Author Archives: Pamela McGeorge

About Pamela McGeorge

Pamela McGeorge is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes for magazines and newspapers. Based in Wanaka, Pamela has an ongoing love affair with the New Zealand landscape and gardening.

Autumn Joy

It’s late March as I write and autumn has arrived – at least in the mornings, though the days are still warm and sunny, tempting me outside.

As always, there’s heaps to do. And talking of heaps I have a wonderful big heap of mulch sitting beside our garden, from where it travels in the wheelbarrow to be spread thickly, covering any bare patches among the plants. Last week workers from Asplundh were trimming the trees on our street and in exchange for a small bag of tomatoes and some baking I had done that morning, I wheedled them into delivering the mulch to our place. A great start to bedding down the garden for the winter! As the perennials die back there will be many more gaps to blanket.

The trees may be starting to turn but there’s still plenty of colour in the flower garden. A large clump of Persicaria amplexicaulis with deep pink blooms grows at one side of the house, alongside a mixture of dahlias in shades of red and orange. Once upon a time we would never have put reds, pink and orangey tones alongside each other but with today’s liberated approach to colour it works.

Over the years I have discarded the spent dahlia blooms over the soil as I deadhead. Most of these are single species and their patch had become crowded with self-propagating tubers so, come spring, I moved big clumps and dug them in beside the vegetable garden in what is essentially wasteland. In totally undisciplined, un-designed splendour they are right now a blaze of colour.

I have a love-hate relationship with Persicaria – it has thuggish tendencies, large leaves that look like dock and as it dies down in late autumn it needs hacking off fast as the dying foliage is not pretty. But it flowers for a long season and is a real stalwart for late colour.

Just in front of it, with blooms in a similar colour range, is Salvia greggii. The flowers initially seem small and insignificant. I think a bird gifted me my plant and I wasn’t sure I liked it when it first appeared. But it formed a clump about a metre high and flowers from late spring to the end of summer with a profusion of red flowers so of course it’s staying.

Persicaria and Salvia greggii

Salvias offer a wide range of varieties aside from the culinary species. Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’ is a long time favourite of mine both for its dark leaves that I use in the kitchen and for its blue flower spikes in December. Then there’s S. ‘Blauhugel’ and S. ‘Mainacht’ (Midnight), which are not culinary varieties. The plants are very similar – both have dark, purple/blue blooms, though ‘Mainacht’ is slightly darker. The flower spikes are smaller and much denser than those of ‘Purpurea’ and they start flowering in late spring continuing right up until now, in autumn, if they are cut back on a continuing basis during the summer. And it’s not only their colour that I love but also the rather strong, penetrating perfume of their leaves.  Recently I bought several plants of S. patens with sky-blue flowers and I’m hoping they will form bulky clumps quickly.

In my Auckland garden, which is mainly a weedy jungle Salvia elegans, better known as pineapple sage, is one plant that thrives on neglect. Taller than its cousins and leggier, its flowers ressemble bright scarlet flames. Frost-tender, this is a plant that likes dry conditions and if for no other reason, I love it for its fragrant, pineapple-perfumed leaves. My granddaughters like sliding the flowers off and sucking out the honey that sits at the base of the tube. So it’s no wonder that bees are constantly foraging in all my salvias.

Recently we were in Nelson and the display in the beds at the public gardens surrounding the war memorial were sensational. Bedding begonias, bright yellow rudbeckias and marigolds plus a few beds of pale blue petunias looked amazing.

Of course we all know that modern roses have a repeat flowering ability if they are dead-headed but most perennials benefit also from constant dead-heading which extends their flowering season often right through to autumn. I even have dianthus, which I thought were single flowering varieties, re-flowering now because I was much more particular about dead-heading them this season.

When the flowers eventually die back in southern climates think about berries. In Central Otago hillsides are aglow with burnished red – the effect of masses of briar rose bushes covered in hips. They look great but are a terrible scourge.

I was out early recently collecting rose hips from wild briars near the lake and it proved to be a chatty morning as people coming by walking their dogs wondered why I was picking these oh-so-common berries. They can be made into jelly or a syrup, rich in vitamin C, just like the commercial product of yesteryear. Well I remember an Easter holiday when I was at high school and, with a friend, picked a sack of the hips. Hard-earned cash at five cents per pound!

In the home garden heritage roses in particular can provide a similar effect – if not quite so overwhelming. Because most of them have only one flowering season we don’t dead-head them and they often have spectacular hips. In my street garden the old ‘Scotch Rose’, Rosa spinossissima which has single white flowers in late spring, bears spherical black hips at this time of the year.

And if you don’t have bright rose hips in your garden, go a-foraging and see what you can find to brighten up a vase inside. 


Even More Irises!

rabbit-clip-art-ca3rabbit1Two of my newly planted broccoli disappeared overnight. The culprit ? It could have been birds but I suspect the baby rabbit I’ve seen lolloping in the garden recently. Like irises the rabbit population is exploding in Central Otago this year. Go walking in the evening, as we did a couple of nights ago, and on the path by the lake dozens were playing hopscotch – black ones, grey ones, baby ones, giants.  Our neighbour borrowed a  rabbit-hunting dog last week. We need it again. Fast.

Luckily rabbits haven’t yet developed a taste for irises and though the bearded irises in my garden are almost over, various species are making a late appearance. Plants I thought I had lost are flourishing and flowering in places I’m sure I didn’t plant them.

