Plant of the month

In addition to this month’s featured plant, you can also see some of Patricia’s previous choices.
DECEMBER
  • Botanical name:   Lycianthes rantonnetii
  • Family name:  Solonaceae
  • Common name:  Blue Potato Bush, Paraguay Nightshade
Lycianthes rantonetti
Lycianthes rantonetti

Lycianthes rantonnetii is  perhaps better known as the ‘Blue Potato Bush’ or ‘Paraguay Nightshade’, and grows exceedingly well in tropical gardens. It tolerates dry conditions and extreme heat, although the roots may need some deep watering from time to time.  It prefers to grow in full sun although it can grow just as easily in shaded well-drained soil. You might find it in garden centres as a standard plant, but it is just as attractive as a large bush. The flowers are a deep violet-blue with a light fragrance and distinctive yellow flower centres. A light prune after flowering will help control growth and feeding with a fertiliser high in potash will encourage lots of flowers. Pollinators are generally butterflies and moths.

Originally found growing in the north of South America, where tropical growing conditions prevail, lycianthes is best grown in gardens at not more than 300-400 metres elevation. In higher elevations grow the plants in pots and tuck them away from low temperatures during colder periods. Propagation is by cuttings or seeds.  This shrub is not normally attacked by insects, although aphids may be a problem, but these can be dealt with easily. Lycianthes can flower twice a year, so is a real bonus in the garden.

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NOVEMBER
  • Botanical name:  Ruellia simplex
  • Family name:  Acanthaceae
  • Common name: Wild petunia or Mexican petunias
Ruellia
Ruellia

Ruellia, natives of tropical Central and South America and some Pacific regions, are hardy and half-hardy perennial sub-shrubs that can reach from 30 to 90 cm in height. They are known as wild petunias and there are as many as 150 species. Those grown here are probably Ruellia simplex. Regarded as a medicinal plant in some places, there are suggestions that some parts might be poisonous, so care should be taken when handling them. The main blooming period is from spring into summer, but many plants will carry the bell-shaped mauve flowers at later times of the year. Other species may have white or pink flowers. They are a principal food source for many butterflies and moths. Ruellia, despite growing best in warmer climes, can actually survive in much lower temperatures. They thrive in an organic, moist soil, and as they are woodland plants will grow in shaded or partially shaded areas. Their tall stems will be more purple in a sunny spot, rather the deep green that is usual. This tolerant plant can withstand drought conditions in prepared soil.

They self-seed easily and can also be propagated by divisions in the autumn, as well as cuttings.  Left to their own devices they can become rampant, so be warned!  Never-the-less their welcome purple flowers are a delight in the spring and summer garden.

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OCTOBER
  • Botanical name:  Pyracantha coccinea
  • Family name:   Rosaceae
  • Common name:  Firethorn
Pyracantha flowers
Pyracantha flowers

Pyracantha originally came from Southern Europe, Turkey and Iraq, and now grows well in many other parts of the world, where the bright branches of berries tumble over walls and fences in many gardens during the late summer and into autumn. An evergreen shrub belonging to the Rose family, ‘Firethorn’, (the common name of pyracantha), will 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 berries. These are extremely attractive to birds except the yellow ones, which for some reason they leave well alone. The best-known species is Pyracantha coccinea, which has copious amounts of

Glowing Pyracantha
Glowing Pyracantha

berries from which it is possible to make a delicious jelly, but there are several other varieties available. Pyracantha grows easily in most gardens, but like many plants doesn’t relish cold damp soil or cold weather.  Choose a non-clay soil in which to plant this shrub, the best site being against a sunny 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, they can be susceptible to ‘Fireblight’, a fungal disease, caused by growing the shrub in damp conditions.  If it happens, prune it 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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SEPTEMBER
  • Botanical name:  Ornithogalum arabicum
  • Family name:  Asparagaceae
  • Common name:  Star of Bethlehem

Ornithogalum arabicumOrnithogalum is an old name meaning ‘bird’s milk’ and is derived from two Greek words – ornithos, which means bird and gala which means milk. The phrase ‘bird’s milk’ was used to describe something wonderful or rare in ancient Greek times. A member of the Asparagaceae family, Ornithogalum is also known as ‘The Star of Bethlehem’. Ornithogalum bulbs really come into their own when planted in large drifts, and will transform your garden or landscape into a beautiful carpet of low-growing lush foliage topped with a profusion of pretty, white, star-shaped flowers. They also look rather splendid growing at the foot of deciduous trees and shrubs, and are also a superb choice for containers and window boxes. In fact, many gardeners prefer to plant ornithogalum bulbs in pots, where their spread and growth can be contained easily. Ornithogalum bulbs favour full sun or partial shade in well-drained soil. They can grow 30-45 cms in height with straplike fleshy leaves,  which appear long before the pretty flowers.

