Friday, September 30, 2011

In Praise of Big Tobacco........

"Big Tobacco" is a term often used to describe the "big 3" tobacco companies, however,from our garden's point of view this year, the "big 3" tobaccos are three species of Nicotiana all of which grow well over a meter in height. The three are working from the tallest down, pink flowered Nicotiana tabacum, white flowered N. sylvestris and yellow-green flowered N. langsdorfii. This year we grew all three from seed and used them liberally in the garden.
Big Tobaccos have a couple of attributes that make them useful in our garden. Foremost they are hardly ever touched by the deer or rabbits. Secondly they are vigourous growers and seem to thrive in our garden coditions. Thirdly, they are all heavily used by hummingbirds.
The largest is N. tabacccum, the "pink flowered strain" we grew from seeds purchased from a UK seed supplier. Planted out in early June, the plants have shot up to 2 or 3 meters in height, topped with pink trumpet shaped flowers. Of the three, this is the species most preferred by the hummingbirds. It was also the latest flowering of the three species, not flowering here this year until the last week of August and only just peaking in bloom now. An earlier seed sowing may be in order next year.
The most commonly grown of the three is the white flowered N. sylvestris, a big leaved plant with nodding white flowers that are heavily scented in the evening.. Its a very easy species to grow, handling bright sun and semishade equally well. We find it particularly useful in planting in front of the Brugmansia pots to disguise them completely.
Surprizingly, the showiest of the three species is the smaller and green flowered species Nicotiana langsdorfii. We have used this species in tubs, plants and tucked in gaps in the perennials beds, in both sun and shade. It is at its most impressive however where 6 or 10 or more are planted together where it forms an impressive display of a curtain of chartreuse bells-particuarly effective in a bobbing and swaying in a breeze. In the plants, I like the effect when combined with purples, most effecitvely in one planter on the pondock deck where it is combined with Salvia buchaninii and the flowers are displayed well against the huge fuzzy purple leaves of Solanum quitoense.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Showy Phytolacca.

Almost every visitor to the Leaning Oaks garden asks about the identity of this plant. Phytolacca polyandra (also known as Phytolacca clavigera). This is a robust herbaceous perennial from a woody rootstalk. The new growth emerges in the spring a rich wine red and the plant quickly becomes shrublike with terminal racemes of bubble-gum pink flowers.

There are about 35 species of Phytolacca, several are quite coarse looking plants, this is the best species that I have tried. A few years ago I grew some Phytolacca bogotensis from seed, the plants looked similar to P. polyandra, but the racemes were smaller. P. bogotensis proved to be not hardy in our garden, succumbing to the first winter frost.

P. polyandra has proven to be perfectly hardy for our garden and each plant lives for about 4 or 5 years. A few seedlings pop up every year however, and I always have a couple of plants in reserve to continue the show. Some Phytolaccas have proven to be very invasive, so this one warrants careful scrutiny before widespread planting. So far in our dry Saanich Peninsula garden it has proven to be a polite seeder, but folks living in a damper clime should watch this and make sure that it continues to behave itself before totally embracing it.

In the late summer all the stalks deepen in colour to a deep pink and the each branchlet tipped with a shiny, faceted, jet black berry - a startling combination of colour and texture. The berries stay on the plants for several weeks, and then, as if there is some signal, American Robins, Varied and Hermit Thrushes set upon the plants to clean off the berries. Some years the foliage turns bright yellow while the fruit is still on the plant, a very showy combination indeed.

Chinese Chokeberry can be difficult to find, it only occasionally shows up in nurseries. Seed is often for sale at the UBC botanic garden and it germinates readily after a winter outdoors. Fraser's Thimble Farms sometimes has plants for sale. The nursery where I bought our original plant is no longer in business.

Deer have not been an issue with this plant, which is not surprizing given its toxicity. Gardeners with small children should be aware that all parts of the plant are poisonous including the glossy berries. Slugs damage the odd leaf or two, but not enough to be an issue with this plant.