One of the reasons I’m slightly obsessive about irises is the fact that because I grow a wide variety of species I usually have at least one – but usually heaps more – blooming in the garden from July to December. If I could only get Iris unguicularis var.creticus to flower I could extend that by a month earlier.

Not the kind of flowers to make a glorious statement, these species irises are plants that tempt you into the garden each day to peer at close quarters to find out if anything new has appeared.  It usually has.

p1080774Great was my excitement this morning when I found Iris milesii in flower in the street garden – this being the garden outside our wall and technically on council land. It’s where I go to plant when I’ve run out of space around the house. This iris is a slender plant, about 40cm tall,  a member of the evansia group of irises. It’s not nearly as robust as a bearded iris  but the flower is dainty and fragile, a pretty mauve colour with a fairly flat face not unlike an orchid. Most of the day this plant is in shade and where I had one of these precious flowers a few years ago, there is now a small clump with several more buds ready to burst open.Iris milesii originated in China and the Himalaya. It goes into a dormant phase during the winter months and as all the leaves of the plant fade, the rhizome lies bare on the soil surface.

Iris gramineaAlso out in the street garden is Iris graminea. It was banished there because it took up space I needed in my garden proper. Most of the year it’s hard to recognise this plant as an iris. Deciduous in the winter it grows in springtime as a spreading grassy clump, about 40 cm high, and the buds when they form, are difficult to see as they hide down amongst the finely cut foliage, opening up on the outside of the plant first before gradually opening in the centre of the clump.

Iris graminea belongs to the spuria group of irises and beside a voluptuous bearded specimen the flower looks starved. But I like it for its slender, spare purple petals and the fine blue markings on the end of its falls.


Iris sintenisii is even smaller than I. graminea and I grow mine in a hypa tufa pot I made many years ago. Each year when it flowers it takes me by  surprise. No sooner have the buds formed than it opens into flower. A couple of days later it’s gone. Maybe because the flowers of these three irises are short-lived they seem more precious.



Iris chrysographesAnother fragile iris that won my heart years ago is Iris chrysographes. It’s a gorgeous velvety purple, a classic slender shape on a narrow stem about 50-60 cm tall. Last year numerous flowers appeared and for at least a week I gloried in the arrival of a new bloom every day. This year, contrary to all the other irises in my garden, this iris has almost vanished which sometimes happens in a garden as crowded as mine. Each year I promise myself to thin out the jungle and just maybe last autumn I dug up the small rhizomes of this dainty iris. One lonely bloom appeared about a week ago. Let’s hope it sets seed as many of my plants do – even several hybrid iris varieties which theoretically are supposed to only increase by vegetative means.


And just to show that I do have flowers that aren’t irises in my garden ‘Albertine’ is a beautiful old-fashioned thug of a rose that clambers over an archway and threatens to take over the garden.



Irises – glorious irises


Perhaps we should rename November and call it Iris Month – at least in Central Otago. This is the month when bearded irises reach their full glory and various irises of a more slender build are in show-off mood. We’ve had more rain than usual this spring and irises have loved it – as have the weeds!

Bearded Irises in all their glory

Bearded irises in the Lake Hayes garden of Da Vella Gore.

Bearded irises in the Lake Hayes garden of Da Vella Gore.

Last weekend I went on a tour of gardens in Alexandra and drooled over the huge clumps of  beautiful blue, gold, and purple tall-beardeds planted against a backdrop of the wonderful schist rocks that are so characteristic of the town and its surroundings. We lived there once, and I wanted to move back again, immediately –  with the right kind of garden naturally. Tall bearded, often mistakenly called flag irises are probably the most widely grown and easily recognised of all irises with their frequently brilliant colour combinations and their distinctive form, consisting of three upright standards, three falls, (the drooping petals or sepals) and three style arms which usually sit upright within the heart of the flower. Their name comes from the furry ‘caterpillar’ sitting on the haft of the falls and while the flowers of modern Siberian irises or Louisianas may look similar, a bright flash of colour known as a signal takes the place of the beard.

If you’re looking for stately flowers and emphatic foliage then bearded irises have both. If you want gorgeous hues and wild colour combinations, if you can’t stand fluffy, cottage-style planting, if you’re seeking a sleek tailored appearance in your garden, then go for bearded irises.

Colour co-ordinated bearded iris and aquilegias.

Colour co-ordinated bearded iris and aquilegias.

Modern tall bearded iris

Modern tall bearded iris










'Thorn bird', a modern 'space-age' iris, characterised by its bright violet 'horns'.

‘Thorn bird’, a modern ‘space-age’ iris, characterised by its bright violet ‘horns’.

'Thorn bird', a dark bearded beauty and a Siberian iris in the author's garden.

‘Thorn bird’, a dark bearded beauty and a Siberian iris in the author’s garden.









Essentials for bearded irises 

  • Rhizomes must be planted in full sun for at least half a day with the top of the rhizome, level with the top of the soil
  • They need free-draining, humus-rich soil
  • They don’t like clay or soil that is too acidic
  • Ideal climate is a warm dry summer, followed by autumn rains, a cool winter and plenty of moisture in early spring
  • They are heavy feeders. A mixture of 3 parts super phosphate to 1 part potash in spring and again after flowering works well though I find sheep pellets are a good all-round fertiliser.
  • Rhizomes need to be divided every 3-4 years. Discard withered, non-productive rhizomes at the centre of the clump and replant the plump young rhizomes with a heaping of new soil. This is best done about one month after flowering to give the rhizomes a chance to develop good roots before winter.
  • Enjoy!
Siberian iris

Siberian iris

Siberian irises are probably my favourites, though when it comes to irises, it’s bit like saying you have a favourite child. Graceful, elegant plants, they have flowers that rise above the foliage like delicate butterflies on long stems. Some of the newer hybrids have luxuriously wide, flatter flowers that are sometimes hard to distinguish from Japanese irises.

