Plant of the month

In addition to this month’s featured plant, you can also see some of Patricia’s previous choices.

APRIL
  • Botanical name:  Agave attenuata
  • Family name:   Asparagaceae
  • Common name:  ‘Foxtail Agave’, ‘Lion’s Tail’ or ‘Swan’s Neck’

This attractive member of the succulent family has a thick trunk topped with a rosette of thick fleshy pointed leaves.  It grows equally well in the garden or in pots, albeit very large ones!  It is a native of central Mexico, but lends itself to other gardens in various parts of the world.

This plant likes well-drained sandy soil and to grow in full sun, which eventually should encourage the plant to send up its amazingly long flower stem of maybe 3 metres or more and covered with greenish-yellow flowers. The flower head is so heavy that it may just bend over with the weight.  Alas, you may have to wait 10 years or more for it to do that and it does need lots of space. Agave attenuata cannot tolerate cold winter temperatures and needs to be well protected from the cold or the fleshy leaves will rot.

Propagation is by removing new growths that appear around the base of the trunk. Old dying stems can be removed by pulling them away from the main stem.

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MARCH
  • Botanical name:  Pyracantha
  • Family name:  Rosea
  • Common name:  Firethorn

Pyracantha originally came from Southern Europe, Turkey and Iraq, and grows well in many other parts of the world as well, where the branches of brightly coloured berries tumble over fences in many gardens during the late summer. An evergreen shrub belonging to the Rose family, it may grow to a maximum of around 3 metres, preferring a warm, south facing position to any other.  In springtime, many clusters of white or cream flowers appear on the branches, which eventually turn into bright orange, red or yellow fleshy fruits around the seeds. These berries are extremely attractive to birds except the yellow ones, which they leave on the branches

Pyracantha grows easily in most gardens and the best site is against a wall, where it can be trained to look its best. If you choose to grow it this way, keep the outward growing flower stems short – about two or three leaves beyond the fruit cluster.  Beware of the very sharp thorns when handling them, and always wear heavy gloves to protect your hands and forearms, as some people are allergic to scratches from them. Flowers appear on last year’s growth, so bear that in mind when pruning.  Do any positive trimming as the flowers fade, but you will lose some berries that way.

Generally disease-free, pyracantha can be susceptible to ‘Fireblight’, which is a fungal disease caused by growing the shrub in damp conditions.  If that happens, prune out and dispose of the infected branches.  Propagate by hardwood cuttings or sow the seeds after giving them a ‘winter’ in the fridge, and removing the outer pulp

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FEBRUARY
  • Botanical name:  Tulipa
  • Family name:   Lilliaceae
  • Common name:  Tulips

One tends to think of tulips as being a Dutch bulbous flower and indeed they are now the National Flower of Holland, but they started life at this end of the Mediterranean. There is even a tulip native to Cyprus called ‘Tulipa Cypria’, a rare beauty with its habitats protected against predators.

It is said that the very first tulip bulbs and seeds were collected by an Ambassador to the Court of the Sultan of Turkey and sent to Vienna in 1554, where over the years they were distributed throughout Europe. Many Dutch Flemish artists of the time painted vases of them in great abundance as they were much admired for their beauty and colour, and these were the forerunners of plant catalogues. Some of them had a virus which caused a colour break, making them even more desirable. We all know that Tulip mania broke out and a tulip bulb could cost a year’s wages. However, as this collecting mania toppled and the markets eventually crashed, everyone was brought down to earth again

Today Tulips are cultivated in Holland in great numbers and in huge fields. A visit to the Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse in spring time, shows how many new varieties are available each year. Bulbs are exported all around the world and not only are the bulb sales a huge industry, but so are the cut flowers, with over 3000 different varieties registered. Some have double rows of petals, whilst others are only single and some are called ‘Parrot Tulips’ with frilly edges. The bulbs are easy to grow and usually planted about a month later than other bulbs as they flower towards the end of winter. If you think of how well they grow in the bulb fields of Holland, where most of the land is reclaimed from the seas and protected by dykes,  you will appreciate that they like well-drained soils, so that the bulbs do not rot in wet ground. These historic bulbs still play a part in our spring gardens here and they are part of our history as well.

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JANUARY
  • Botanical name:  Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ AGMs
  • Family name:  Amaryllidaceae
  • Common name:  Double daffodils

This very fragrant award-winning narcissus has double creamy-white flowers with pale yellow centres and can have between three and six flower heads per stem. Belonging to the Amaryllidaceae Family and growing up to 40 cms, it certainly brightens up our early spring gardens after the dark days of winter. The bulbs should have been planted in autumn at a depth of between two to two and half times the height of the bulb in free draining soil in a sunny spot of the garden. To achieve a pleasing effect plant them in drifts. Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness,’ which is also available in a yellow form, is known as a Division 4 bulb, which includes other double flowering bulbs.

There are no known serious insect or disease problems with these bulbs other than they can be infested by Dionconotus neglectus, are a nuisance in our early spring gardens. However, bulb rot may occur if the ground is very damp. Remember to take off the dead flower heads before they have a chance to make seed pods. This is a good time to feed the bulb with a general fertiliser as the bulb concentrates now on making the flower for next season.

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DECEMBER
  • Botanical name:  Orchis
  • Family name:   Orchidaceae
  • Common name:  Phalaenopsis /Dendrobiums

It is highly likely that you may receive an orchid plant as a Christmas gift. The orchid will probably be either a Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid) or a Dendrobium, as these two are the most popular orchids available here. You should remember that orchids were first discovered growing on trees in tropical rain forests, so in order for them to survive in your house here are a few growing tips to ensure their well being.  There are several things you shouldn’t do, and one is not to pour water onto the growing medium. They are better plunged in their plastic see-through pot into a bowl of tepid water and then lifted out to drain, as they will not survive if their roots are wet. Their leaves are designed for water conservation and have a heavy wax coating with specialised stomata (holes) through which the leaf breathes. Orchid stems are in fact pseudo bulbs in which water and food is stored.   They do not like to be in direct sunlight, but need indirect light to thrive.  Don’t cut off the aerial roots or stems and if you need to move them up a pot size, use specially formulated orchid compost now available in garden centres, which will probably have bark, mixed with some dried moss and perhaps some Perlite in it . After re-potting, do not water straight away, but wait a few hours before you do that. Don’t use ordinary plant food, but try specially formulated orchid food-stuff, which is high in NPK. Most orchids bloom once a year, with some flowers lasting up to a month. When the flowers are finished let the plant rest, although it may need a little water and humidity from time to time, which could be from a bathroom or a kitchen.

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