E is for EUPHORBIA
This genus covers some 2008 different varieties worldwide, appearing in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate zones, so apart from featuring a couple of my absolute favourites, I will have to generalise somewhat!
What can I say – these are marvellous plants for many reasons. The range is mind-boggling, with endless architectural variety. Many of our most common and popular garden plants in fact belong to this genus. Did you know that the much-loved Poinsettia is formally known as e. pulcherrima?
Euphorbiae are great feature/statement plants either individually, mass-planted or mixed-grouped. You could literally fill your whole garden from this one genus and still offer a stunning show of colour, form and texture.
These hardy specimens are a natural choice for water-wise gardens – think Mediterranean or Santa Fe themes…
Most Euphorbia varieties are easy to propagate by division or cuttings and require only moderate watering. They will do well in full to part-sun (and some in moderate shade) and are quite happy in either pot or ground. I prefer to start my “babies” off in a pot, nursing them with a light daily watering for a few weeks. When “planting out” I do so in a generous hole filled with a mix of quality organic soil improver and some of the existing soil medium.
Continue the regular light watering regime until they show signs of taking off and fending for themselves, by which stage a good deep drink once or twice a week should suffice, depending on weather conditions. Just an occasional light application of granular or liquid fertiliser is enough to promote healthy growth.
And now to those favourites I mentioned – e. milii, with its leathery dark green leaves, is native to Madagascar and is also referred to as “Crown of Thorns” or “the Christ plant”. I love the form of this euphorbia – and there’s something almost Japanese about those vibrant red discoid flowers (which incidentally seem to last forever). I have them potted and in-ground – a very reliable splash of colour! This small spiny shrub, which can attain a height of approx. 60cm, also has yellow and pink flowering varieties.
I am also most partial to the very bold e.trigona (green) and e.trigona rubra (red). Known commonly as the “African Milk Plant”, this prickly beauty can attain heights of 2 – 2.5 metres, making a dramatic architectural feature (like a classic Mexican cactus from an old Western movie). With vertical branches sprouting from a central vertical stem, it forms a very pleasing shape. I have found it to be a reasonably fast grower, so up-sizing pots (and division or cutting back) may be occasionally required if you wish to restrain it! Sometimes I pair the burgundy with the green variety to great effect – attractive companions in a handsome pot!
I could wax lyrical about the squillions of other lovely varieties of Euphorbia but will leave that for you to discover!
A word of caution when handling Euphorbia – the milky sap is an irritant to the eyes and skin and is moderately poisonous if ingested, so avoid direct contact when cutting.
D is for DRACAENA
There is much to recommend dracaenas (beyond their obvious architectural appeal). Plants of this genus (some 40 or so varieties) are very hardy – excellent plants for water-wise gardens and they live happily in a pot or garden bed.
Dracaenas are also efficient air cleaners and as such, obvious and attractive choices as indoor features. They can tolerate low light but perform best when exposed to bright, indirect light, so place them accordingly.
The subject of this article is Dracaena marginata, arguably the most popular variety and my personal favourite. This elegant branching specimen can eventually attain a height of over 3 metres if left to its own devices in the garden. That said, it is an extremely managable plant.
Planting is simple – I treat them as I do almost all new plants – place them in a generous well-drained hole filled with a mix (about a 40/60 ratio) of the existing medium and a rich soil improver and water in well. If potting – select a container large enough to accommodate future growth – remembering the marginata is essentially a vertical plant. Your pot needs to be stable and of a proportion and shape which will look balanced with the height of the plant. Fill the vessel with a premium potting mix enriched with soil improver to give it extra body. Water-in, but don’t saturate – dracaenas don’t enjoy soggy conditions.
Care and Maintenance
Dracaena marginatas are drought-tolerant so, apart from the establishment phase (the first couple of months – during which they will require regular light watering), a once or twice-weekly drink should keep them happy, depending on weather conditions. Outdoor potted specimens will require more regular attention to cope with heat and wind.
Treat dracaenas to a mild fertilizer a couple of times a year to maintain green and vigorous foliage. I use a scattering of all-purpose granular plant food.
Dracaenas shed their spent leaves from the bottom. To keep yours looking its best, pull all dry, yellowing or spotty ones off as you see them – they come away quite easily.
When your dracaena becomes too tall or dense for your liking, simply lop off the stems/branches in question (use this section to create a new plant/s – see Propagation below).