Unlike their rather stiff, bearded cousins, they grow in graceful clumps with fine fountains of slender leaves that are a stylish addition to a perennial garden right through summer and into late autumn when they turn brown and need to be removed. Their rhizomes, which store food for the plant and support the roots, are also much slimmer than the fat chunky structures that bearded varieties grow from.

Siberian iris species in their native habitat naturalise in damp meadows and reed swamps so, as you would expect, Siberians like rich, moist soil though reasonably good drainage is necessary. Well-established clumps will put up with periods of drought in late summer or autumn.

Glorious Siberian 'Over to Gloryland'

Glorious Siberian ‘Over to Gloryland’

Siberians also like full sun. I have one in my garden which is a miracle of blue at present though it sulked in a shady corner for several years.

Early autumn is the traditional time to plant, especially where you can expect winter rain, but in reality Siberian irises can be planted, or divided and re-planted at any time. It’s often more satisfying to buy a plant in flower and if this is you, remember to water your new acquisition frequently once it is in the ground. Make sure the roots are never allowed to dry out until the plant is well established.

Dividing established clumps is not difficult so long as you have a sharp spade. Once the clump is dug out, split it and get rid of the spent rhizomes, old roots and the central part of the clump. Enrich the planting hole with composted manure mixed into the soil. Sit the new plant or division on a mound, spread out the roots and fill the hole, making sure the crown is 2-4 cm below the surface of the soil once the planting is completed. Another feed after flowering will make the plant feel cherished.

Mulching in summer, an absolute no-no for bearded irises, helps to retain moisture.

In the garden

Siberians are an asset in small gardens, because each plant forms a substantial enough clump to make a statement on its own and there is no need to plant them in groups. They come in a range of heights and because of their tall slender flower stems and clumping foliage, they add definition among fuzzier plants such as aquilegias or lavender.

Because they start blooming at the beginning of summer, they fit into the same season as roses and given that they like moisture they are also a good plant to situate near water. Rodgersias, hostas, filipendula and gunnera all like similar conditions and provide a contrast planted alongside narrow-leafed irises.

I hate to say it to Aucklanders but bearded irises are not the easiest plants to cultivate in the north but if you can provide the conditions they like you will succeed. For gardeners in the south, there is no more spectacular event in the garden in November than the flowers of the rainbow goddess.

In Search of Orchids


The country is rough, rocky beyond belief and hilly. And where the land has not been scraped bare by volcanoes, earthquakes, snow and searing wind, it is covered in low, tangled, often prickly vegetation that shelters a wealth of flowering plants. If we think Central Otago is a harsh, sometimes barren land, it now seems groomed after the countryside of Crete where I recently went exploring.

There are rough, rock-strewn hillsides framed by deep gorges with towering cliffs on either side, mountains that rise to over 2500 metres, plunging roads that lead down to stunning beaches rimmed by the turquoise Mediterranean and everywhere there are rocks.

I was there to seek orchids and other wild flowers that flourish in Crete’s usually warm Mediterranean climate. Worldwide there are 28,000 orchid species and they can be found in numerous, very varied climates. They range from the exotic, tropical phalaenopsis or butterfly orchids that are so trendy at present in florist shops to the tiny epiphytic dendrobiums which live in places as diverse as the mountains in the Himalaya and the dry climate of the Australian desert. In New Zealand orchids can be found from the coastline right up to alpine herb-fields. I once went walking in the highlands of New Caledonia with a French botanist who believed he had discovered that day, a small new species growing in moss beside a stream in the bush there.

Ophrys iricolor - rainbow ophrys

Ophrys iricolor – rainbow ophrys

Ophrys episcopalis

Ophrys episcopalis

Ophrys cretica

Ophrys cretica






More than half of the Cretan orchids are bee orchids, or Ophrys, and they are not much bigger than a man’s thumbnail, carried on frail stems that somehow fight their way up amongst rampant grasses and tangled spiny shrubs – phrygana as it is called on Crete. The complicated designs of these orchids imitate a female insect and when the male insect attempts to mate with the flower he effectively causes pollination.

Orchis italics

Orchis italicus

orchis tridentata

Orchis tridentata

Orchis sitiaca

Orchis sitiaca

Others are classified as Orchis and these are the often pyramidal orchids made up of tiny individual blooms, often in various shades of pink. Their stems are more hardy that those of Ophrys and they grow randomly amongst long grass and often dandelions! Strange then that we think of orchids as being some special kind of flower.In all, it is estimated that there are roughly 65 species and sub-species of orchid on Crete, some among them endemic to the island.

I’m travelling with a bunch of British botanists, hell-bent on checking off the long list of species they came to find. We spend two weeks scrambling over the hills and clambering up steep rocks in search of these flowers which mainly bloom in April. There are lots of euphorbias of different kinds and other prickly, congested low bushes making it problematical when searching for a handhold to help with the scrambling.