When planting Ornithogalum bulbs, it is advisable to plant them at twice their height and  space them roughly 15 cm apart,  as each plant will make many bulblets. Once established they require very little after care and will go on to reward you with an abundance of clusters of pretty white flowers year after year. Ornithogalum flowers are known for their delightful fragrance and they also make fantastic cut flowers. Not only do they look and smell wonderful they can last up to an incredible 3 weeks in a floral arrangement.

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AUGUST
  • Botanical name:   Stapelia
  • Family name:   Apocynaceae
  • Common name:   ‘Carrion Plant’, ‘Starfish Flower Cactus’, ‘Rotten Plant’ and ‘Stinking Carrion’
Stapelia grandiflora
Stapelia grandiflora

Stapelia is a genus of low-growing, spineless, stem succulent plants, predominantly from tropical regions of South Africa, with some from more arid places. The ‘stems’ contain thick fleshy tissues of water storage. The flower buds are pagoda-shaped and quite attractive and when the flowers open, they reveal a hairy, oddly textured and coloured appearance. This can be a dull red or brown and generate the odour of rotten flesh when they are in full bloom. This awful smell attracts many flies that lay their eggs amongst the hairs, so they are best not placed near seating areas. The flowers of some of the species can reach 41 cm (16 inches) in diameter when fully open, but most are generally smaller around 15cms (6 inches). The seed pods are cylindrical and when ripe, burst open revealing seeds which, rather like dandelions, float off in any breeze. Commonly known as ‘Carrion Plants’, ‘Starfish Flower Cactus’, ‘Rotten Plant’ and ‘Stinking Carrion’, they are good container plants and can grow well under full sun and very light watering. They should be planted in well-drained gritty compost as the stems are prone to rotting if kept moist for long.

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JULY
  • Botanical name:  Thevetia peruviana
  • Family name:   Apocynaceae
  • Common name:  Yellow Oleander and Yellow Bells
Thevetia neriifolia
Thevetia neriifolia

This pretty ornamental tree is from Central and South America where it is widely used in folk-lore medicine. It is often seen growing in the central reservations of motorways here and quite rightly too, for although it is an attractive plant, the little black berries are exceedingly poisonous and new plants can quickly grow from the scattered ripe seeds. All parts of the plant produce a highly poisonous latex, but the seeds are the most toxic!

Amongst its common names are ‘Yellow Oleander’ and ‘Yellow Bells’ and indeed it belongs to the same family, Apocynaceae, as oleander, frangipane and carissa. Growing to between 3 and 8 metres it is has long, lanceolate green leaves and bell-shaped flowers, which can vary in colour from bright yellow to soft orange and have a pleasant perfume. Originally found growing on the banks of watercourses, it can also grow well in a fertile, well-drained loam with additional leaf mould, though the trees can survive in rather poor and dry soils as well. Thevetia peruviana can be invasive in open areas and under light shade.

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JUNE
  • Botanical name:  Oenothera lindheimeri
  • Family name:  Onagraceae
  • Common name:  Gaura, Bee blossom or Windflowers
Gaura
Gaura

These low maintenance perennial plants from the Onagraceae family, (amongst which are evening primroses and willow herbs), are native to North America and are also known as ‘Bee Blossom’ or ‘Windflowers’ as their very slender stems cause them to blow in any breeze.  There were very popular plants when ‘prairie planting’ was in vogue, but have stayed the course, as they are so attractive. They are much used in urban plantings here nowadays because they need little attention. They also make excellent plants for containers. The waving stems dotted with dozens of pinkish flowers thrive in hot sunny weather and have a long bloom time, much longer than most perennials. Gaura foliage is lance shaped and often tinged with pink, cream or gold. The flowers have four petals and can be white or light pink and also a deeper pink. Beware though that they may seed themselves around the mother plant! Heights can range from 35 cm to over a metre tall but newer varieties may be more compact. Gaura plants do best when cut all the way down to the roots in the autumn.  Many of the cultivars also make great container plants, which helps keep gaura from getting out of control.

