Old Garden Stalwarts Unfazed By Heat, Provide Colourful Summer Displays
Mostly fallen from fashion, these old garden varieties were the mainstay of many early Australian gardens, often brought from other parts of the world with similarly warm and humid climates. Hot weather seems to bring out their best qualities as they provide a succession of flowers and ornamental foliage withstanding the hottest driest days.
On New Year’s Day, I took a stroll around the garden at Vaucluse House to capture a few of these old stalwarts in full flower. Here are some of my highlights.
Bull Bay Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
A magnificent evergreen tree from the south-eastern United States, Bull Bay was popular in Australian colonial gardens for its splendid shiny foliage and sumptuous summer flowers. It is a very tough tree able to withstand heat and drought. The flowers can be cut and brought indoors where they will last for a few days, filling a room with their spicy sweet lemon perfume.
Oleander (Nerium oleander)
For a long time Oleanders have been given a bad press in Australian gardening culture: too common, poisonous and often described as weeds. But take a careful look and you may find a different view. They appear in very early colonial garden plant lists and huge mature specimens are found in virtually all historic Sydney gardens. The wild species has single or double pink or white flowers, which will put on an elegant display for many months irrespective of heat or drought. Much breeding and plant improvement was done in France in the mid-19th century leading to many named cultivars being listed in nursery catalogues. With careful detective work it’s often still possible to work out which old cultivar is present in a garden. The flowers have a simple beauty and are displayed in sprays at the end of long wands of willowy foliage.
Frangipani (Plumeria acuminata)
With their white and yellow - coloured clusters of flowers, their distinctive dome shape crown and sword-like leaves, Frangipanis are redolent of the tropics. Like many other old-fashioned plants with ravishing flowers they’re almost too common for us to even notice them much of the time. There are many old cultivars still seen in gardens, planted between sixty and a hundred years ago including red, orange, carmine, shell pink and candy flowered forms. Frangipanis revel in hot summer conditions and flower continuously for many months in Sydney.
Plumbago (Plumbago capensis)
Is a tough, somewhat invasive shrub, almost ubiquitous in colonial gardens. As the name implies it was brought from the Cape Colony of South Africa as an early colonial plant introduction to Australia. Nearly indestructible it soldiers through the hottest summer days without showing any stress.
Red Canna Lily (Canna x generalis)
In the fountain bed at Vaucluse House we grow these flamboyant herbaceous perennials as feature plants in a brightly coloured bedding display mimicking Victorian Gardenesque style. They were bred from Canna indica which has small and rather insignificant flowers, but is also often found in old gardens. Cannas were enormously popular in French and English summer bedding schemes in the 19th century and very extensive breeding and plant-improvement was carried out that led to the development of these large-flowered types (formerly known as orchid-flowered cannas). They spectacularly fell out of fashion in Australian gardens before undergoing a resurgence thanks to the high-style gardening of English writer Christopher Lloyd who grew them at his world-famous garden Great Dixter.
Canna Lily (Canna indica)
This is the the Canna species - Indian Shot, that was used to breed the Red Canna Lily (Canna x generalis) in the previous image.
Vaucluse House summer shrubbery and Rosa chinensis var. Mutabilis
The Pleasure Garden at Vaucluse House is in a sheltered little dell, shaded on the east, north and west by groves of mature trees. These help to create a favoured micro-climate where plants are not subject to the full extreme heat and sun of mid-summer days. Whilst plants might be subject to full sun exposure for a few hours each day, they will also be protected for several hours enabling them to handle heat stress. Smaller, more delicate herbaceous plants can shelter under larger shrubs, and if there is sufficient mulch present to regain soil moisture they should be able to tough out the hottest days.
In this picture you can see an old Chinese shrub rose called ‘Mutabilis’ still carrying a few flowers despite the hot weather. The single flowers open pink and gradually fade to apricot, hence the name ‘mutabilis’, meaning changeable. This rose is often found in early colonial gardens and must have been a very early plant introduction to Australia directly from China as it is not cold hardy and so not grown in England, from where most other old garden roses were brought. Many old named cultivars of Rosa chinensis were grown in early gardens and in warm climates like Sydney’s they flower almost continuously. They are superbly resistant to the black spot and mildew fungal diseases that affect many modern garden roses, and will grow in virtually any soil.
China Monthly Rose (Rosa chinensis)
At Elizabeth Farm near Parramatta are two other old varieties: shell-pink ‘China Monthly’ and scarlet ‘Lady Brisbane’. These were westernised names given to old garden plants that had already been cultivated by the Chinese for hundreds of years.
Vaucluse House summer shrubbery and Vitex
Another feature plant of the shrubbery at Vaucluse House is the little grown Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus), a tall elegant shrub with candelabra like spires of lilac flowers. Like Oleander, Vitex grows naturally around the Mediterranean and happily withstands hot dry summers. It is one of the fashion victims of Australian horticulture, rarely grown despite its ease of cultivation and suitability for hot climate gardening.
Vaucluse House summer bedding display
The fountain bed at Vaucluse house is a seasonal bedding display grown for gaudy coloured flowers and flamboyant foliage. It features brightly coloured annuals, perennials and shrubs, including petunias, salvias, evening primrose, canna lilies, red cordylines, lavender, red pelargoniums and even a few old roses. The cannas, cordylines, roses and lavender provide a permanent framework, with a seasonal infill of bedding plants to provide a blast of colour visible from almost anywhere in the garden as well as from the drawing room bay window. Most of these plants will thrive with minimal supplementary watering.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
A delightfully weedy perennial that thrives in hot dry conditions, these have established themselves in the Pleasure Garden at Vaucluse House where their lemon-chiffon coloured flowers light up the border. They seed themselves prolifically once established.
Bleeding Heart Vine (Clerodendrum speciosum)
A multi-stemmed shrub or climber is commonly found in old gardens as a tough survivor of neglect. The beautiful flowers continue for many months in Sydney, not even fully disappearing in winter. It thrives in a hot dry summer; but can be annoyingly invasive in the garden as it suckers profusely. A simple root barrier can easily keep it under control.
Lily of the Incas (Hymenocallis peruviana syn.)
Easily grown in dappled sunshine or light shade these elegant tropical members of the Amaryllis family thrive in Sydney when left undisturbed. Like Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Clivias and Crinums they are the mainstay of many old gardens.
Cane Begonia (Begonia coccinea)
These old cane-type Begonias can even tough out the hottest summer days if growing in a sheltered spot. This one, in the my garden, was grown via a cutting from Vaucluse House. It was originally supplied by Begonia guru Peter Sharp. It enjoys pot culture but will also grow to 1.5 metres in the ground in well-prepared soil in a sheltered spot and seems to thrive in hot weather.
White Angel Wing Begonias (Begonia coccinea)
Old-fashioned cane begonias with multiple stems growing to about 1.8 metres high, often referred to as ‘angel wing’ types, will happily grow in bright dappled light amongst other shrubs and are surprisingly tough once established.
At this time of year attention to mulching and careful watering will ensure your favourite plants survive the hottest days. An organic mulch covering the soil surface will reduce evaporation ensuring plant roots are kept cooler and able to find soil moisture. It is important not to over-water as this makes plants weaker and more dependent on frequent watering. You can easily condition your plants to survive harsher weather by watering deeply but less often. Most of the plants in this article will happily get by with little or no supplementary watering at all which makes them all the more desirable!