Euphorbia acanthothamnos

Euphorbia acanthothamnos

Iris cretensis

Iris cretensis

Paeonia clusii

Paeonia clusii






I’m fascinated by the orchids and amazed by their intricate patterning and clearly defined colouring.

But I’m not interested in endless discussion about which species they might be. I love the variety of all the wild flowers – and I’m also here to experience the country and learn a little of its history.

P1070925Small isolated chapels with no windows are dotted around the countryside and one day we picnicked in the shade of an enormous old plane tree beside one. Small herds of long haired sheep range over the land, sometimes led by a shepherd. There are remnants of stone walls across the hills, some of which were probably sheep folds and we see the remains of small, low, square stone huts scattered around – shepherds’ shelters I suspect.

We pass heaps more olive trees, most of them with a folded net at their feet topped with stones to stop it blowing away. Occasionally we see trees with pitted gnarled trunks that are probably a few centuries old. In the green valleys we come across orange groves and for the duration of the trip we drink delicious fresh orange juice.

It’s very empty country but not true wilderness. People have roamed these hills for millennia.

Occasionally we take time out from flower hunting to explore some of the historical aspects of the island. Phaestos is an ancient Minoan structure, dating from about 1900BC. Evidently it was originally a palace with Royal apartments but also public places which acted as a centre for various intellectual activities of the time and over a period of several centuries had been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times before being destroyed by invaders and finally abandoned.

Prevail Monastery

Prevali Monastery

Another day we stop at the monastery of Preveli, a 15th century structure. Nearby is a war memorial dedicated to allied soldiers, including New Zealanders, and the abbot of the monastery at the time who hid allies from the Germans and helped others to escape to allied headquarters in Africa.

Spili, a small mountain village where we stay for a week is small with a winding main street backed by steep, rocky mountains. I go exploring and it has narrow pathways leading up through often quite dilapidated houses. I emerge above the village and keep climbing through masses of yellow Jerusalem sage. I hear a troupe of animals and catch a glimpse of sheep, or they may be goats, all wearing bells, being guided down the track and so home for the night …….  by a ute!!

Strange how wildflowers are often yellow. In Western Australia yellow was the dominant colour in the riot of wildflowers I saw there last year; this year on Crete the colour is similar although the plants are not. There are species of broom and gorse, golden ranunculus, brilliant yellow oxalis (which is fine in the wild, not in the garden), small gold-yellow trefoils or clovers and dandelions in their thousands. One of my favourites is the giant fennel, Ferula communis, growing all over the island and standing tall with its golden flower heads waving in the wind.

Phlomis cretica

Phlomis cretica – Jerusalem sage

We’re also on the lookout for tulips, another flower we tend to think of only as a cultivated garden plant. There were fewer this season than expected, but one day we skirted round a field where the short-stemmed Tulipa doerfleri scattered its red blooms amongst wild grass. Another day we found fritillarias in a small patch almost hidden by the tangled scrub they were growing in.

Unlike a cultivated garden, where so much thought and planning is involved and the pleasure is predictable, seeking wild flowers is a kind of treasure hunt. You know there are surprises lurking in unexpected places; joy is in discovering them.

From the sublime to the ridiculous - orchids and dandelions

From the sublime to the ridiculous – orchids and dandelions

Ophrys sicula

Ophrys sicula

Wildflowers in Western Australia

I’ve had a long-lasting love affair with wild flowers. It probably started many years ago when we lived in Europe and were in Switzerland on holiday. We climbed up to the high pastures in summer where cows with quietly clanging bells browsed among dandelions and buttercups. Weeds, you might say. But they had their own kind of beauty.image

Years later we moved to Central Otago and I was amazed by the mauve-blue of viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) filling paddocks and cursed by the farmers no doubt, of brilliant orange California poppies, false valerian (Centranthus ruber) and wild thyme, spreading over the rocky hills. Cultivated flowers are beautiful but seeing flowers in their natural habitat has a fascination all of its own. Especially when they are species of the hybridised plants we grow in our gardens.

In the past we’ve gone searching for wildflowers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, in the European Alps, in Patagonia, in the Pyrenees, and in the wilderness of Eastern Turkey. Recently it was Western Australia. 

image  image  image

September and it’s allegedly hot – though not as hot as we had been led to believe. But there is no exaggeration about the wealth of wildflowers. Probably no where else in the world is there such a variety of species that are endemic to one area. Unlike alpines they are not necessarily small plants. They range from trees, such as banksias and shrubs like tall willowy grevilleas that grow over a wide area and display gorgeous golden fronds waving in the wind, to compact clumps of bright flowers squatting in the gravel beside the road.

Wildflowers have come to represent tourist dollars in Western Australia. Information on the internet and brochures in all the towns where we stop, advertise specific trails or routes where various species can be seen. The season runs from July through November, and extends over hundreds of kilometres starting early in the north with the height of blooming gradually working its way south as the weather warms.     



We see our first wild flowers in the city of Perth, not the sort of environment you would expect to go looking for wildflowers. In King’s Park, high on a hill above the CBD, there are sheets of pink and white everlasting daisies, a garden filled with a variety of endemic species and Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthus) scattered about. Anigozanthus hybrids are often favourites of New Zealand gardeners in frost-free areas but the red and green species we see in Perth and further north are one of the 12 species found only in Western Australia. This one is the State’s floral emblem. The common name derives from the appearance of the flower which is shaped like the front paw of a kangaroo, complete with soft, bristly fur. In a small town north of Perth there’s a civic garden where dramatic black Kangaroo Paws alternate with the more common red and green species.

