

The Jacobean Lily in flower

The plants principal common name references the uncanny resemblance the blood red flowers have to the heraldic cross worn by the Spanish Catholic Order of St Jacob of Calatrava. This species has been in cultivation for a long time. It is listed growing (as Amaryllis formosissima) at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney in 1828.

The unassuming long-necked bulbs of Sprekelia formosissima

This bulb is easy to grow in warm temperate or sub tropical climes. The long-necked, drab looking, bulbs should be planted during winter, making sure that the necks stand proud of the potting mixture. Like ugly ducklings these hardy plants sprout attractive lily-like leaves in spring, soon followed by the flowering stem. While an easy plant to grow not all bulbs successfully bloom each year, so it is best to grow in groups. Of the three bulbs shown above only one had a flower. In Sydney these plants usually flower in early November.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The floating garden

You don't need a large garden to make an impact. Here is the floating garden created by my dear brother, Jobo. An artist, and long time garden lover, he currently lives on an old narrow boat that tours the extensive English canal network. When I caught up with him recently his boat was moored in Little Venice in North London.

Jobo's floating garden

Jobo's upper deck is covered with a large array of plants and small statues.Selections include wall flowers, spurges, succulents, herbs and annuals. As river thefts are common there are no expensive pots, but that doesn't matter as the flowers are the stars of the show. When travelling Jobo often goes through canal tunnels, because of this no large plants are used.

The Katherine on the Grand Union Canal

Monday, 1 September 2014

Beautiful Weeds: Periwinkle

The first time I took any notice of this attractive plant was when I saw it growing in a Canberra garden where it was used as a ground cover beneath a deciduous tree in an island bed. This courtyard bed was surrounded by paving and the periwinkle was the only ground cover used there.  The plant was the lesser periwinkle - Vinca minor and it made an attractive low growing, yet dense, planting.

The distinctive windmill sail petals of the periwinkle

A year or two later I saw blue periwinkle - Vinca major, the larger ornamental species, growing in a large country garden. What appealed were the beautiful bluish single flowers along with the glossy dark green oval leaves. Now smitten by the plant I took a few rooted shoots home to my own garden and with a little care they soon thrived. That relocation was a bad mistake because within a couple of years the periwinkle soon spread throughout the shadier parts of my garden.  Instead of making a dense ground cover the plants habit was wiry and allowed other plants to grow through it. Soon realising that the plant was weedy I decided to rip the plant out of my garden. I now appreciate this beautiful plant in other peoples gardens rather than my own.

Periwinkle is often found growing 
in old cemeteries

The Vinca genus is a member of the Apocynaceae family, a poisonous tribe that includes the oleander and mandevilla.  The larger species is native to the Mediterranean area and prefers moist, shady sites.  Due to its popularity with home gardeners (sorry) the plant has become a garden escape in many areas.

Vinca major 'Variegata' 
growing among Asparagus

Vinca major flowers from late winter to spring. While most colours are bluish purple there is also a white cultivar. Another popular choice is the variegated form. The smaller sized species Vinca minor is native to south-west and central Europe and the Caucasus and grows in similar conditions to its larger cousin. The flowering period also lasts longer, from late winter to early summer. Roger Phillips and Martin Rix in their classic 1991 book Perennials (volume 1) list several cultivars: 'Albo-variegata' has white flowers and gold variegated leaves; 'Argenteo-variegata' has silver edged leaves; 'Atropurpurea' has deep-purplish-red flowers; and 'Flore Pleno' has double purplish-blue flowers, both with green leaves.

© Silas Clifford-Smith 2014

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Yesterday's Gardens

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of publisher and historian Victor Crittenden OAM (1925-2014). While I can hardly claim Victor to be a close friend he was always friendly and willing to help historians and writers that shared his research interests. Below is my old review of his important work Yesterday's Gardens.

Yesterday's Gardens: a History and Bibliography of Australian Gardening Books 
By Victor Crittenden [2002]

This is a book for librarians and keen collectors of Australian garden books. The first edition was published a decade earlier, and it soon became an intellectual challenge among garden historians to find works not listed in the original edition.

Crittenden lists 208 books in this updated edition and chronological lists all garden related books published up to 1950. Notable publications listed include Thomas Shepherd's Lectures on Landscape Gardening in Australia (1836), E W Cole's (1880s) Coles's Penny Garden Guide, and the better known Yates Garden Guide which was first published in 1895.

