Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Australian plants amaze, astonish and confuse

The stunning landscape installation by Kate Cullity at the Cranbourne Botanic Garden, Melbourne, evokes the Australian Outback
Still mulling over my recent but brief trip to Australia. We'd spent most of our time 'down under' in New Zealand, followed by a week in Tasmania before a week in Melbourne at the biennial Australian Landscape Conference. This was a fantastic event, organised by Warwick Forge, a retired publisher and entrepreneur. I am sure the fact that Warwick is not a professional 'landscape person' has been one of the reasons for the success of the conference; an ability to see beyond immediate professional concerns and trends. It also probably helps explain why the conference was a real coming together of professionals, and some amateurs, from the world of horticulture as well as landscape. Gardeners and landscape folk meet together on equal terms all too rarely.

Warwick first approached me about speaking at the conference nearly two years ago. He does his homework well. Being a retired chap of independent means he is able to spend time traveling around meeting people and checking them out to ensure that the resulting two day conference and workshops really delivers passion, stimulation and knowledge. I remember we agreed to meet in Oxford and spent an afternoon wandering about the Botanical Garden, discussing what I did and what I knew of what my colleagues did. I remember Warwick asking me “if I invited you to speak, who else would you like to speak?”. I'm a ferocious networker so I was able to make plenty of suggestions. Cassian Schmidt was my first choice, the director of the Hermannshof Garden in the Rhine valley and increasingly a leading teacher of planting design through a post at Geisenheim University. Thinking of parched Australian landscapes however, I had to admit that what we had to say might be only rather partially relevant.

Shortly before I met Warwick, I had been in Spain and met Miguel Urquijo, whose ground-breaking approach to garden design in Spain and deep thoughtfulness about what he did, had really impressed me. So I told Warwick about him. A few weeks later I learnt that Warwick had more or less straight away flown to Madrid to meet Miguel. I had also insisted to him that if he invite Cassian he ask his wife Bettina Jaugstetter too, as she is emerging as a very interesting planting designer in her own right. She was asked to run two workshops, but of course she worried that “no-one has heard of me, so no-one will come”; apparently though, hers filled up before anyone else's – a strong indication that the reputation of contemporary German planting design has great pulling power. I wonder whether she would have got such a good audience in Britain? I fear perhaps not.

A real feature of the ALCs over the years has been the pre-conference speakers' tours whereby the speakers are crammed into a mini-bus to tour gardens and landscapes in the state of Victoria. The day we went to the stunning new botanical gardens at Cranbourne, and then Kuranga Nursery was a memorable one. For me it was a meeting with old friends.

Banksia marginata
A zillion years ago, in the late eighties and early nineties, I had a small nursery business near Bristol. Mostly growing perennials. Which, for the youngsters amongst the blog-readers, were not particularly widely grown at the time - astonishing though this might seem to you. But, I grew a rather zany range of half-hardy stuff as well, with a particular focus on Australian plants. The reason for this rather eccentric choice was that there was a sudden fashion for conservatories but hardly anyone growing plants for them. Most of the new conservatories popping up featured little more than a dehydrated Ficus benjamina and a few spider plants. Looking at the prevailing conditions and doing a bit of research into what the Victorians grew in conservatories, an obvious choice seemed to plants from southern Australia. Important was the ability to cope with occasional high temperatures and lows to near, or just below freezing. 