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MAY
  • Botanical name: Laurus nobilis
  • Family name: Lauraceae
  • Common name: Bay tree, True Laurel, Sweet bay or Grecian Laurel

Bay flowersLaurus nobilis can be grown as a tree or a large shrub.  In some countries it is sometimes known as ‘Daphne’ due to its associations with Greek mythology. It is a very handsome tree when mature and an asset to have in any garden. The dried leaves make a welcome addition to cooking in many households around the world. This aromatic evergreen tree or large shrub is native to the Mediterranean region. It will thrive in well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. It grows slowly and can been used as a hedge or as a topiary but beware, in the right conditions it can reach heights of between 10 – 16 metres. In domestic gardens it can be kept to a reasonable height by pruning. In pots it needs to be brought indoors during the winter in order to prevent frost damage.  

Laurel has a tendency to throw out suckers around the root area, but apart from that it is a very easy tree to maintain. Wind scorch can occur on young foliage in the early part of the year, whilst some cracking of the bark of the trees can be caused by over-watering; although in their natural state they are found to be growing near streams and springs. In the springtime lovely sweetly-perfumed cream flowers appear in clusters of between three to five blooms, followed later by a black drupe – a one seeded berry. Laurel leaves were widely used as a symbol of honour, when poets and other people of renown were crowned by laurel leaves – hence the term Poet Laureate.

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APRIL
  • Botanical name: Dahlia
  • Family name:  Asteraceae
  • Common name: Dahlia
Dahlia Stolze of Berlin
Dahlia Stolze of Berlin

Dahlias are herbaceous perennial plants, natives of Mexico and Central America. Summer wouldn’t be summer without dahlias. Their beautiful flowers come in almost every colour imaginable, from pale pastels to hot, vibrant shades, in a range of flower shapes – small pom-pom balls to ‘water-lily’-like blooms the size of dinner plates.

Yellow dahlia with bee
Yellow dahlia with bee

Dahlias are available in a range of many different sizes. The dwarf varieties can be grown as bedding; more compact varieties grow very well in pots, whilst Dahlia imperialis, known as ‘Tree dahlias’ can reach 5m tall, so do need some space. All modern dahlias were bred from this impressive dahlia. There are around eight different shapes of dahlias from the small single ones, to huge cactus dahlias and ‘in your face’ decorative dahlias with such wonderful colour schemes. Bees prefer the open-faced small flowers, as they are easier to penetrate. 

Dahlias require a fertile, moist but well-drained soil in a sunny, sheltered spot. The taller varieties may need staking. In autumn, dig up the tubers and over-winter them somewhere dry.

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MARCH
  • Botanical name:  Iris xiphium
  • Family name:   Iridaceae
  • Common name:  Spanish Iris, Dutch iris
Dutch Iris yellow and white
Dutch Iris yellow and white

This pretty iris is commonly known in other parts as the ‘Spanish Iris’, as that is where it was originally found growing, as well as in Portugal.  In Cyprus it is usually referred to as the ‘Dutch’ iris, probably because the bulbs are imported from Holland.

Iris xiphium, whose foliage has been above ground for quite some time, has tall slender leaves (around 80 cms) which appear well ahead of the flower stems usually during our late winter here.  The flower stems growing to around 60 cms will shortly be topped with white, light blue, mauve or yellow flowers with petals of around 8 cms.  This iris is grown from a bulb unlike albicans and germanica, both of which grow from

Dutch Iris blue and yellow
Dutch Iris blue and yellow

rhizomes. This perennial  will form a clump over time, preferring to be planted in a well-drained flower bed in light soil and away from windy spots, which may blow the tender stems over.

‘Dutch’ irises are often for sale as cut flowers in florist shops but be sure to buy them with the flowers unopened or they will not last as long as those in the garden. 

