Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

Helianthus tuberosus

~The weather was so mild today I found myself doing some clean up in the front garden. Old pots with fried annuals, spent lavender blooms, and acanthus just to name a few. I know it’s only January but I had a moment where it almost felt like spring.  It’s tough living up here in the Artic Canada where ice covers the land for 11.5 months of the year, who knew you could grow tomatoes outside the igloo. In all seriousness though, it was 12 degrees Celsius this afternoon, absolutely dreadful out *wink*. ~

Seeing as though it’s a fresh year, and spring is right around the corner (and to the left, right, down some stairs and in the basement). It’s time to recognize the show stopping plants of 2011. I’d love to list them from 1-10 as to say which one was the best, or my favorite, but it’s not as simple as that. One can’t compare a raspberry bush to a patch of broccoli no more then you can compare petunias to miscanthus grass. They’re all my favorite, where one grows fat, one grows tall, another brightly colored, or one finely detailed. Nature is an amazing thing.

The Stupid Garden Plants 2011 Plant Awards.

‘The Eternal Sunset Award’ for longest flowering plant : 


Abutilon megapotamicum:
A no brainer year round semi hardy exotic flowering abutilon. I first potted this plant up in early May and it flowered all the way until frost, better then that, it’s still flowering at this moment in the greenhouse. Native to Brazil, and other parts of South America it’s flowers resemble Chinese lanterns and are a prefered treat by local hummingbirds. Placed at a high vantage point or hanging basket trailing abutilon will impress, and intrigue.


Runner up: Hoya Carnosa
A couple years ago I took a cutting of this from a 15 year old specimen at my parent’s house . It was slow to root, but once it got started it grew vigorously and did most of it’s climbing and trellis work by itself. Flowering from April until September, my 3 year old hoya vine bloomed sporadically, sometimes with 10+ bloom clusters at once, all dripping with nectar and leaving a sweet smell in the air. Although not nearly as fool proof as the abutilon with a little technique and luck, these plants will surely impress. Hoyas bloom best in root bound pots, so over-potting them is not recommended. I also allow my vine to travel wherever it would like, and doing so seems to encourage almost continuous growth. Thirdly my hoya is located near a 12hr cycle grow bulb, and I suspect this to be a big part of it’s never ending blooms. Show me the light!

‘The Jurassic Foliage Award’ for plants of excellent leaf structure, grandeur and presence :


Tetrapanax papyrifer
Long before I could identify a Tetrapanax, I was astonished by their leaves and prehistoric look. In the heat of August and September my Tetrapanax really took off and I’d often find myself shocked by how quickly the leaves went from bud to beyond dinner plate size. Endemic to Taiwan Tetrapanx papyrifer is the only species in it’s genus and is commonly known as a rice paper plant. With such amazing tropical foliage you’d almost surely think it to be tender, but Tetrapanax is exceptionally hardy, down to zone 6a (-23.3 °C (-10 °F). If your a fan of Fatsias, Tetrapanax will blow you away. A light fuzz graces it’s branches and leaves, and even though it goes deciduous after a frost, the spent leaves are so foreign and large you’ll want to leave them lying about. A must have for anyone wanting to recreate a tropical paradise in their northern garden.


RUNNER UP: Echium pininana
You guessed it, echium wins the runner up for impressive foliage and presence. If you’re lucky enough to get this echium to it’s second year you’ll be shocked by the speed of it’s growth.  Large fuzzy leaves burst forth and add an impressive display of tropical foliage to your garden. If you’re lucky it holds promise of a towering  bloom unmatched elsewhere in the botanical world. If only grown for it’s foliage alone, you won’t be disappointed. Among all other plants in my garden the echium stood out, and it’s is beyond photogenic. It’s a showstopper and even your non planty friends will surely notice it listening in on all of your conversations. It’s only drawback is it’s somewhat severe tenderness, hating cold weather and dying from even moderate frosts. Best overwintered in a heated greenhouse, by the third year it would surely win the award for most amazing bloom.

‘The Up In The Clouds Award’ for the most impressive tall plants in the garden:


Alcea ‘Peaches and Dreams’
Somewhat of a cottage garden staple, hollyhocks are a great plant for adding verticality to your garden. This cultivar in particular is readily available at garden centers and in my opinion outshines the rest. Double blooms worthy of being sowed onto a clowns costume start late summer and continue into October. Although it’s flowering cycle is a little more temporary then some, at it’s peak, it is truly a thing of beauty. A great Alcea is a stunning addition to one’s garden but might take some patience for it to reach it’s true potential. For the three years it’s been planted, it’s third year was it’s “piese de resistance” and grew a whopping 15ft or more. Yielding multiple branches of  strangest fluffy grapefruit puff balls, I’ll end this one with one word. Wow.


A shot of the towering alcea shoot out amongst the scarlet runners.


Runner up: Helianthus tuberosus (jerusalem artichoke)
One must give credit when credit is due, and the jerusalem artichoke is an underestimated mindblower. Grown properly, this large member of the sunflower family will outclimb the rest, mine growing a whopping 18+ ft from a golf ball sized tuber. It’s speed and vigor will amaze and astonish, and even without it’s flowers it’s impressive height adds an additional tropical element to your paradise. In mid October when almost everything else is welcoming winter, helianthus tuberosus blooms a small spray of sunflowers. A welcome touch of color at that time of year. The only drawback is that it grows so tall that you can’t possible get a close look at it’s blooms. In mid November the plant will subside to frost and you can reap the benefits of the treasure below. Large sweetly flavored tubers are created and make an excellent starch for those winter months. They say once you grow Jerusalem artichokes you’ll probably have them for the rest of your life as you almost always miss a piece in the soil. Try them in 2012.