Whilst various methods are accepted, I have found that the most straight-forward and reliable means of propagating dracaena marginata is from cuttings. Long stems/branches can be cut into shorter sections (remember which way is up with a little notch). And – the top section, with the foliage, creates an instant plant!
Simply insert the stem base into your prepared planting medium – deep enough – a few centimetres – to provide stability. Firm the soil around the base and water in. Place the pot in a sheltered well-lit position. Nurse these new plants with a regular light watering for a few weeks until established (development of visible roots). Fresh cuttings can be popped straight into a prepared garden bed, but I find that best results are achieved when they are started off in pots, then (if so desired) planted out. The “mother plant” will send out new growth below the cut.
Dracaena marginata looks great in the garden with under-plantings of other strappy species such as dianella, flaxes, giant liriope and low grasses. With potted dracaenas, try roheo, mondo grass, small succulents or simply a soil-covering of pebbles or smooth river-stones.
To attain those signature bends and curves which add such appeal to potted dracaenas, turn the container every few months and the stems will alter direction to chase the sunlight. Alternatively, cheat! Plant multiple established single-stemmed twisty specimens of varying heights to appear as one mature dracaena. Plant their individual root balls close together and adjust the “branches” to achieve a convincing, natural look. Another trick (to create bulk and variety) is to add individual stems close to the base of the existing plant, placing them at an angle, rather than upright – in time these will head for the vertical – creating a natural-looking bend. (These techniques can, of course, be applied to in-ground planting too!).
Dramatic entrance! A shapely pair of dracaenas in tall glazed pots flanking the front door makes a stylish statement, especially when illuminated at night.
Just had to share – my lantana “White Lightning” plants are putting on a spectacular show at the moment – nice and bushy with masses of white flowers which positively “glow in the dark”! But LOOK – one little purple head – a throwback!! I wonder if any more will appear…
UPDATE – another purple pom pom has appeared on a different “White Lightning” bush – these are the first reversions I have seen in all my years of growing lantana – I would be interested to hear from readers who have also experienced these happy little surprises…You can Comment below
See more on lantana cultivation below…
C is for CORDYLINE
The cordyline (Agavaceae) is a most rewarding plant – easy to propagate and available in such a dazzling variety of forms and colours! These hardy beauties are native to the Pacific region including Australia, New Zealand, South-East Asia, Hawaii, Polynesia and parts of South America. Well suited to climates ranging from Mediterranean to tropical, there are many varieties to choose from within the 15 recognised species.
Cordylines are natural “statement” plants, creating a lovely lush and exotic effect in any situation. Their colour spectrum is broad – from stunning pinks, reds and purples through to creams, oranges and yellows.
Grown primarily for their foliage, cordylines are evergreens and range from shrub to tree form. Whilst some are suited to full-sun positions I have had most success growing cordylines (the broad-leaf forms) in part shade. They like moist, fertile, well-drained soil and also perform very well in pots.
The highly coloured fruticosa varieties are my favourites – in particular the bold C. Rubra – a rich burgundy and the many combined pink/green cordylines. Grouped as under-plantings of larger tropical and semi-tropical shrubs and trees they provide striking colour contrast and interesting, natural-looking structure to the overall scheme. They also look very dramatic up-lit at night!
I have used cordylines extensively in our Byron Bay garden where the semi-tropical conditions suit them perfectly. They look lovely under the dappled shade of the palms! That said – they survive well in a dryer situation if watered lightly but regularly and given an occasional feed with an all-purpose fertiliser such as NPK Blue or Dynamic Lifter. A light application of broken-down animal manures (such as sheep or poultry) is a suitable alternative.
To propagate the long stemmed varieties (best done in spring/summer) simply take a cutting with a healthy head of foliage and 20 – 30cm of stem (angle cut). I drill a narrow hole with my “dib” stick and slip the stem in to about half its length, firming the soil around it. Bare stem sections work well too – just remember which way is “up”!! Try it in a pot of good rich soil medium or straight into a sheltered spot in the garden (with a bit of soil improver) and water in thoroughly.
The original plant from which you have taken your cuttings will sprout new foliage within weeks.
Usually I start off these cuttings in pots, in a sheltered but well-lit position (a covered patio or veranda is perfect if you don’t have a greenhouse). After a few weeks they develop roots and are ready to be planted out. Initially these new plants need to be nursed with light daily watering, after which they should cope with your normal garden watering regime. Potted specimens require less water than those in ground.