Xanthorrhoea australis - the Grass Tree, at Cranbourne
The idea of actually using your conservatory to grow plants in never took off, unfortunately, and today many conservatories, if they have any flora at all, are still likely to have only a dehydrated Ficus benjamina and three spider plants. However, I found myself selling plants to many people in the South West, including some heritage gardens like Tresco which had had some bad winters and needed to replenish their stocks. I used to trek up to London every month to set up a stand at what were then the monthly Royal Horticultural Society shows. Although the Australian and other exotica were only a small part of what I grew, they were a useful flagship for getting interest in the nursery and publicity generally.
My choice in growing the range of plants I did had been bolstered by researching (in the RHS library) what early 19th century gardeners grew. Early glasshouses and conservatories had pretty primitive heating systems, which produced dry air and often failed. The technology coincided with the botanical exploration of South Africa and Australia, and gardening journals of the time are full of beautiful hand-coloured prints of Cape Heaths (Erica species), Australian Banksias and Melaleucas. So it was these that I focussed on growing. Seed was easily come by and they germinated easily enough. Well, I grew the ones that were easy to germinate – there is a whole tranche of Australian flora that is notoriously difficult from seed - I never bothered with them. Species of Banksia and Dryandra from Western Australia were particular favourites, both with myself and the public at the RHS shows. With tough, slightly silvery leaves, often looking as if they had been cut with scissors, and extraordinary flowers that looked and felt like plastic, they seemed like plants from another planet. Tending to be small and compact, they were ideal as container plants. Perfect 'talking point' plants. However the Australian literature on them at the time stressed how difficult they were to grow. As it turned out, this was a reflection of the fact that species from the Mediterranean climate of Southwest Australia did not adapt very well to the humid summers of the southeasterly states of Victoria and New South Wales where the majority of the gardening population live. Adapted to soils of extreme infertility they did not like conditions in 'ordinary' soil either.
Banksia blechnifolia - the flowers mimic hair curlers -its officially a shrub by the way

Growing many of my 'Australians' in a mix of three-quarters sharp grit and one quarter peat, I found Banksia and Dryandra thrived, flowering in three years. Doing better in a richer compost were various species and cultivars of Callistemon, Melaleuca and Correa. Although I failed to displace the sad-looking Ficus benjamina and spider plants from the conservatories of England, something else happened. People started buying the these plants and sticking them outside in sheltered places. Many did very well in coastal Cornwall and Devon, or even inner London. The 1990s saw milder winters, increasing importation of southern hemisphere species and a taste for 'architectural' plants, bringing about radical changes in what we grew.

Back to the ALC speakers' outing. At Kuranga Nursery we saw the largest range of Australian native species commercially available. For me it was thrilling, never having been here before, to see so many of these plants growing to full size. I have not grown any of these for years, but seeing them brought back a rush of memories. And reading names on labels, particularly where I had read about genera that were 'impossible' to grow from seed, and seeing the plants for the first time, was a real thrill.

Others on the tour were perplexed. It was particularly funny watching Cassian and Bettina, who, being from Germany, are unable to grow any of this outside, had no familiarity with anything they saw. They appeared to be completely disorientated, truly suffering the shock of 'arriving on another botanical planet'. The fact that so much had a superficial similarity with the familiar, added to the disorientation. Plants from dry environments have a strong tendency to look the same, but then surprise by producing exotically different flowers to their northern hemisphere look-alikes. At one point Bettina came up to me waving a plant in a pot, “it looks so much like a cistus” she exclaimed, “but it isn't, the name means nothing to me”; she looked genuinely upset. Cassian was complaining about families he had never heard of. Densely-packed sales benches offered novelty, thrill and disorientation in equal measure.

I'll leave with two little snippets. One was the thrill of seeing Epacris for the first time. A genus of heather-like plants (all Epacridaceae have now been disgorged into Ericaceae by the way) these appeared to have been very popular throughout the 19th century. Winter-flowering, they must have been easy to propagate from cuttings as they must have been widely sold as flowering pot plants, and given what can be read about their cultivation in Victorian gardening journals, often kept from year to year. There were around twenty or so named cultivars. And then they vanished. When I had the nursery I was never able to source seed. I never even saw one at Kew Gardens. Seeing them on this trip was the first time I had ever set eyes on them. Roger Elliott, the leading writer on Australian natives who accompanied us on this trip did explain that there is a great deal of variation in flower colour, which was probably one reason for their popularity.

Epacris impressa
Finally, Dryandra. When I grew these at the nursery, I was struck by the extraordinary scent of their flowers. Sweet, exotic, quite unlike anything else. No mention in any of the literature about them. Leafing through a couple of more recently-published books on the well-stocked Kuranga Nursery shelves, only the most minimal mention. Perhaps they are only fragrant abroad.