‘The Fleeting Moment Award’ for the most temporarily beautiful :


Puya mirabilis
I was lucky enough to purchase a P. mirabilis the day before it flowered. With seven flower buds ready each flower opened for a single day and worked it’s way up the branch until they were finished. Acquired on a Sunday, the blooms were spent exactly a week later. Due to it’s temporary nature it demanded the attention of it’s grower. It was either pay attention or miss it’s dance, it’s flowers were as unique as they were bizarre. A terrestrial bromeliad, it’s foliage doesn’t hint at it’s hidden beauty, an unlikely surprise, worthy of respect in a northern garden such as this. One of the most magical and ethereal of all the plants in my collection.


RUNNER UP: Passiflora jamesonii
I’ve always been a fan of passion flowers, but this one really takes the cake. As a vine, it was absolutely voracious, sometimes growing a foot or more a week and over 12ft in each direction by the end of the season. With some much vegetative growth, blooms didn’t exactly seem imminent, but on one calm afternoon I noticed a single bud forming. As I’m somewhat new to growing this species, I might surmise that it’s lack of blooms was due to a cultural mistake, but I suspect it just wasn’t hot enough here in Victoria. Regardless I watched the bud develop for what felt like a month and when it finally did open, it was only for a day. A flower that truly shows the impermanence of beauty, I was glad to have made the effort to witness it.

More awards to follow…

I planted a golf ball sized Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) in mid March and it was a real success. By September it had reached a height of 18ft and by late October flowered topping over 20 ft. As the weather cooled in early November the flowers faded, the leaves dried and the plant told it’s gardener to cut it down and reap the rewards below. Today I dug out the Jerusalem artichokes and was blown away by how much it had multiplied.


The size of the original planting in mid March.


The crop 7 months later. 100x my original planting.

I would definitely plant these again! While I’m pretty new to eating Jerusalem artichokes I’ve read you cook them much like potatoes, either mashed, fried, or baked (preferably in butter). They are high in iron, potassium and fiber. Planted in rich composted soil, with medium to full sun and adequate water, helianthus tuberosus is a easy to grow, and practically care free. Some forethought in setting up some solid supports will make your life easier late summer when they become taller. Staking mid season might lead to damaging the tubers below.

Excellent!

Another stunning beautiful October day today, I hope it never ends. I’ve been trying to take a photograph of my 20ft Jerusalem artichoke for some time now with no success. How does one properly get a shot of a 20 ft specimen that only flowers in grumpy old gray October. With all the sunshine today I was able to get this great shot. For those who haven’t given these a try, I would say it’s well worth the effort.

Dahlia imperialis, otherwise known as the tree dahlia is an interesting specimen indeed. Native to the Sierra Mountains Mexico this tropical mindblower is certainly a long way from home. From spring until autumn, Dahlia imperialis thrives in our warm but cool Victoria climate. For those of you who are new to this plant, Dahlia imperialis grows up to 30ft tall and flowers later then most dahlias more specifically mid November. Dahlia imperialis is frost tender zones 7-8 thus  it rarely gets to flower in this climate and is grown more for it’s foliage then flowers. Having planted mine in a metal garbage can mid spring, it grew from 1ft to 10ft throughout the season. While I’ve tucked away the majority of tropicals in the back the Dahlia imperialis still stands tall. It’s questionable if it’ll survive through our winter but I’m going to risk it outside. Much like a hardy banana I’m going to wrap it in chicken wire and insulate it with straw. We shall see if this strategy works, I’m also hoping to take a viable cutting before the frost cuts it down. Regardless it’s a worthwhile plant to grow and if you get a chance I highly recommend you give it a shot for the foliage alone. It has the most peculiar green tint attached to purple stems. In the barren wasteland that was once my personal jungle, this dahlia really shines. I love giant plants, it creates a canopy that otherwise might not exists at this time of year.

While these plants are definetly in circulation, they’re hard to come by. Some might go as far as calling them rare, but seeing as though they easily root from cutting I suspect if you look hard enough you should be able to find one. I found mine in a 2G pot at Brentwood Bay Nurseries, it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it wasn’t expensive either. If they’re all out of potted specimens when you visit, seek out their large mother plant for a cutting, I’m sure they’ll help you out if you ask.

The plants are easy to grow and require very little special attention. During the spider mite infestation this summer my dahlia showed light signs of damage but held it’s own during the onslaught. A quick spray of insecticide and it was looking better then ever.

Looking for a hardy plant that reliably flowers and gives a tree dahlia a run for it’s money. Meet Helianthus tuberosus otherwise known as the Jerusalem artichoke. Oddly the Jarusalum artichoke isn’t a artichoke and isn’t from Jerusalem, go figure. This North American native is said to grow up to 10ft tall on wikipedia, but mine has doubled that in height reaching almost 20ft. Planted mid April Helianthus tuberosus flowers late September sporting familiar sunflower blooms. Once planted in your garden it is said you’ll never be without, the plant produces an edible tuber that grows prolifically. I planted two tubers in different locations and one thrived while the other puttered. For true success with this species, plant in deep in fluffy high compost soil. A true late autumn gem.


20ft blooms, It’s difficult to get a worthy photograph.

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
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