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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".
Myles Challis, 1 Lister Road, London, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002

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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 can grow.

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 magical results.

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