The weather has turned chilly for the first day of the weekend plant sale at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Rain threatens, dark clouds loom. But by midday the sky is blue and the sun shines bright as plant enthusiasts cruise around white boxes, filled with potted plants, spread in neat rows across an enclosed lawn at the top end of the Gardens.
Normally this is a work environment, with garden staff and maintenance operators based alongside. But today it’s a place of fresh air, interest – and optimism that emanates from plants and people.
Some of the people are members of The Growing Friends, a 35-member volunteer group that since 1988 has spearheaded this plant sale. They meet on Fridays, moving around the Gardens and (with the help of an expert horticultural team) choosing plants – many of them rare – that they’d like to grow on. They take seeds or cuttings, cultivate and nurture them, then after 12 months or so, re-pot and label them in readiness for the twice-yearly sale.
But most who have come today are garden-makers of all ages in search of something special. And that’s what they find – succulents and iris, bulbs shrubs and perennials, orchids, vireyas, herbs, climbers, with a broad and fascinating collection of Australian species. These days plant nurseries can be boringly predictable. Here, there’s so much to choose from!
I know some of the plants – Loropetalum chinense, Cyclamen hederifolium, Phormium tenax, Brachyscome multifida. Others are familiar, but with a difference – Daphne odora ‘Variegata’ (white flowers rather than pink), Juniperus horizontalis ‘Glauca’ (an extremely flat, low-growing variety). But others are so new to me that I have to copy their botanical names letter by letter – Tibouchina urvilleana ‘Edwardsii’ (with brilliant purple flowers)*, Trichocladus ellipticus (from Zimbabwe), Justicia adhatoda, Strobilanthes anisophylla – and then search out information about them from the volunteer helpers. Or later, at home on line. I’m remembering yet again that this famed botanic garden nurtures and displays around 10,000 plant species from all parts of the world, from those dating from its genesis in the mid-19th century, to those only recently discovered and identified.
Of the plants on sale today, some are seriously expensive. I can’t resist Stenomesson variegatum, a wonderful bulb from the Andes in Peru, even at $40 a pot. Its cluster of yellow-green fluted flowerheads (picked from a mature plant and on display) stops me in my tracks; its long leaves are beautifully structural, there are lots of new shoots popping up from the potting mix. It should do well in one of the tougher parts of my garden.
Others seem very cheap. Six years ago Paul Thompson, the noted Australian plants expert and landscape designer, presented me with Olearia astroloba, a rare and endangered Australian daisy with delicate mauve flowers and fine silver leaves. (It is found in the wild only at Marble Gully, near Mount Tambo in East Gippsland, but adapts very well to cultivation). I’ve treasured this plant, nurtured it, and wished for more. And here it is – at $6 a pot! I snap up what looks like the last two.
There’s a fine selection of unusual eucalypts, and of correas. Hostas to die for, salvias I’ve never heard of before. And people to talk to, questions to ask, answers to consider.
As always, I buy far more than intended. Apart from the Stenomesson and Olearia described above, here’s what I lug home, and happily nestle into my garden ….
• Cyclamen hederifolium – small, pink-flowered with magenta blotches and silver-green-grey leaves. A Mediterranean plant, it’s said to be happy anywhere from woodland to rocky hillsides, so should cope in my sandy water-resistant soil.
• Salvia chamaedryoides – from Mexico, low-growing with small silvery leaves and sky-blue flowers. I’m planting more and more salvias in my garden. They’re so shapely, floriferous and inviting!
• An Australian correa that’s labelled (wrongly) as Correa alba. Its flowers are not white and starry, but gorgeous lime-green, long and bell-like. (Can anyone identify it for me?)
• Eremophila glabra – a drought-tolerant prostrate native ‘emu bush’ with green-grey foliage and burgundy flowers through winter/spring. I’ll plant it next to my Eremophila maculata, which is doing well.
• Scaevola aemula ‘Purple Fanfare’ – another native, prostrate and wide spreading, short-lived but spectacular (according to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens) with purple fan-shaped flowers. Each flower has five petals. Is it coincidental that ‘scaevola’ is Latin for ‘little hand?’
• Hibbertia vestita – a low-growing Australian plant otherwise known as ‘hairy guinea flower’, also prostrate, with tiny round leaves and bright yellow flowers that open up year-round. It’s compact rather than creeping.
• And last, Boronia anemonifolia var. variabilis – there’s very little to be found online about this Australian plant, but it has white-pink flowers and the volunteer worker who leads me to it notes that it’s beautiful, tough and (unlike some other boronias) long-lasting.
And in the end, that’s exactly what I want – and need – in my garden.