I don’t use rooting powders or gels when striking cuttings, but by all means, do so if this is your preferred practice. My success rate is virtually 100%, apart from the odd loss due to extreme conditions.
Be it in a pot or directly into the garden bed, I like to plant the leafy varieties in dense groupings at varying heights for maximum effect – often mixing the colours for extra impact.
The strappy, clumping cordylines (like C. australis Variegata, C. Sundance and C. Pink Stripe, to name but a few of my favourites) are quite effective as stand-alone specimens. An attractive “architectural” plant, they are a popular feature in water-wise gardens. Once established they are pretty self-sufficient, apart from requiring the occasional removal of dead foliage to keep them looking respectable.
These clumping forms can be propagated by division – but only attempt this with a mature, well established plant. For best results I advise excising a large section – a quarter to a half of the mother plant. Dig deep to unearth as much of the root mass and soil clump as possible, doing your best to keep it intact. Use a small curved pruning saw to cut cleanly through the roots if the shovel is causing too much disturbance to the main plant. This will minimise trauma and give your “new” cordyline the optimal chance of survival. (Or, of course, if you are not keeping the “mother” cordyline in-situ, dig up the whole plant, then sub-divide it!)
Plant it in a generous hole (or pot) with a mix of soil improver and its usual soil medium. Water in well and keep it up daily during the establishment phase. I do not recommend undertaking this process is very hot conditions.
B is for BOUGAINVILLEA
What Mediterranean garden would be complete without the vivacious and hardy Bougainvillea (Nictaginaceae)? This ever-popular woody vine originated in South America and today over 300 varieties (in climbing, semi-climbing and shrub form) can be found around the world. Happiest in a warm full-sun position, the Bougainvillea is salt and drought tolerant. They can thrive in quite poor soils but nonetheless, when planting, I would recommend adding some soil improver to the existing medium for a good start. After the establishment phase, water only moderately to optimise flowering and, to maintain density, prune back the previous season’s growth in spring.
Whilst on the subject of flowering – what a gorgeous range of vibrant colours this enduring favourite presents! Strictly speaking, the actual flowers form as a tiny, insignificant threesome (generally white), but it is their surrounding papery cape of brilliant hues that so delight. I will henceforth refer to this as the “flower”.
The myriad of colours includes the familiar magenta and purple, white, pink, raspberry red, orange, brick red, yellow, coral and salmon. Bi-coloured flowers provide added appeal – an Australian favourite is “Limberlost Beauty” which in summer produces lovely double white flowers tinged with pale pink. This specimen can be kept shrubby and grows well in pots.
For more foliage interest there are many attractive variegated forms – the purple and the pink flowering Bougainvillea glabra variegata, the gorgeous “Raspberry Ice” and the small shrubby “Bambino Panda” (with white flowers) are worth considering.
Climbing Bougainvillea serves as a brilliant wall cover and its thorns are an effective deterrent to intruders. With such a sturdy trunk it can also be trained as a standard plant. Some varieties can attain great heights such as “Magnifica Traillii” which, supported by a tree, can reach as tall as 20 metres, creating a spectacular display of deep purple in summer and autumn.
Speaking of trees – rarely seen, but truly magnificent – the large climbing varieties can be trained, over many years, into tree form. Certain Bougainvillea plants can also be cultivated as Bonsai trees – very pretty when flowering!
Dwarf Bougainvilleas are popular and easily shaped, making them ideal as potted plants and borders. Bambino “Pedro” and Bambino “Temple Fire” are lovely orange/red cultivars. Potted specimens will require slightly more regular watering (except during their dormant phase when they can be allowed to dry out a little).
To train your climbing Bougainvillea on a wall or fence you will need to provide it with some support once it starts to lengthen. Open square wire mesh is ideal – secure the wire to the wall at its corners and at interim points across the top wire, as a mature vine can become quite heavy. Allow a bit of slack when attaching the mesh so that you have room to manipulate the Bougainvillea through the wire. Feed the branches through the mesh where appropriate to create stable and broad coverage. Bougainvillea will also perform well on a wide-aperture lattice frame. If your vine has got out of hand you will need to cut it back hard, but be aware that this will stimulate foliage growth and temporarily inhibit flowering.