As soon as we leave Perth and head north the countryside is awash with the gold of acacia trees or wattle as they are more commonly known in Australia. Some look familiar to New Zealand eyes – many I haven’t seen before. Like gorse or broom in New Zealand they dominate certain areas of the land but the big difference is that they are nativimagees here. Although acacias are found in other countries, notably Africa, the vast majority of species are native to Australia – some say as many as 900 species. I especially like the jam wattle (Acacia acuminata) which has slender leaves and cylindrical blossoms of the signature golden-yellow. And no, it’s not used to make jam. The common name comes from the smell of its newly cut wood which hints of raspberry jam.

Each town on our way north advertised the species of wildflowers predominant in that area but the brochures could be misleading and we went on a couple of wild goose chases looking for wild flowers at Le Sueur National Park where we followed a road for kilometres and really didn’t see anything that made me want to stop and take photographs. Another day we set out to walk to Lake Logue where there were supposed to be orchids. The track was soft sand and exhausting to walk in. It was baking hot and flies attacked us continually. We walked and walked without seeing one orchid, or the lake! In disgust we finally turned around, retraced our steps and climbed thankfully aboard the camper. In fact orchids seemed to be rather elusive though we finally found some near Hyden on a pathway at the renowned Wave Rock. Tiny, dainty flowers  growing in small patches amongst the  grass it would have been easy to miss them altogether.

P1070183   Caldenia

It was at Kalbarri National Park, about 600 kilometres north of Perth, where we saw the greatest proliferation of wildflowers. The route into the park is long and straight and the scenery to a New Zealander’s eyes, not at all notable. But the wild flowers are amazing in their diversity – tall bushes, trees, tiny roadside flowers and wattles without number. Pinks, golds, yellows, white, orange, purple, red. I wanted to photograph them all. 

What is it about amateur botanists, that they always want to know the name of every plant they see? It’s almost a disease and it’s affected me in the past. But on this trip it seemed as if it would be a mission to nowhere. The plants are too numerous for me ever to remember and virtually impossible to grow anywhere but in Western Australia. One book claimed there are over 12,000 species in the state!

When we turned south again and headed back to Perth by an inland route, the flower species were less numerous. Their place was taken by fields of wheat stretching to the horizon or paddockimages of cape weed (Arctotheca calendula) and canola that turned the countryside a bright citrus yellow. This is huge country. But once through the Wheat Belt we found ourselves in a more varied landscape where the vegetation  turned to open forest of eucalyptus and grass trees with their tall dark flower spikes pointing up towards the sky.

There was a time when I was always attracted by the most complicated flowers in any family – voluptuous peonies, bright bombastic lilies and double dahlias with pompom centres. But my tastes have changed. Given a choice, I now tend to bypass highly bred cultivars and opt for flowers in my garden with simpler shapes – species and their near relatives whose genes have been manipulated only by the wind or roving insects. Perhaps it’s the sense of wonder they evoke, the continual feeling of amazement that nature, unaided, can produce such perfect works of art. Where else but in the wildflowers of Western Australia is there such a profusion of nature’s inventiveness?


A love/hate relationship

Allium 'Lucy Ball'

Allium ‘Lucy Ball’

I love alliums – or some of them. More of that later. So I planted ‘Lucy Ball’ probably six years ago following this description which I found on the internet.

‘This attractive hybrid allium decorates the late spring to early summer garden with dense spheres of rich rosy-purple flowers. The rounded flowerheads are composed of many small, starry, individual florets, and are approximately 6 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter. They are borne on tall, strong stems which rise above strappy, green basal leaves that emerge in spring and fade as the plants bloom.’

My Lucy flourished in early spring. Lovely lush green leaves that duly fell over and faded as per the description. But not a flower to be seen. This continued for several years. Yes I should have been  pro-active and either moved it or got rid of it – not always an easy job with alliums. Last autumn, finally, I had a clean-up and trimmed (severely) the shrubs nearby. Result? Flowers on ‘Lucy Ball’. She just needed more sun.

I. setosa with Allium 'Lucy Ball'

I. setosa with Allium ‘Lucy Ball’

But the flowers aren’t rosy-purple. Nor are they dense spheres. They are mauve and flat-bottomed and they are nothing like 15 centimetres in diameter. But I’m not complaining. They are tall, they rise among lesser plants, they last a long time in water or in the garden, and best of all, they have inexplicably jumped across the grass and embedded themselves in another location along with Allium sphaerocephalon which flowers much later.

Ornamental allium species are mainly gorgeous.  Many are tall; most are sculptural and beautifully coloured, with rounded heads that make a strong statement. They combine well with other perennials such as iris, delphiniums, lavender, salvias, peonies, hardy geraniums and ornamental grasses.

They make excellent cut flowers and in the garden most of the varieties mentioned below are back-of-the border plants. Their foliage is only attractive before the flowers bloom so it makes sense to plant ‘fluffier’ perennials nearby and let the alliums bloom above their heads.

As a rule they are hardy plants, surviving frosty winters so long as they don’t have wet feet, happy enough in poor soil, preferring dry summer conditions and full sun. In their native habitat they often grow on dry rocky hillsides. Once their flowers are over the foliage, as with most bulbs, should be allowed to dry off naturally to ensure a good flower crop the following season.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, growing more than a metre tall, is probably the best known of the allium bunch, coveted for its perfect spheres of dark purple blooms, rising above the short, strappy foliage. 