The first garden publications date from the early 19th century and were often simple garden calendars published in Almanacs. According to Crittenden, the first locally produced garden publication was the New South Wales Pocket Almanac and Remembrancer for the year of our Lord and Savior 1806. By the second half of the 19th century more and more garden books were published and titles became less verbose. I especially love A E Coles's 1922 Half-hours in the Bush House, a title that may disappoint some non-gardeners.

While Yesterday's Gardens will appeal only to a small market, the author should be applauded for his research in producing this fascinating publication.

Yesterday's Gardens: a History and Bibliography of Australian Gardening Books 
By Victor Crittenden [2002]
Mulini Press, Canberra
276 pages, hardback, RRP A$50.00
ISBN 0949910-90-2

Victor Crittenden's obituary was published in the July-September 2014 issue of Australian Garden History. 

Thursday, 3 July 2014


I noticed today that the flower buds on my Veltheimias were starting to stand proud, surely a sign that we have reached mid-winter the peak growing time for this little used garden plant. I first came across Veltheimia bracteata several years ago when working at historic Vaucluse House, where it was planted in dappled-shade on a gentle-sloping bank between a garden path and some camellias.

Veltheimia bracteata flowers about to 'blow'

The two species of Veltheimia come from South Africa and are named after a certain count of Veltheim (whoever he was).  A small growing bulb, the foliage grows to about 30cm tall, and the plant looks a little like Lachenalia or small Kniphofias. While easy to grow this plant requires good drainage and a half decent garden soil. While I have used them in gardens I find that Velthemia make great outdoor pot plants, and they look wonderful growing on my antique wire-work plant stand. When grown in a container use a good quality potting mix without water-holding crystals. Plants form a glossy rosette of leaves in early winter and they flower later in the season.  While most blooms are coral pink, some varieties have cream or yellow flowers. During summer the foliage dies down and I retire my pot to a dry and shady part of the garden during its dormancy. If planted in the soil the bulbs can be left in the ground as long as they don’t get too wet. The best time to transplant or divide is in autumn. Plants can be propagated from seed or offsets removed from the main bulb in late summer.

Veltheimias in full bloom 

Every garden should have a few unusual plants and this South African bulb is definitely worth trying, I promise you will be asked about it when it’s in bloom. While hardly a rare plant, Veltheimia can be sourced from specialist bulb nurseries such as Sue and Garry Reid's rare and speciality bulb nursery in northern Victoria. The Reids have a mail order service and can be contacted at 43 Wallace Road, Allans Flat, Victoria 3691 (tel 02: 6027 1514)

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Antique wire work plant stands

The 19th century saw the rise of ornamental gardening as a popular recreational pursuit for the middle classes. The prominent use of pots and containers for displaying plants became a major feature of this time both inside and outside the home. 

The popularity for growing plants in pots led to to the development of display stands to show them off. Ornate metal plant stands first found popularity during the early years of the 19th century but became increasingly popular from the 1840s up to the early years of the following century. Sometimes home owners maintained the display while in more wealthy homes the gardener was responsible for the watering and care of the pot plants on these stands. 

A beautiful example of an original wire work 
garden stand complete with reproduction 
Victorian hand-thrown terracotta pots 
and popular 19th century plants

Plant stands had been popular with the wealthy in the 18th century and were made of metal or ornate stone such as marble. Improvements in metallological techniques during the Industrial Revolution saw cheaper products being made. Light weight wire-work stands became popular and were commonly found positioned in conservatories, ferneries or on verandas. Most stands were sold through the newly established department stores. Surviving department store catalogues attest the the large range of designs and sizes available.

An array of wire-work plant stands on offer from the
catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores in London

These days original examples are rare, and if found are often in need of repair. Most surviving original wire work stands show the effects of rust damage, and this is especially true in humid areas close to the sea. Conservation work should be done by someone who appreciates the historic qualities of these pieces as an over restored piece will just look like a brand new reproduction stand.

My own antique wire work stand
in urgent need of conservation work
After the First World War wire work plant stands were perceived as old fashioned and ceased to be sold by retailers. Nostalgia for these items has seen the production of reproduction wire work stands based on original designs. Often these copies fool buyers at auctions or in antique shops, believing that their new purchase is an original.

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