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Julian Sutton - From the Western Cape to the West of England (8/02/2013)

Our talk this Friday was from Julian Sutton - Desirable Plants - on the Plants of the Western Cape (by the way Julian's list is a revelation for the keen gardener and the botanically minded, and his talk(s) highly recommended).

A lot of gardeners visit South Africa and come home astounded by the richness and diversity of the flora. Many of these, agapanthus, kniphofia, eucomis and others, come from regions with dry winters and wet summers. However, the more coastal regions of the Western Cape, and east from Cape Town, have a Mediterranean climate with wet winters and often very hot and dry summers. It was these places that Julian took us around in a conducted tour and, most helpfully of all, reference to particular plants that he has experience of growing well in, at least mild, gardens in the UK.

The ericas of South Africa are astonishingly varied and colourful (and the subject of a beautiful book by Schumann, Kirsten and Oliver). Julian described a number of these; E. plukenetii - distinctive for its long exerted stamens; E. glauca var. elegans - attractive for a long period in bud before the flowers open and moderately hardy (in Devon); and E. caffra - a strong bush which will grow in the open garden in mild areas. In the remote Cederberg Mountains, north of Cape Town, very arid and with low winter temperatures and snow, grows E. junonia - which has been described as the queen of South African ericas. This would make a stunning specimen at an Alpine Show!

In the De Hoop Reserve, west of the Cape, rainfall is moderate (<30") and there are plants like Ixia viridiflora and Gladiolus pappei (carneus?), the latter a wetland plant that has been hardy and free-flowering in Totnes for over 30 years - very attractive for its short neat habit and good pink flowers.

The Little Karoo with lower rainfall again has plants such as the 'hardy' Gerbera tomentosa and well known and valued garden plant, Gladiolus tristis. Julian showed pictures of some fascinating hybrids of this which could prove highly exciting new plants for gardeners. Watsonia aletroides from this region has grown in our garden in north Kent, if not flowering reliably every year.

In some ways the most remarkable plants of all were bulbs flowering here in the UK throughout January (when perhaps many of us are more exercised with snowdrops!); Lapeirousia oreogena - intense blue; Lachenalias such as viridiflora and the very striking L. aloides var. vanzyliae, pictured in the Alpine House at Wisley; and a variety of Romuleas and the bright red Gladiolus priorii.

There does seem to be a strong and growing interest in growing many of these South African species, and it is exciting to have them described by someone who knows and grows them well, and can give such good advice on which are most suitable for mild UK gardens. Perhaps a South African group of the AGS could be in the offing?


Tim Ingram
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