A. giganteum, also with purple heads, can grow almost two metres tall. Like ‘Purple Sensation’, it starts to bloom in November.

If you are looking  for ultimate vase life, then choose ‘Globemaster’ which has  lilac-purple heads on 70cm stems.

Allium sphaerocephalon offers a long season of interest with green flower heads, later turning to red/purple in summer.

Allium sphaerocephalon offers a long season of interest with green flower heads, later turning to red/purple in summer.

One of my favourites is A. sphaerocephalon. Less spectacular than some of the larger varieties, it provides interest for an extended season. The long, thin, grassy leaves start to appear in July but the smallish, oval flower heads only become noticeable several months later. They start out chartreuse-green in early summer and slowly turn a reddish-purple from the top down as they mature. This plant takes up less space than some of its bigger cousins and is a quick multiplier though some might say invasive.

Allium akaka seen on a dry hillside in Eastern Turkey.

Allium akaka seen on a dry hillside in Eastern Turkey.

If you’re not looking for tall beauties, try A. karataviense, also known as the Turkestan onion. It grows only about 20cm tall and has two, wide, tongue-shaped leaves, not unlike hosta foliage. The flower may be white, purple or pink. Found in loose, limestone scree slopes on mountains in Central Asia, it makes a good rock garden plant. It is also the most suitable of the garden-friendly species to grow in a container and in my climate seeds well.

Very similar is A. akaka, which I once saw blooming in early June on a steep, rocky slope, high in the hills of Eastern Turkey.

Of course we all use alliums in the kitchen. Garlic (Allium sativum ) is one of the family and of course the common brown or red onion (A. cepa) is the most commonly cultivated species. Grow several of these tiny plants closely together, harvest them before the bulbs are formed and you have spring onions.

A. fistulosum  is commonly called the Welsh onion or Japanese bunching onion and the leaves, which are fat and hollow, are used like spring onions.

Allium x proliferum Otherwise known as Egyptian onions: useful in the kitchen; grows all year round.

Allium x proliferum
Otherwise known as Egyptian onions: useful in the kitchen; grows all year round.

I grow A. x proliferum,  a cross between A. cepa and A. fistulosum  known as an Egyptian or tree onion and I hate to be without it. I use it, year round, in any recipe that calls for spring onions as I prefer its milder flavour. It has a very efficient system of propagation. Instead of producing flowers, they grow a small group of bulbils at the tip of the stem. When this becomes too heavy it flops over and the bulbils take root in the earth and voilà, pickable new plants are ready the following season.  In winter they withstand frosty weather better than sodden gardens.  But beware – they can become invasive.


Always let a few leeks go to seed if you want attractive flowers in the house for autumn.

Always let a few leeks go to seed if you want attractive flowers in the house for autumn.

Another common allium in the kitchen is A. ampeloprasum var. porrum otherwise known as a leek. I hate to admit that my first crop of leeks – many years ago – failed totally to grow leaves, though they did produce beautiful white flowers on long stiff stems. Since then I have always let a few of my crop go to flower so I have the long-lasting blooms to use inside.

Chives, or A. schoenoprasum, is the smallest culinary allium. In fact though, the clumps are so attractive with their small, tight drumsticks of mauve flowers, that they sit just as easily in the flower garden as they do in the potager.

Two other alliums I hate. They’re neither pretty nor useful.

Most people in the North Island will be familiar with the strong-smelling onion flower, A. triquetrum. It’s edible. It’s attractive. And it’s a menace! A low-growing plant with narrow leaves and loose umbels of dainty, attractive, bell-like white flowers, each with a green stripe down the middle of the petals, it’s an import that has gone mad in New Zealand. Given half the chance it invades roadsides, gardens or the edges of parks and quickly takes over. Getting rid of it requires drastic measures. The leaves can be chopped and used like chives; the bulbs can be pickled or sliced and eaten fresh; the flowers can be used as a garnish on salads. But no-one in their right mind would cultivate this plant.

Almost as bad, but less prevalent is A. vineale, or wild garlic. Another edible monster, it’s easy to mistake the leaves for grass and the variety which has invaded one of my alpine troughs does not flower – it just puts all its energy into producing dozens of tiny oval bulbs that cling to the parent and bury themselves so deeply under my precious fritillarias and erythroniums, that it is proving impossible to dig them all out.

I guess you can’t win them all!

The Magic of Auriculas

Spring Gold and the Magic of Auriculas


Here in the south the spring has been spectacular. It arrives late, just when we think winter is never going to end, and suddenly there is a profusion of daffodils, cherry blossom, tulips and the brilliant citrus yellow of acacia.

The earlier bulbs are fading now, scillas are just about over and there are three different kowhai flowering in our garden right now. Two of them produce flowers when the tree is in full leaf, the third one flowers on bare branches and the leaves appear when the flowers are over.

This attractive tree has twisted branches, making it a suitable NZ subject for a Japanese style planting. In my garden this is a standard. Notice the small leaves.

This attractive tree has twisted branches, making it a suitable NZ subject for a Japanese style planting. In my garden this is a standard. Notice the small leaves.

This kowhai flowers when the branches are bare. The leaves come once the flowers have faded.

This kowhai flowers when the branches are bare. The leaves come once the flowers have faded.