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FEBRUARY

  • Botanical name:   Iris albicans
  • Family name:  Iridaceae
  • Common name:   White Flag Iris
Group of Iris albicans
Group of Iris albicans

Iris albicans, sometimes known as the Cemetery Iris or White Flag Iris is one of the first irises to flower in spring time here. Originally from Yemen and Saudi Arabia they are now readily available here. They have a long history and have been in existence since about 1400 BC when mention was first made of them. The plants are known to have been planted around Muslim graves.

Iris albicans with Dionconotus neglectus beetle
Iris albicans with Dionconotus neglectus beetle

The lance-shaped leaves grow in a fan shape and can reach between 30 – 60 cms, which is much less than the other favourite iris, Iris germanica. They look attractive in large clumps and require very little attention, other than some rose fertiliser a couple of times a year. It is good to split them up after flowering every several years and replant them in a sunny position with the top of the rhizome exposed to the sun.

The attractive flowers with white falls and standards and yellow beards are slightly fragrant and appear from late February onwards, but like most irises the flowers last only for a couple of days or so.  They prefer to grow in full sun and are particularly drought tolerant, lasting for years. Snails may be a problem as well as red Dionconotus neglectus beetles which may eat through the flowers and leaves, so watch out for them. Propagation is by division, as the flowers and do not make seeds.

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JANUARY
  • Botanical name:  Alternanthera dentata
  • Family name:  Amaranthes
  • Common name:  Joy weeds; Joseph’s Coat
Alternanthera dentata
Alternanthera dentata

A ‘new to me’ attractive plant that I bought in the autumn was Alternanthera, a member of the Amaranthes family, (whose flowers usually hang down in attractive green or red tassels). The plant grows well in tropical America, Asia, Africa, and Australia where they are sometimes known as ‘joy weeds’ or even noxious weeds in some countries, so I hope that it doesn’t run riot in my garden! Those with multi-coloured leaves go by the name of ‘Joseph’s Coat’ and are available in shades of burgundy, purple, lime green and orangey-red. It’s a hardy, low maintenance plant best suited to frost free zones and it thrives in areas with high humidity.

Alternanthera dentata
Alternanthera dentata

Usually bought for the colour of their leaves, these attractive plants look particularly well in the summer garden. They are very low maintenance but may flower for only for a short while, and the flowers are quite insignificant, looking like white spiky balls.  However, the highly coloured leaves make up for them. In the garden, plant them out after the last low night temperatures in moist but well-drained soil. Full sun produces the best leaf colour, but plants also grow well in partial shade. Prune to maintain a small size. Under cover, grow in full light and water freely during the growing season. During the winter, keep the plant in a well-ventilated spot. It prefers regular, very light watering, just enough to avoid letting the soil dry out completely. Propagation is by seeds or by taking cuttings in late summer. Overwinter young plants under glass.

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DECEMBER
  • Botanical name:  Cyclamen
  • Family name:  Primulaceae
  • Common name:  Cyclamen
Cyclamen
Cyclamen

A welcome change from the ubiquitous poinsettia at Christmastime could be a potted cyclamen, available now in garden centres in a variety of wonderful colour combinations.

These plants don’t need much feeding – otherwise they will produce lots of foliage rather than flowers. So, feed only occasionally with a house plant fertiliser if you hope to keep your plant thriving. Water from the base once the soil begins to feel dry (rather like poinsettias) and stand the plant in a saucer or shallow bowl of water until the compost is moist but not soaking wet. Then let any excess water drain away. If water collects in the base of the saucer or pot-holder, tip it out and don’t water again until the compost is almost fully dry.

Mixed cyclamen
Mixed cyclamen

Remove any dead or dying flowers or leaves by tugging them away gently. Yellow leaves in autumn or winter probably mean that the room is too warm and that can also lead to poor flowering or the plant has been under- or over-watered. Bright sunlight can also be damaging so keep your plant in a cool room. Yellow leaves in spring are normal, so stop watering as the plant is dying back naturally before going into dormancy. Put your plant somewhere cool and dry for the summer – a sheltered, shady spot outdoors is ideal and keep the compost barely moist. Your cyclamen should start to re-grow in September, when you can bring it indoors, repotting it if necessary, and start watering again when you see fresh growth

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