Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

plant collecting

Originally I wanted to write a post marking the beginning of spring plant hoarding, but then I realized, who am I kidding. I started months ago, or never stopped, every months means more plants in my collection. I love growing new plants, the fascination never ceases to please. New species and new varieties,  plants are a dangerous subject matter for the collecting type. I’d love to boast about discretion but this is something I know very little about. I’d love to say that I at least keep it to one of each, but then I’d also be lying. Really, what self respecting plant geek could pass up an in flower Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ for $10.00. Even if they already had one at home, I think not, “this one’s coming home with Nat.” While one might suggest caution for fear of one’s wallet being emptied I argue that plants are one of the best things you could treat yourself to, surely a better investment then a burger and a beer. Assuming you don’t murder your newly collected plant, they often maintain their value, if not increase as they mature. Tis the life of a king to witness plants bloom from far away lands, I care not for high definition graphics, but more about the crisp beautiful simplicity of an unfurling leaf. Plant collecting is indeed a pleasure.

A white form of Arisaema griffithii. I bought two corms last year but only one bloomed last season. This one came up white, while it’s brother is rich dark chocolate. A pleasant surprise that I don’t think was necessarily intentional when they were packaging the corms. I’ll count this one as a win. 

I love where plant hoarding has taken me, and in time my plant identification has made it even more fun. Often the strangest and the rarest go unlabeled, most exotic nurseries have some gems tucked away for a keen eye. A seemingly dull plain leafy looking plant could be much more amazing if you know the story behind it. Treasure lies for those in the know, make an effort to know your nurseryman for the best selection in town. Be a good customer, support your local nurseries and express a sincere interest. The majority of people running nurseries are in it for the same reason as you are, because they love plants. Given a chance many will share a wealth of information, a resource that should be utilized when the opportunity presents itself. There’s no shame in not knowing the growing conditions of a certain plant, spare yourself the trial and error and ask for some suggestions from someone who’s been there, done that.

The strange leafless blooms of darmera peltata

All rants aside, I’ve been working a lot lately and in turn, have felt an exaggerated need to treat myself with new planty goodness. A quick peak into my latest lack of discretion.

As weather gets more accommodating, now begins the long migration of plants from the greenhouse, to my garden.  A little old mixed in with the new.

Why do plant bloggers love posting pictures of their cars loaded with plants? I know what you’re thinking, did I really need 10 more trachycarpus fortunei. The answer is, yes.

I’m a little embarressed in that I had only intended in taking a peak. Oh well…

I found a very good deal on an exceptionally root-bound pot of Asparagus meyeri, otherwise known as a foxtail fern. Had to give this one a try.

A Tropaeolum tuberosum I started as a peanut sized tuber under lights this winter has grown into a large sprawling vine in only a couple months. A bizarre edible crop, this hardy nasturtium produces tubers said to have a strong peppery taste. I’ll let you know as things progress.

An extremely well established unidentified exotic ginger.

I visited at the right time to witness this Azara lanceolata in full wondrous flower. Another Chilean oddity, this strange tree grows on wet marshy hillsides and produces these amazing vanilla scented flowers. Another reminder to visit your local nurseries frequently so you can see their selection of plants at different times of the year.

The flowers of Azara lanceolata are reminiscent of an acasia tree, but almost more delicate. Even though I don’t have a strong sense of smell, the aroma is intoxicating.

While I’ve only recently learned it’s name, this plant has been on my wish list long before I knew much at all. I first spotted it at a botanical garden in Gottingen, Germany, this Phytolacca americana intrigues me. Known as a weed to some, our northern climate keeps these at bay, pink hued flowers that eventually mature into an ornamental pillar of black berries. So Strange.

Last but not least, I need a little help here.

Is this a Drimia maritima (syn. Urginea maritima)? The nursery had a small stock of them but no one has a solid ID.

If it is, I’ve been trying to seek one of these out for almost 2 years now, often being thwarted by it’s lack of availability and heavy cost of shipping. If it’s not what I think it is, either way I’m thrill, it’s a beautiful plant. After this photo I repotted it and exposed the bulb, lined it with beach rocks in a nice new ceramic pot, it’s a show worthy piece. More photos as soon as I can.

This wasn’t all that I collected this day, but it is as much as I’m willing to document at the moment. The others, while amazing finds, aren’t photogenic quite yet, and will be saved for another day.

Thanks for joining me.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Syn Dicentra spectabilis)

Arisaema griffithii still creeping out the joint.

Ornamental strawberry? What’s the point. Fragaria x ananassa ‘Pink Panda’

Maybe really neat. Fragaria x ananassa ‘Pink Panda’

The shade of a bamboo patch.

