When a student from some distant shore enrols with the Garden Design Academy it is an opportunity to look at what we grow and see what plants might be familiar to gardeners in that country. A group of South Africans have booked for a two week residential garden design course and I have been out in the garden looking for plants native to the Cape and surrounding regions. My Grandmother lived in colonial South Africa and my Father was born in Cape Town, giving this region, which I have never visited, an extra interest to me.
Our sunny, central island bed seemed a likely area to start and just three plants from the house-end of this bed comes our first discovery: Dierama or Angel’s fishing rod. There are around 50 species of Dierama in the Eastern Cape and I have always assumed mine is D. pulcherrimum, though I stand to be corrected. My mother first introduced me to this plant after growing it from seed but my own plants were collected from an abandoned Cornish garden in the village where my Grandmother lived. From her garden came our plant of Eucomis bicolor, a bulbous perennial which has proved its hardiness by surviving a spell at -26C last winter. I rescued it from a pot in the garden nearly a year after my Grandmother had died and treasure it as a memory of her. It has the most amazing flower spike, the form of which gives it its common name of Pineapple Flower.
Barely three paces away we come to our next subject, a clump of Kniphofia Timothy with grass like leaves and bright orange flowers. The Red Hot Pokers seem to withstand anything when established but we did loose young plants, including divisions from this one, during the late winter cold snap. Further on, at the end of the bed and struggling under a large variegated Miscanthus grass, the South African succulent Lampranthus, with outrageously bright pink flowers, opens its buds in the sun and closes them every evening or on dull days. We have a much better plant in full sun in the front garden.
On the opposite corner of the island bed we grow Hemerocallis in two varieties; elsewhere in the garden we have another three. I always assumed some Day Lilies were South African but now know this is not the case: you live and learn! I thought I was on safer ground with the next plant as Canna could not look more typically South African– except that it is from America! Fortunately we also have Crocosmia in the bed, and this really is from South Africa. One of our clumps is of an attractive orange-yellow colour and labelled George Davidson but may not be. Whatever the name, this Montbretia is a cheerful thing and battles gently with the neighbouring Salvia uliginosa, which towers over it.
Unless I’m much mistaking (and to err is the gardeners’ lot) that completes the list from the island bed and the border on the west boundary offers nothing at all. Alongside the eastern boundary and the swimming pool we do better with Gladioli – both species and Dutch florist types – and a number of bedding plants including Gazania, Diascia, Dimorphotheca and Felicia. Several Salvias hail from these parts but I don’t think any of ours do. In pots we have plenty of Pelargoniums which I think it is safe to add to our South Africa list, and in the front garden Phygelius in three varieties.
I keep planting Agapanthus and they keep dying on me and a big potted Clivia went the same way as the Nerines, which is to say, they too are no longer with us. I am looking forward to meeting our students from Pretoria in September and hope they will not be too appalled at my attempts to grow South African native plants.