Plants I love: Honeybush
Linda has long been smitten by the serrated blue leaves of Honeybush, Melianthus major.
Then she discovered a new, small-growing, purple-tinted form.
Words: Linda Ross
Honeybush, Melianthus major. Photo - COULANGES/Shutterstock.com
The leaves of this South African native are a wonderful, luminous blue-green. Adding to their charm each leaf is finely cut, with a serrated margin as if a fairy has been busy with the pinking shears! The showy, long-lasting, arching flower spikes are a burnished mahogany-red in summer, but it’s those leaves, which hold onto every glistening droplet of dew, that are the real attraction for me.
The plant is a suckering evergreen shrub that fills 3 x 3 and needs plenty of space, deep, rich soil and lots of water. In areas that experience decent frosts in winter, Melianthus major will die back to the ground like a herbaceous perennial; and in very cold regions it may not survive through winter.
It grows best in well-drained soil in full sun where it grows to a height of 2-3 m in a single season. That kind of growth can be hard to accommodate in a suburban garden, but there is a smaller, deeply desirable cultivar, called ‘Purple Haze’. This superior garden variety is a quarter of the size of the species and its blue foliage comes with an extra haze of lilac-purple. I was very excited to find it at Collectors’ Plant Fair a few years ago, at the Antique Perennials stand.
I use ‘Purple Haze’ as a foil and filler to other shrubs, perennials and grasses in my garden. A garden design should be a beautifully curated collection of plants that roll through the seasons. Seasonal flowers are great for denoting the changing year and gentle foliage fillers allow the flowers to pop. ‘Purple Haze’ is one of those useful fillers. Its serene colour is restful and its neat size means it can be popped amongst anything, matching well with ornamental grasses, dahlias, agapanthus and aloes. Unusually it takes full sun without wilting or fading. In winter my garden can get down to -1 degrees, but ‘Purple Haze’ has not skipped a beat.In fact I love the winter leaves edged with diamond dew that sparkles on cold mornings.
Left unpruned, Melianthus will produce mahogany-coloured tubular flowers in spikes in spring or early summer, but if you are willing to sacrifice the flowers by cutting the plant to the ground in late winter you achieve a more compact plant.Left unpruned for years, the plant becomes woody and is best refreshed with a hard prune or replaced by a fresh plant.
In my Central Coast climate, where ‘Purple Haze’ looks so good through winter, I prune the tatty old leaves in late summer, and every second year cut the whole shrub to the ground to encourage new growth from the base.
Propagation is usually by seed or by basal or softwood cuttings taken in late spring, but I have taken a rooted piece of cutting and popped it in a pot at the end of summer and it has thrived!