Category Archives: Garden lessons

Of dahlias and bearded botanists

Today’s flower comes all the way from the mountains of South America, is named after the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl and is a large daisy.

Funnily enough Dahl never saw the blooms in his life. But when the first dahlias turned up in Europe in the late 18th century two years after he died, other botanists were reminded of Dahl’s shaggy beard. Presenting the shaggy pink dahlia!

pink dahlia.jpg

Succulents are the new black

One of the joys of gardening in a temperate climate like Adelaide’s is the ability to grow a range of plants that were sadly missing all through my days in Calcutta, Brisbane and Darwin. These are the succulents, a group of plants that have generally adapted to living and flourishing in the parts of the world with high temperatures and low precipitation or rain. Cacti are succulents, as are some xerophytes or plants that have adapted to less moisture. Try as you might, unless you are Debra Lee Baldwin, it is quite difficult to keep succulents alive for a great length of time in the three cities named above. At least that was the way it was for me.

But Adelaide has given me a chance to grow and love succulents. To the point of now being mildly obsessed by them. The geometric shapes, the muted greys, blues and greens, the magical flowers – all these are but some of the reasons I now know my echeverias from my sempervivums and my jovibarbas from my aeoniums. They fit into my preferred palette of colours, grow slowly and are well suited to the climate we have.

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite succulents; some are growing in our garden, and a couple are from gardens I have visited. I hope you enjoy them!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The succulent wreath in the slideshow is a display from Hillside Herbs and the succulent wall art is from Sophie Thompson’s open garden in Mount Barker that I visited last weekend.

I know, that was too short! But there is more. There will be more, but in the next post. Till then, happy gardening.

Speed dating on the slime trail

‘Good God, I think it’s unfair. All those damned slimy things wandering about seducing each other like mad all over the bushes, and having the pleasures of both sensations. Why couldn’t such a gift be given to the human race? That’s what I want to know.’

~ Lawrence Durrell, on hearing how snails mated. And I got a photo this morning to prove it!

This is how it happens; they fire a dart of calcium into each other hard enough to push it through the skin. The calcium dart is coated with a hormone that prevents the sperm from being digested when the actual mating takes place. After this they feel each other up a little with their tentacles till the appropriate area (under the right eye) is stimulated. Each snail then injects sperm into the female part of the other. Oh, did I not tell you? Snails are hermaphrodites with both male and female organs fully working in every snail. When mating is done they each store the sperm till their eggs are ready to be fertilized.

snail sex
(White calcium dart exchange, photo mine)

In the words of Durrell’s younger brother Gerald (whose books taught me all I know about sex by the way), they then walk away without so much as a nod or a thank you. Lucky molluscs!

It’s a wasp! It’s a blister beetle! No, it is a histrionic bug.

harlequin bug
Murgantia histrionica or the harlequin bug.

It frequently makes ‘murga’ s or chickens of gardeners who think of it as one of the good guys. It is not! It will eat through a vegetable patch in a matter of days given the chance, and the only one having hysterics will be the gardener as she watches tormented tomatoes, exhausted eggplants and ravished radishes.

But the bug did not get its name from that. The second part of its name comes from its histrionic success at mimicking the classic warning colours of red and black. What my college texts called Batesian mimicry, after the bookish Brit who bantered with butterflies in Venezuela(how I wish it had been Bolivia). But that is another story.

Henry’s Lily discovered circa 19th century, flowers in an Adelaide garden in 2016

Lilium Henryi

(The first flower on Lilium Henryi or Henry’s Lily)

By flowering in Adelaide on January 17th it helps connect me in 2016 to a man who could not be further removed from me even if he tried. This man was the Irish plantsman and China expert Augustine Henry. He worked from 1881 as a doctor in Shanghai, China. In 1882 he was sent to the interior to study plants used by Chinese herbalists. By the end of his Chinese sojourn, he had collected over 15000 specimens for Kew Gardens. 5000 new plants were among these. Among them was an orange lily that he discovered in the limestone gorge country of Hubei, home to the massive Three Gorges Dam. My lily is descended in a sense from that distant plant, both in terms of years as well as physical miles. As I look at the flower, I wish I had met Henry, who was a man of science who also knew Yeats and Shaw and retired from China as a Mandarin. In England he helped to set up departments of forestry at a number of universities.

Even though this lily can grow up to eleven feet tall, it hasn’t done badly in a pot in half shade here. Perhaps it will feel at home and reach full potential if I plant it in the limestone soils of Adelaide after it finishes flowering for this season.

Curl up and die? By gibberelin, no!

Aeonium flower heads

This plant should not look this happy, not at all! I separated it from its parent plant, a clump which was undisturbed for nearly four years. The place was like a wall of green fractals, even the hose had a hard time wetting the soil underneath. Then for two weeks, this stayed in a bucket crowded together with others, no water, no soil – waiting for something to happen. While I, the one who was meant to make things happen got busy potting up exotic things like dragon fruit and tree dahlias. A week into the wait, this plant got a message from one of the many hormones still at work inside it that perhaps this was it. Perhaps, there was no watering in its future, no putting down roots and building another wall of fractals. Perhaps it was curtains.

So what has this plant been doing for the last week? Not getting ready for cell death and system shutdown. Not by a long shot, no. It has been having its last hurrah, a party to celebrate life! It has been covering itself in literally tens of these flowering tips. If I hadn’t noticed they would have gone on to flower, perhaps even set seed thanks to the efficiency of passing bees and ants, even the breeze. And then, and only then would it finally call it a day. But only then, after exhausting all resources in building a future. Not in withering away and dying without putting up a fight first.

There may be a lesson in this for us all; there certainly is one for me.