Archive for June, 2012


ON a bit of a list right now – list as in a lean. It’s a legacy of a loooong, back- bending day working through a list of gardening chores I was hell-bent ( that’a also apt for my askew condition ) on getting to the end of. (But just maybe it’s the G and T effect.)

As I massage my sore muscles, I reflect that it’s a  fool’s errand  really,  trying to complete a catalogue of jobs, because  like all lists, there is no end to it. Gardening is a continual work in progress. You plant  new vegetable seedlings and then get sidelined into clearing around the base of the fruit trees and mulching and  fertilising them. Then you start on turning the compost and realise you have a paddock full of dried cut grass to pick up. Water the pots with mushroom tea and you discover many need topping up with soil,  or a nip and tuck to encourage spring growth.

The hanging baskets looked a little tired and sun-depeleted, needing revival and more light, so out came the saw to hack off some tree limbs. The new blue ginger plant needed a home with the others under the poinciana tree, but the nearby camelia bush was covered with spent flowers needing to be dead-headed and the crepe myrtle was all straggly bare limbs begging to be cut down to size. Oh, and the wheelbarrow tyre went flat. Must be how the  old woman who lived in the shoe (who had so many children she didn’t know what to do) felt.

At sundown, the “to do” column was the same length as it was at the start of the day, thanks to add-ons that became apparent as I moved about .

When you’re caught up in the “work” of a garden, don’t forget to stop and savour the pleasures it brings. Today, mine was the rosellas out in force,  fighting and elbowing each other at the feeders, splashing and gossiping in the birdbaths like adolescent males showing off at the local swimming hole  – and our gorgeous showy poinsettia, a splashy, bright spot in a dull, overcast winter day.

This tree has been on the south side of our house, behind the back deck, for about 18 years and rewards us every year with a dazzling scarlet display. ( see left) I have let it grow mostly unchecked, so

now  its dazzling red foliage  is high enough to be seen through the high-set handrails when in the house or on the deck and from many directions outside.

It seems to defy all the rules and thrive in what has been  a pretty neglected patch of garden. It sits where we tip out vases of dead flowers, tea and coffee pots, the cat litter, remnants of casseroles, and fry-ups.

It struggles to catch any decent sunlight because an unwisely-planted fiddlewood blocks it on the eastern side, and because it is so sappy, I have only ever given it one or two trims, although you are meant to do it every August and January to maintain good flowering. It is sort of my skinny shy child that droops among the ferns and bromeliads in the shade most of the year and makes a star appearance that catches me by nice surprise. I have since renovated its surrounds with stepping stones, succulents and pots  and tied some crucifix orchids to its trunk, so it looks a bit more loved

Many people associate the poinsettia with Christmas, because its  rich red colouring,  stunning against the crisp white table linen, teamed with green foliage, is  popular as festive table decor.

But the poinsettia  also blooms in winter in the southern hemisphere, a welcome cheer in the usually dormant growing season.

They came originally from Mexico and Central America so thrive in hot climates. The red or other-colored leaves are not the flowers of the poinsettia plant, but just leaves which look like flowers. The flowers are small, yellow clusters at the center of each of those leaves (known as bracts). To turn a poinsettia plant into a poinsettia tree, you need to remove the bottom 2-3 leaves and continually pinch off new growth. Its sticky, milky sap is a messy and possibly hazardous feature.  They are  in the euphorbia family, so if you suffer from latex allergies,  always wear gloves when handling them.

The Aztecs  used the sap in the 14th to 16th  centuries to control fevers and the bracts were used to make a reddish dye. King Montezuma had poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravans because they could not be grown in the high altitude.

Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as “Noche Buena”, meaning Christmas Eve. Its association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend says,  a little girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and put them in front of the church altar. Crimson “blossoms” sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.  From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included poincettias in their Christmas celebrations.

They acquired their lilting name after Joel Roberts Poinsett,  the first United States Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820’s, first took one back to the United States.

I’d like to know who started  them in Australia. I wonder if it was the same person who brought us the exuberant frangipani and jacaranda; someone who could see that the big
intense climate, horizons and light here demanded stronger plant colours and forms than demure English garden pastels. Bless them.

A poinsettia tree is trained to grow so that the bottom is a two-foot stem that looks like a trunk, and the top, the leaves and flowers of the poinsettia, look like tree foliage.  If left, they eventually grow tall and leggy and flowers are borne on top of great long stems and you hardly ever see them, so prune them after they flower and get close to the ground. You can propagate them by cutting the bottom of any pieces square and the top on an angle. Allow the cutting to dry in the sun and plant in some seed-raising mix. Make sure it’s planted with the angle cut at the top.

There is a swag of varieties and colours about if you are not a fan of bright red. But,  be warned the caustic poinsettia sap is poisonous to horses.

If you feel like being a show-off yourself,  start preparing pots now to create a spectacular Christmas tree of stacked poinsettias using a tree frame, like the one pictured at left.

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MY early morning tramps  around the garden, enjoying the fresh air and crystalline surfaces as the first of the sun’s rays hit the dewy foliage, are getting later and later now as the cold weather sets in. It’s harder to drag myself out from under the doona.

But the other day I had a grand pick me up in what was largely a dull grey week when I discovered my red hot pokers are out.

A straggly patch of these large and hardy lillies, native of South Africa,  has flourished quietly  in a very unloved and unfavoured part of the garden, literally ” poked” among some vicious spiked agaves and left to fend for themselves as prettier more needy species took my attention elsewhere.

Then a friend gave me some bulbs to add to the crop a few  years back. The whole bed has prospered and multiplied  –   no thanks to any care I have given them, I might add.  Now they form a healthy clump that has spread to about three metres. They are strong and hardy and reliably stunning every winter,  just when you think all the colour has gone out of the yard.

The name sounds menacing and painful but this is a fantastic feature plant and makes a real statement, so I wish I had planted some along  our driveway. Talk about making an entrance! They grow just about anywhere and in any soil and also very waterwise.

For their vigour, I understand,  in some areas they have become environmental weeds, alas. But they can be grown in pots, so that gets around that spreading danger if you live in such an area.

Their botanical name  is  kniphofia and the vibrant tangerine variety I have is  called  winter cheer –  and that they are! Their bright orange and yellow  flowers are a tonic on cold winter morning and a wonder of nature’s design skills. They have these complex heads of  a  torch-like cluster of small drooping tubular flowers, usually of two colours,  rising above the foliage on a stout erect stem. That’s also why they’re called torch lillies.

They produce large amounts of nectar so attract the honey-eating native birds like wattlebirds and rosellas  which feast in the flower spikes.

I think the name red hot pokers is perfect ….. It suggests sizzle and they surely add that  to the garden. As the sun’s rays catch them, they look like they’re alight and glowing.

They warm my heart.

I am going to resist picking them for vases. I like the way they nod and glow in the open air . They’re not conventionally beautiful and delicate like a rose or a camelia. They’re more Bette Midler than Nicole Kidman types and seem to say to the other wimpy plants who have gone to bed for their winter beauty sleep: ” Look smart; I’m putting on my best face and brightest smile to boogie, even if I am amongst dullards.”

They are plants with personality plus.

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