This tree arrived as a seedling and has reached a height of about five metres in five years. This is the first year however that it has flowered prolifically. Notice its big leaves, with longer flowers than that of the tree that flowers on bare branches.

This tree arrived as a seedling and has reached a height of about five metres in five years. This is the first year however that it has flowered prolifically. Notice its big leaves, with longer flowers than that of the tree that flowers on bare branches.

Auriculas have been magical this spring. Those gorgeous, velvety, old-fashioned members of the primula family that people tell me their grandmothers used to grow, have been in flower for more than four weeks.

Once I met a florist who had a room in his house devoted to auriculas. Pictures of auriculas lined the walls, lampshades were printed with the flowers and fabric on the chairs included their blooms in its design. Look at any flower paintings by the Old Masters and you are sure to see auriculas featuring in many of them.


Auriculas have the power to possess. At the end of the 17th century an English grower was reputed to have paid £20 for one plant – an astronomical amount of money in those days. Early in the 19th century, the growing of auriculas became an absorbing hobby in England. Growers joined auricula societies and vied with each other to present them at shows in the most elaborate stagings. But like many plants they come in and out of fashion and they don’t feature in many gardens at present. But, given a rich gritty soil they grow well in cooler climates and they possess an enduring charm.

Members of the Primula family, they were originally alpine plants, native to mountain areas across Europe where I have seen them flowering just as the snow recedes. Naturally, they thrive in cold winters.

In the past they were known as Bears’ Ears, for their wide leaves, or ‘Dusty Millers’ for the meal or sprinkling of white farina on the petals of certain varieties. In Alaska they survive for long months under a blanket of snow; in southern New Zealand gardens they tend to keep their leaves during winter, though they often look rather stressed.

They were evidently grown in Roman times and arrived in England in the baggage of Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the late 16th century. There they became known as florists’ flowers. Preceding the Industrial Revolution, florists were not the flower sellers we think of today. They were flower breeders – in the case of auriculas, selecting specimens they liked for their colour or shape and hybridising them to produce a perfect bloom which they could present on the show stand. Often the growers were weavers who worked at home, in terraced houses with a tiny backyard, where they could raise their flowers and where they were always on hand to tend them. Those we grow today are all hybrids with generations of man-made manipulation contributing to their family trees.

Auriculas don’t need a lot of space but elaborate recipes were devised for their well-being. Details have been passed down of a ‘brew’ used by a grower in the 16th century. It consisted of sugar, baker’s scum, nightsoil(!), sand, yellow loam and goose dung, all of which was steeped in  bullock’s blood. Thank goodness for slow-release fertilisers!


I have a patch of them clustered behind a low stone wall and they are increasing every year. Last autumn I divided them up and they transplanted with no problems. They come in various shades of purple, red, gold, lemon and more rarely in green with a black inner rim.  They can be double or single and often have a white ring at the centre. For some reason the green ones, which of course I prefer, are harder to raise than the purples and yellows. Imagine my delight a few days ago when I found one plant shyly displaying a clump of green and yellow blooms.

If you are planting them from seed, winter is the right time as they need to go through several frosts in their seed tray before they are pricked out as small seedlings. One New Zealand grower puts her seed trays in the freezer for three weeks to ensure they are well chilled. They grow well in sun or shade and because they are low to the ground, they don’t get battered by the wind – a big advantage this year when we’ve had a succession of vicious nor’westers. One stalk of flowers can last up to five weeks. If you’re seeking particular colours, you need to propagate them by division, as they don’t come true from seed. 

So next time you’re wondering what to plant at the front of your border and your climate is chilly enough, think of auriculas and follow in the footsteps of gardeners from the past.



Spring has arrived.

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There may be still snow well down on the hills and heavy frost in the morning, but spring has arrived. I know it because last week my reticulata iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ burst into bloom. When she flowers, winter is on its way out. But she’s late this year. I had been keeping a daily watch on her. Tiny specks of greenery poked through the ground in late July but a series of frosts stopped them in their tracks. When they eventually grew into fat, pregnant spears, the petals stayed tightly wrapped up for another week before they felt it was safe to open.               It’s hard to describe this glorious little flower. A typical iris shape, in miniature, some writers say its colour is turquoise, but it’s both more restrained and more complicated than that. Think soft blue, overlaid with sulphur yellow and decorated with stripes of mid-blue and speckles of navy.   So long as they don’t succumb to the dreaded ink disease, these little reticulatas are a welcome arrival each year. They like excellent drainage and increase rapidly in climates with cold winters and hot summers, provided they’re fed well during their growing season – diluted chicken manure is good – watered in winter and spring and protected from excessive summer rain.         My clump is much too tightly packed; I must remember to divide it up when the foliage has died down.

Snow drops are another sign that winter is at an end. My snow drops started to appear about a month ago, as always braving cold temperatures. Now they are in full flight. But after my excursion yesterday to Cambrian they seem a meagre lot. Cambrian is about two hours away. It was originally a gold-mining village in a rugged part of the Maniototo. I spent all my childhood holidays close by in another small town where my forebears lived.  This is countryside that feels like home. 