Echium pininana round two.

And if that doesn’t work out, I’ve got about 20 of each variety popping. One of these seedlings has got to make me proud.


Hello plant people

I hope you’ve been enjoying the spring weather, even if it’s a bit rainy here and there, I’m glad to have the light evenings, and so does the garden. This weekend I made it to Saltspring Island to visit my parents, and wouldn’t you have guessed it, I made time to visit a couple nurseries while I was there. If you haven’t been to Fraser Thimble Farms before, make sure you make time for a visit next time you’re on the island. While I’ve often taken this stop somewhat for granted, Fraser Thimble is coveted throughout Canada and even the USA for it’s amazing selection of rare, native and strange plants. I love visiting in spring, there’s so much to see, and at this time of year it’s worth visiting every couple weeks if you have a chance. I put my discretion shield on full blast but was quickly defeated and left with much more then I expected to. It’s spring after-all, the most dangerous time for a plant hoarder to venture into strange and unusual nurseries/ I didn’t stand a chance. But how could you, with such an incredible variety of the weird plants. A quick look at this week’s bounty.

I’ve been lusting after Cardiocrinum giganteum from the very first moment I heard about them. A cold hardy lily that can grow and flower up to 10 feet tall, how could anyone resist. It often takes up to 7 years or longer for the bulb to reach flowering size,  after blooming the main bulb dies but it’s offsets take it’s place. In time if you get an established community of these bulbs, blooms could be a frequent event. The foliage is remincient of giant cabbage, or even a philodendrom, for it’s foliage alone this plant has merit in the garden.

Richard at Fraser Thimble suspects this specimen to be around 9 years old. Considering it’s size this early in the season, we think it’ll flower this year. A tip from the grower suggests regular feeding during it’s growing season to encourage offset formation. This one already has a couple pups and looks healthy and vigorous, it had to come home with me. Prices range all over the map for Cardiocrinum giganteum and availability is limited. If you ever encounter a good deal one these, don’t pass it up.

Once you collected one Farfugium you’ll need to have more. I’ve had my eye on this Farfugium japonicum ‘aureomaculatum’  for some time now, and this one’s electric tie dyed leaves never cease to amaze me. Established clumps look like a lightning bolt bush. Once grouped into the genus ligularia the insignificant daisy like flowers are similar but farfugium has it’s own distinct look. Enjoys a constantly moist well drained medium and wilts, but survives full sun and drought amazingly well. For best results a little dappled shade would go a long way. Stunning!

An impulse buy on the way out, this giant foot ball sized Colocasia esculenta. I’ve always admired the large Colocasias you see in grandiose botanical gardens, this large root promises such a dream.

Planted in a large pot with good drainage, this one lives in my cold frame in the back. I’m excited to see what comes of it. Grower suggests to leave dry from October until April of every year, these large tubers are more prone to rot then smaller varieties and will benefit from a dry dormant period. I’ll keep you updated!

A Crinum powellii bulb for $7.50 also snagged me at the cash register. Although you see these growing in Victoria Crinums are practically unavailable at garden centers in the area. This one promises to be a real beaut.

A strange shrub from China, Helwingia chinensis also grabbed my attention at the very last moment. I know very little about it, but look forward to seeing what it has to offer.

Spring is here… What a relief.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly would know that I’ve been on a bit of a mail-order plant binge. Earlier this week the pair of Pseudolithos migiurtinus I ordered arrived. A couple days later another package arrived containing a Mirabilis jalapa and a new NOID species of plectranthus from Kenya. Amongst the new plants a small packet of tropical impatiens seeds also arrived, I. grandis and I. mengtszeana. I can’t wait! The best gifts are the gifts you give to yourself.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the trade of the Internet, the selection is vast and the customer service is superb. It’s strange to be a part of a global community in which all walks of life can meet together, discuss and trade ideas. A quick sign into paypal and a cactus can be flown in from Thailand. Connecting with specialized hobbyists from all over the world is a real asset, it skips the hopeless store clerks and connects you with the grower and/or collector. While the Internet is somewhat anonymous in nature it provides you with an amazing opportunity to connect directly with who you want to speak with.

While I spent much of the spring through summer visiting nurseries on the island, the internet’s ease of use and unsurpassed variety gives local businesses a run of their money. While it will still be a long while yet before you can order your pansies and petunias online, the search for the rare and the unusual might be best fulfilled in this medium.

The Latest Plant Order Feb 2012:
As per usual I like to do some research about the plants I’m acquiring and I figured I’d share the information with you.