Bougainvillea is a familiar sight in tropical gardens too – ubiquitous around island resorts, it provides such striking, happy colour, contrasting beautifully with the cool blues of swimming pools and ocean vistas. Whilst it is rather messy as it drops its papery “blossoms” I think its beauty and versatility far outweigh such nuisance.
A is for AGAVE
Agave attenuata (Fox tail agave) is one of my favourite succulents – super-hardy and dramatically architectural in form, this variety is one of the most popular and commonly grown – particularly in Australia, where it is very much suited to our sometimes harsh conditions. Agaves were popular with our colonial forbears and have been in and out of fashion ever since. I use agave in many of the gardens I design professionally, particularly in contemporary projects, where isolated structural statements are often more appropriate than massed mixed plantings.
Agaves in their many forms (there are over 300 varieties) have been enthusiastically re-embraced in recent years for two particular reasons – firstly – they are an obvious choice with the shift to water-wise, low-maintenance gardens, and secondly – they are stunning perennial feature plants – in pot or ground. Unfortunately as their desirability increases so does their retail price – in Australia a mature umbrella-sized specimen of agave attenuata can set you back hundreds of dollars. (See if you can scavenge a plant or two from benevolent friends or check the classified advertisements for backyard bargains!).
They may be slow-growing, but take heart – once established they will begin to multiply, forming attractive clumps. Preferring a full-sun position, they are very forgiving plants – tolerating long dry spells, sandy soils and adapting well to transplanting. We have clumps of various agave (mostly attenuata) scattered throughout our gardens in Sydney and Byron Bay (they live happily in the sub-tropics too). The Sydney plants were originally salvaged from a friend’s garden and those at Byron are “children” of the Sydney plants.
You can propagate agave plants by division – preserving roots where possible as you dig – or simply saw off a specimen near its base (in time the remaining stump will produce more “babies”). Some of nature’s great survivors, cut agave attenuata can remain viable for weeks out of the ground – in which case they will start to form “rootlets” along their trunks/stems. Nonetheless, I would be inclined to plant them as soon as possible.
Place the specimen in a generous hole filled with a mixture of soil improver and the existing medium. You only need bury a few inches of stem (enough for stability) for the plant to “take”. It may be necessary to “’prop” the stem with a rock to achieve the desired angle and give the “leaves” enough clearance from the ground to prevent “snappage” (these “leaves” can break easily under the weight of the plant). If putting in multiple specimens, arrange them in clumps, at varying angles, as they would appear in nature, to create an instant “established” effect.
Water in well and continue to water regularly through the establishment phase, particularly if conditions are hot. Once the agave has adapted to its new home it will require only minimal watering.
Native to southern USA, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, the agave species have proliferated globally. Several species of agave are commercially cultivated for their nectar, which is sweeter than honey. Some are used as a source of sisal for weaving. The very potent spirit Tequila is made with the fructose derived from Agave tequilana.
Whilst most agaves are perfect for arid to temperate regions, a few species are better suited to tropical situations (do your research). In colder climates agaves can be enjoyed as potted conservatory specimens.
Other favourite varieties:
Agave lophantha quadricolor (Thorncrest Agave) Striking light and dark green striped leaves with serrated cream margins – develops pink tinges in winter – very decorative.
Agave augustifolia marginata (Variegated Caribbean Agave) Small-medium specimen, stiff, narrow grey-green blades with pale margins.
If I could have only one fruit tree in my garden it would surely be the lovely lemon! It’s such a bountiful beauty with deliciously fragrant leaves and flowers and generous production of fruit. Equally appealing in a pot or in the ground, the lemon tree can be easily shaped – it’s also lovely in very mature form with a tall trunk and shady canopy of foliage – but this requires judicious pruning and quite a few years growth.
In Australia the two most popular varieties are the Meyer – nice in-ground or planted as an ornamental in a large pot (be aware that generally the potted trees do not deliver as much fruit – citrus trees do seem to be much happier and more vigorous in-ground). The other is the ever-reliable Eureka – a robust specimen and prolific fruiter. We have two well-established Eureka lemon trees in our Sydney garden which deliver more lemons than we could possibly use – so friends and neighbours are kept well-supplied.