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Bob L de Berry, an aging hippie – his words, not mine – lives at Cambrian in an old miner’s cottage  with colourful hens ranging freely where they will. He delights in growing trees and spring bulbs.                                                                                                                                            

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Over the last fifteen years he has created a magical snowdrop wood where thousands of these delicate white flowers bloom in July and August, with crocuses among them, flourishing beneath oak trees. Later in spring bluebells take over from the snowdrops, sprinkled with large patches of daffodils that are allowed to naturalise.                                                                                 Nearby there is a small stream running through a DoC reserve and here there are more clumps of snowdrops under the trees and among ferns that thrive in the damp conditions. It’s an unusual combination but seems so appropriate in New Zealand: plants that represent the native and the imported aspects of our land.                                                                           Galanthus nivalis is the so-called English snowdrop (originally from the eastern Mediterranean), that sits about 15 centimetres high while G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, which abound in Bob’s wood, is the most common double flowered variety.

The English fell in love with snowdrops in a big way following the Crimean War in the mid-19th century when soldiers brought bulbs back from the Mediterranean with a variety of slightly differing flowers. So popular were they that the Royal Horticultural Society held a conference on snowdrops in 1891. Nowadays they have winter rambles for galanthophiles!                                    Snowdrops like cool, lightly shaded areas with lots of humus and constant moisture but good drainage. Division every few years, after flowering, keeps them vigorous and blooming well.

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Winter aconites, traditionally a woodland inhabitant, have to qualify as equally brave. Members of the buttercup family, or Ranunculaceae,  they’re not very common in New Zealand, but they have been grown in domestic gardens for hundreds of years, in spite of their reputation for being dangerously poisonous. John Gerard in his Herball or Historie of Plantes, published in 1597, warns that an arrow dipped in the juice of an aconite will kill man or beast within half an hour.   I have a few clumps of the ground-hugging, buttery yellow flowers, cupped in frilly green collars and growing beneath hydrangea bushes. They don’t spread as quickly as I’d like – but then which plants do? The most common species is Eranthis hyemalis and it’s native to several southern and central European countries. Large clumps can be divided and they need to be placed where larger, more rambunctious plants won’t overwhelm them.


The minute rock cyclamen or Cyclamen coum is another favourite. It has been in full flower for more than a month. They do well planted on the roots of deciduous trees but mine are in a large tub, and in a year or two may take over the whole surface. Their leaves are round, slightly heart-shaped, often silvery. The flowers are daintier and the leaves smaller and less decorated than those of Cyclamen hederifolium which flowers in autumn after a shower of rain.                       Rock cyclamen flowers are minuscule but perfect in every detail, standing on stems about 4cm tall, varying in colour from white through pale pink to deeper pink.

When all these flowers are blooming at the same time, spring has definitely arrived.

Imperial Pretensions

It’s the middle of winter and I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms. The ground is frozen. I can’t garden. A scattering of tiny cyclamen are in flower, a few reticulata irises have peeked through the earth and the bluebell foliage is starting to appear but the garden generally looks sad. I want spring to arrive with colour and the impetus that makes me go out every morning to see what has burst into flower.

I have a passion for purple – from deepest, brooding, almost-black to lightest mauve. All year-round there are shades of purple in our garden – even now, in mid-winter there are one or two purple violas braving the frosts.

Like most colours, purple is enhanced by its association with different hues. Even an addict like me has to admit that unrelieved purple can look sad, or worse still, depressing. But purple in all its variations gives lots of scope for mixing and matching. Plant several lilac-purple-lavender shades – wallflowers, pansies, stoechas lavender, irises or Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurea’ with its purple/grey foliage – beside silver, such as Artemisia ludoviciana or A. ‘Valerie Finnis’, add a pink climbing rose in the background – ‘Cecile Brunner’ is always lovely – and you’ll have a heart-warming combination.

I. setosa

The yellow iris with fine, burgundy markings on the falls is a reliable old bearded variety I. ‘Gracchus’. It makes a perfect companion for the purple blooms of I. setosa

When it comes to contrasts, purple crosses the boundaries easily between pastel shades and vivid hot colours. I once saw dark purple, tall bearded irises blooming in profusion in front of the climbing red rose ‘Dublin Bay’ and the effect was stunning.

I have experimented with purple and orange – orange violas beside dwarf purple irises, Erysimum ‘Apricot’ with lavender ‘Major’ and an orange calendula that arrived voluntarily to cosy up to another lavender bush. ‘Jolly Joker’ viola combines the best of both worlds with the two colours on the face of each ‘joker’.

For those who like mixing dark shades, blend clumps of violet violas among heucheras with plum/burgundy coloured foliage and add Anthriscus ‘Raven’s Wing’ as a background. It’s a member of the parsley family and has purple/brown, fern-like foliage and sprays of tiny, delicate, white flowers. (It dies down in winter in frosty climates but reappears in spring and quickly produces flowers in its second year.) Add the skeletal, twiggy plant, Calocephalus brownii for a gleam of silver.

Purple violas

Purple violas are a reliable standby and make a great show with the brilliant yellow flowers of Euphorbia polychroma.

Purple and gold are naturally meant for each other. Regal colours, they add richness to the garden palette and this is a colour scheme to aim for in late summer and autumn when sunflowers, rudbeckias and dahlias will give you rich golds and yellows. Try teaming them with Salvia ‘Purple Majesty’, the common but colourful S. leucanthe with long, chenille-soft flowers of lilac-mauve, or the striking S. ‘Indigo Spires’ for the purple touch. ‘Purple Majesty’ is a bushy plant, it starts flowering in early summer and in frost-free areas will continue through into winter.

You know of course that only the emperor in Roman times was allowed to flaunt purple. Nowadays we can all have imperial pretensions.


(First published in Weekend Gardener)