The Exotic Look
Last but by no means least, we are very pleased
to have an article by Myles Challis, well-known landscape gardener,
and author of the book, "The Exotic Garden".
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Myles Challis, 1 Lister Road, London, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002
Left: The huge leaves of musa ensete.
Right: Datura sanguinea.
Enthusiasts must be drawn to palm trees, even if
only partially, on account of their exotic character and the resultant
atmosphere their presence creates, a quality, which may be appreciated
more by those living in cooler climes. As we know, a few palms are
hardy, and many temperate, but even if we are restricted to the
hardiest, namely Trachycarpus fortunei, this 'exotic' atmosphere
can be considerably heightened if certain other exotic looking,
but hardy, subjects are planted as companions to the palm.
Bamboo, cordylines, phormiums and yuccas in particular
look well with palms and complement them considerably.
Like the palms, bamboos create that atmosphere of
foreign climes and their great variety of size and habit enables
gardens of all sizes to accommodate them. For pure effectiveness
though, the taller Phyllostachys varieties are best. The most generally
available are P. aurea and P. mitis with green or yellow-green leaves
and canes up to twenty feet or more and P. nigra with its jet black
canes usually only around ten or twelve feet. They have small leaves
around three inches long. The largest, which belong to Sasa palmata
nebulosa, are twelve inches long and three inches wide. This plant
seldom exceeds six feet in height, but is a lovely contrast and
with its almost palm-like appearance, quite individual. The only
drawback is that it can be rather invasive, whereas Phyllostachys
are generally well behaved and clump forming.
Bamboos are particularly attractive when planted
by water, where they also make handsome companions to the well-known
'giant rhubarb' Gunnera manicata. Though deciduous, this fabulous
plant, whose leaves can be six feet across and even more in height,
is superb for creating an exotic atmosphere. It is hardy, but the
crown should be protected by its own dead leaves in winter.
The Cordylines or inappropriately named Cabbage
Palms - for they have no relation to palms and certainly no resemblance
to cabbages - are much underrated. Their great fountains of leaves
add further variety of form making them invaluable where exotic
effects are required.
The commonest, Cordyline australis, has leaves an
inch wide, and one sold in the trade as Cordyline indivisa (which
is thought to be a cross between C. australis and the true C. indivisa)
has leaves half that wide again. The real Cordyline indivisa is
a beautiful plant with giant rosettes of leaves up to six feet long
and eight inches wide. All the Cordylines gradually form trunks,
and can reach a considerable height, giving them a palm-like appearance.
Those just mentioned are the hardiest, but when there are hard frosts,
their leaves should be tied up securely with string.
The New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax, remains herbaceous,
but its stiff fans of sword-like blades stand six feet high. This
one is green, but it has a yellow striped form Phormium Variegatum
and a purple leaved form -Phormium purpureum. The high flower spikes,
often ten feet tall, are not very colourful, but they are very architectural.
Though generally hardy, these plants can be killed in severe frosts
and as a precaution should be given a generous mulch covering their
bases with forest bark, and if their leaves are tied up this will
prevent snow damage.
The Yuccas are hardier than the Phormiums, but their
foliage can be a little dull without the big spikes of ivory white
bellflowers, which really set the plants off. Yucca gloriosa, Yucca
flaccida and Yucca filamentosa are some of the commonest, but the
best overall is probably Yucca recurvifolia, which is free and relatively
early flowering with less stiff leaves forming huge rosettes.
Depending on the climate, certain other plants can
be added to give an even more tropical effect. Where there is only
a few degrees of frost in winter, the so-called hardy Japanese Banana
- Musa basjoo - can be grown. Nothing beats the huge sail-like leaves
of bananas for creating an exotic atmosphere, but they need a sheltered
position if their splendid leaves are not to be torn to shreds by
the wind. More wind resistant, but less hardy is the Abyssinian
Banana - Ensete ventriculosum (Musa ensete) - the biggest and most
magnificent of all the bananas. The huge leaves can be twelve feet
long and two and a half feet wide and have thick red midribs. This
must be the most spectacular of all the near hardy plants, making
prodigious growth in the summer months even in relatively cool places
like Britain. It has to be over-wintered at about 8c. Bananas require
copious watering and regular feeding in the growing season.
The tree ferns are an absolute must where frost
is light or very rare. Their crowns of magnificent fronds are always
admired. The hardiest, withstanding moderate frosts, is Dicksonia
antarctica, eventually producing fresh green fronds six feet in
length. Of similar hardiness is Dicksonia squarrosa and Dicksonia
fibrosa. The former produces a slender dark trunk, whereas D. antarctica
and D. fibrosa have heavy rust-brown ones. There are other varieties
of tree fern, such as Cyathea and Alsophila but these are strictly
frost-tender. All the ferns like damp and shady conditions.
So far, I have only discussed foliage plants and
there are two plants in particular that are noted for their exotic
blooms, which are essentials, namely the Daturas and the Cannas.
These must be the easiest yet the most exotic looking plants we
The huge intoxicatingly scented flowers of the Daturas
are the height of exoticism. The commonest, yet possibly loveliest,
is the semi-double white Datura cornigera. Its pendant blooms are
about nine inches long. Datura 'Oran Marnier' has larger single
blooms of creamy peach, and there are other forms with pink and
yellow trumpets. The hardiest is probably D. sanguinea, with yellow/white
and red trumpets. In areas prone to frost, these fast growing shrubs
should be cultivated in pots and moved into the conservatory or
greenhouse for the winter and kept at about 8c. During this time
they should be heavily pruned to ensure good growth the following
season. Like bananas, they need plenty of water and regular feeding
in the summer months. They are very easy to strike from cuttings.
The Cannas are most appropriate here, blending admirably
with their banana-like leaves and richly coloured flowers. The commonest
usually have green leaves but there are two in particular which
are worth seeking out. Cannas Generalis 'Wyoming' reaches six foot
and has purple leaves and apricot-orange leaves. The beautiful Cannas
viridiflora 'Ehemanu' is the most sumptuous of all the Cannas with
blue-green leaves, which are three feet long and elegant arching
sprays of small rosepink flowers standing eight feet high.
Cannas need to be treated rather like dahlias. Lift
the tubers in late autumn and store them in a dry frost-proof place
throughout the winter. Divide the tubers and pot them up in early
spring. Give them a little heat to promote initial growth and then
plant out when the danger of frost is past.
The Gingers (Hedychium) are equally spectacular
with their almost orchid like blooms. They have thick fleshy stems
with opposite rows of leaf-blades, topped with ten inch flower spikes
around four feet tall. The best is Hedychium gardnerianum with yellow
petals and orange stamens. Hedychium coccineum 'Tara' has orange
petals and red stamens. The foliage of these plants will be cut
down by more than a few degrees of frost, but the roots are hardy
if given a generous mulch. To ensure flowering the following year
in cooler climes, they are best grown in pots or tubs and given
frost-free quarters for the winter when they will remain evergreen.
Like so many fleshy things they appreciate plenty of water and food
during the summer.
There are many other worthwhile plants I could recommend
such as Fatsia japonica with its big lobed shiny evergreen foliage,
but the above mentioned is a good 'starter pack' and includes the
most essential and worthwhile subjects, which, if planted with palms
will do much to enhance them, and may even in the right hands produce
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