Like all citrus trees lemons require lots of sun and love a deep watering (for juicy fruit). When planting out, give them the best start in generous holes with lots of rich organic soil improver and treat them regularly with a specific citrus fertiliser. If you are growing your lemon tree in a pot again use a good organic planting medium. It is also is imperative that you maintain good soil moisture levels – be vigilant in summer – lemons are thirsty and pots can dry up quickly – particularly in hot or windy conditions.
Leaf-curl is a common problem with citrus trees (caused by leafminer – moth larvae) and whilst unattractive it does not seem to have much impact on growth or fruiting – I tend to ignore it. If you find it unsightly you can simply pick off the affected leaves as they appear – this is easy with a small specimen but I wouldn’t bother with a mature tree. If leaf-curl is a real concern you can try to inhibit the problem by holding back on fertiliser during summer when the moths are most active.
History and Mythology
Native to Asia (India, North Burma and China) the lemon has, over many centuries, found its way around the world. It was introduced to Europe in early Roman times and by AD 700 was being cultivated in Egypt, Persia and Iraq. The lemon tree was and remains a significant feature of traditional Islamic gardens.
Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors introduced the lemon to the Americas. The Greek legend of The Golden Pommes of Hesperides tells of Gaea (the Earth godess) creating small trees with golden “pommes” – symbols of love and fertility – to celebrate the union of Hera and Zeus. This led to all sorts of trouble – but that’s another story…
I love Lantana and have used it in a multitude of forms in many gardens – my own and those I have been commissioned to design. Not everyone embraces this genus – probably because a few varieties are regarded as noxious weeds, but lantana does not deserve to be dismissed on that reputation. One of the hardiest, most rewarding and versatile plants for climatic zones ranging from tropical to moderate, it can survive in poor soils with very little water – a most sensible choice here in Australia and other dry areas. If you are not successful with lantana, you might as well give up on gardening – I haven’t lost one yet.
As the community becomes more waterwise, I notice a dramatic upsurge in Lantana plantings in private gardens, public spaces and streetscapes. It works very well in any setting, be it native, traditional, cottage or tropical, providing ongoing colour when seasonally flowering specimens have finished. Some varieties can be topiarised, including as standards – these look stunning in matched pots poolside or as an entrance statement (instead of the traditional roses), but I prefer to use it as hedging, groundcover and shrubbery – depending of course on the species.
Virtually indestructible, this fast growing perennial loves full sun. It responds well to regular trimming and shaping to maintain its “density” and will reward you with a prolific show of multicoloured pom-pom flower heads. I have had great success using the purple and white varieties (montevidensis) in combination (spacing them alternately) as low border hedges (clip them regularly for maximum effect). These sprawling varieties are also accomplished climbers, given encouragement (like open wire mesh) – particularly useful to camouflage an unattractive fence or to add interest to a bare wall.
NOTE: Whilst Lantana is a great survivor, like all plants it should be given the best start with a generous hole, filled with a rich organic soil improver (incorporating a little of the existing garden medium) and watered in well.
Nurse it through the establishment stage with extra watering if the weather is particularly hot.
There are some 150 species of the genus and they grow in trailing form – montevidensis or shrub form – camara – the latter having by far the greatest range. Native to the tropical regions of Africa and the Americas, Lantana is also well established in Australia and other temperate to tropical climes. The common names and hybrids vary from country to country. My favourites in Australia are:
Shrub form (camara)
“Chelsea Gem” – strong orange and red flowers – rounded to spreading shrub.
“Calypso” – raspberry, orange and yellow flowers – a smaller shrub.
Other gorgeous colours in the many shrub varieties are plain lemon, cream, white, yellow, bright pink, raspberry, orange and red. The dwarf varieties of the camara form are lovely specimens for pots.
Trailing (more prostrate) form (montevidensis)
“White Lightning” – pretty white flowers against dark green foliage (shows up well in the night garden). The most popular trailing form (in Australia at least) is the mauve variety which is generally referred to simply as Lantana montevidensis.
I’ve also used a very pretty version which is a delicate lilac/white blend.
Bonus! Lantana is very attractive to butterflies!
Now is the time to get out into the garden and finish pruning anything that still requires it. Roses in particular need a good cut back this time of year and will benefit from the application of blended manures and specific organic plant fertilizers. Don’t forget to water in the fertilizer after spreading to avoid burning the plant’s roots! Application of a good thick layer of mulch to all garden beds is recommended to keep the roots protected from temperature extremes. Happy gardening.