South Africa's best plants
Australian gardeners have long relied on hardy and beautiful plants from our Gondwana partner, South Africa.
Graham Ross explains his passion for some of the best plants South Africa has to offer.
Paintbrush lily (Scadoxus)
Gardeners are often surprised when they realise that many popular plants, although they look like Australian natives, are actually from South Africa. Most of our exotic garden shrubs were introduced via a circuitous century-long journey that took them from China and Japan to London’s Kew Gardens and back to the Pacific on trading ships. Those same ships stopped for supplies in Capetown and picked up South Africa’s flora on the way, which quickly found its way into the colony’s gardens.
When you research Australia’s Gardenesque period of garden design, from the 1830s, you find many of the plants used to make these ornamental landscapes were of South African origin. They were very hardy in our climate, had an appealing oddity, were colourful and fitted the fashion of the time perfectly. They included agapanthus, gerberas, gazanias, clivias, daisies, aloes, pigface, red hot pokers, leucadendrons, dietes iris, gladiolus, proteas, Arum lilies, plumbago, jasmine, coral trees, ochna, and strelitzias, just to name a few. The list was massive and we still love most of them today.
Aloes. Photo - Moments by Mullineux/Shutterstock.com
Of course the Gondwana link is very strong botanically between the two countries. The giant Proteaceae family of plants existed when South Africa and Australia were joined 150-80 million years ago and waratah, banksia, buckinghamia, grevillea, hakea, isopogon, lambertia, macadamia, persoonia and stenocarpus grew on a land mass that would become Australia while protea, leucadendron, leucospermum and others survived on what became South African soil.
But beside the Proteaceae family there were many other plants destined to become magnificent garden plants here in Australia. There are many South African plants I enjoy growing in our home garden and I hope you can track them down to grow as well. Here are a few:
Less well-known by its Latin name, Scadoxus puniceus or sometimes Haemanthus, this is a stunning bulb that bursts out of the ground at winter’s end to herald spring. You can’t miss it as the flower, naked of leaves on a fleshy stem 30-50cm tall, is covered in maroon bracts that explode to reveal a mass of bright red stamens 10-15cm across, only to have a second detonation two weeks later as the orange, pollen-filled stamens open. The fireworks display lasts for several weeks into early summer.
We suffered a severe frost in the garden last winter and the Paintbrush Lily stood firm against the onslaught. I enrich the soil with manure and lots of compost, with a side-dressing of organic feed such as Organic Life or Sudden Impact in autumn before dormancy. The lush green leaves return after the flowers have screamed ‘look at me’ for 6-8 weeks.
Another related bulb I love is Haemanthus albiflos which has beautiful paintbrushes of greenish-white surrounded by lime green bracts in autumn. In our temperate garden this one is the evergreen form of Paintbrush Lily with broad, green, fleshy leaves, not unlike the foliage of a clivia. In the wilds of South Africa it is often found in deep shade but we grow ours in the open under magnolias. We mulch this bulb in summer with cow manure.
Both Haemanthus and Scadoxus should be kept dry during winter to avoid root rot. Watch out for slugs and snails. Both bulbs can also be grown easily in pots with a good quality potting mix.
Paintbrush lily makes a bold explosion of colour for 6-8 weeks. Photo - photolibrary.com
Red hot pokers
New varieties of Red Hot Pokers, Kniphofia, have changed the way we look at these popular hardy perennials. The colour range has been extended from basic orange and red to lemon yellow, golden yellow, scarlet, apricot, salmon pink and bi-colour mixes of them all. New selections have also extended the flowering season dramatically and there are now both dwarf and taller varieties so read the catalogues before you buy.
Some flower with agapanthus at Christmas time, such as peachy-tone ‘Princess Beatrix’; while others are at their best in autumn, such as the yellow K.ensifolia; and others, such K. ‘Ascot Lemon’ start in spring. My tip is to grow them in full sun along the coast or inland, and apply a manure mulch but don’t overdo it. Feed them with a complete fertiliser, such as Garden Magic, Osmocote, or Acticote every four weeks in spring and prune them hard after flowering.
Pokers. Photo - JC Photo/Shutterstock.com
Aloes are not everyone’s cup of tea but if you want a drought-hardy, long-lived and spectacular flowering plant they are hard to beat. A mature aloe, 5-6m tall and 10m across, in full flower is one of nature’s gems: like a giant candelabra the plant holds aloft hundreds of 50cm flower spike ‘candles’ of scarlet and orange.
These giant succulents captured the imagination of early Australian settlers and deserve more room in our gardens today. They grow happily down by the seaside and inland in full sun. Don’t over feed or water them: treat them a little mean for best results. Most have needle-like spines on the leaf edges but not thorns as in cactus. Scale and mealy bug can trouble them but I spray monthly with either PestOil or EcoOil and have no insect damage.
A new release this year called Aloe ‘Eric the Red’ is a tough, new hybrid with vigour and a magical flower spike that the honeyeater birds will thank you for planting.
Aloes were a favourite of early 20th century Australian gardeners. Photo - Izf/Shutterstock.com
I have been observing the evolution of clivias in Japan since 1980 but it wasn’t until I visited the International Garden Festival in Kunming, China in 1999, that I realised the full flowering potential of this South African bulb. There displayed in pots were variegated leaf forms, some with huge multiple flower heads of yellow, lemon, red, orange, pink and apricot in singles and doubles on 40-60cm stems. Magnificent! A year or two later nurseries were advertising new yellow-flowered varieties on our radio show - for $175 each!
I’m still enthralled by the everyday basic species seen in Australian gardens for more than 150 years. Mine receive no attention other than a handful of organic fertiliser, when I remember, and every September they produce masses of deep orange blooms. But it has been exciting to watch a dozen new hybrids flowering in our garden this year in yellow, lemon and bicolours. All have evergreen strappy leaves. In winter the fruiting heads turn from green to luminous red, and are themselves an attraction (especially to snails!).
Almost all will grow happily in pots and have survived both drought and wet conditions in our garden. When dividing old clumps after flowering, or when planting new clivias, keep the neck of the bulb above ground level to prevent rot. While a majority of gardeners I know grow their clivias in the shade, because they survive and flower there, mine are in full sun for 70 per cent of the day and don’t mind it at all.
Hybrid clivias come in a range of colours. These lemon ones are on display at Longwood Gardens Conservatory. Photo - Linda Ross