Photo borrowed with admiration from The Vancouver Seed Bank

Sceletium tortuosum
Another South African mesemb that is by no means new in the botanical world. Cultivated in Europe for over 300 years, it forms a low growing succulent mound much like a delosperma. The main notes given for cultivation pertains to over-watering, and if in doubt, don’t. Over-watering creates weak growth and messes with the natural cycle of the plant. Recently this plant has been getting a lot of attention in the medical world for it’s possible anti depressant qualities. Hunters and shamens used to consume it to reduce stress and anxiety and create a feeling of euphoria.

Photo borrowed with admiration from Cactus Blog

Avonia quinaria

It’s becoming more and more apparent that South Africa is the motherland for strange and unusual plants. Avonia, a diminutive genus native to the Namaqualands of South Africa is another caudex forming succulent with lovely strange planty tentacles. Important cultural notes list that it needs a winter rest period and is deciduous so one shouldn’t be stressed when it looses it’s foliage in the winter. Avonia’s set seed on their own and don’t need a mate, so maybe I’ll be able to grow my own next season.

Photo borrowed with admiration from The Pacific Bulb Society

Boophane heamanthoides seedling
I’ve had my eye on acquiring one of these for quite some time now, but they don’t exactly show up everyday. Sacred succulents had some seedlings listed and I figured that might be the best way to give them a try. While it might not flower for a couple years I will get to see the whole developmental process while forgoing the impatient task of watching seeds sprout. The foliage alone is equally as interesting as the blooms, a wavy spur of tropical loveliness. It is said these are an old lived species indeed living well over 100 years old, if my children end up being plant nerds perhaps they’ll end up with this in their collection as a heirloom. The bulbs grow to an incredible size and is said best to grow in a mostly sand based medium in a deep but not necessarily wide pot. From seedling it might take up to 15 years to flower, but I suspect with my usual over caring it will speed along a bit faster. I’m all too excited to give this one a shot.

Photo borrowed with admiration from Cactus Art

Maihuenia poeppigii
A spiky mat forming succulent from Chile & Argentina. I first saw this on the Chiltern Seeds website, then again on Gerhard’s blog  Bamboo and More. What a strange specimen. Noted to be remarkably cold hardy (down to -20 if kept dry) Maihuenia grow at high elevations. If the temperature is sporadic consider treating it with a systemic fungicide to prevent possible rot. Apparently this can be grown much like sempervivums with very little soil whatsoever.

Photo borrowed with admiration from Raziel on mycotopia.net

Delosperma bosseranum
As I first began my journey into plant geektom delospermas always appealed to me. Hardy mesembs that grow in our outdoor gardens, it can’t get any better. This species of delosperma is a bit more unusual then your everyday delo and in time grows a tuberous caudex. Commonly known as the Madagascar Ice Plant it seems this specimen will be best suited for bonsai succulent pots. Plant as you would any other succulent in a well draining medium, be careful not to let dry out for any lengths of time.

I know I’ve said this before, but I love this plant! It’s one of my very favorite, if the house was burning and I had to grab a handful of plants to escape with, this would be one of them… Of course in case of a fire, it’s doubtful I could move this specimen in a hurry, it’s half the size of my VW Golf. Ah reality, if only life worked more like the comic books. Anyhow back to the topic at hand.

I got this particular specimen of Echium Pinniana from Scent-sational Plants near Elk Lake. Mark and Pauline are a real gem in the Victoria plant scene and every visit offers something new to see. After spotting these earlier in the season I got added to a list, and when they were ready I was called to pick one up. Generally their policy with echiums is to determine if it will flower before sending it out into the world, afterall how does one overwinter a beast such as this. Since bringing it home it’s tripled in size, and is now probably the biggest plant I have in my collection.

Echium pinniana is another amazing plant native to the Canary Islands. The plant is considered a biannual and sometimes a triennial as it takes a couple years to get established before it sets out it’s flower. Being monocarpic E. pinniana dies after flowering but not before impressing all who see it. The flower stalks have been known to grow up to 18feet tall and are an absolute dream for the bees of the neighborhood. After flowering the plant dies and drops 1000′s of seeds ensuring that you’ll never be without an E. pinniana ever again. While the plants aren’t exactly suited for winters here in Victoria and the British Isle, it seems there is no shortage of people making an attempt. Can you blame them, this plant is incredible. The foliage alone makes it worth growing, huge tropical rossettes of spiny leaves, I feel like I’m in Jurrassic Park. Even some of my non plant wise friends seem to notice it’s dominating pressence. Echium pinniana is worth a try.

I must admit as summer continues to burn up and my echium refuses to put out a flower spike I’m beginning to worry it’s taking it’s time until next year. This move could be fatal of course, how in the hell am I going to move this thing if it doesn’t bloom in the next month and a half. Bribe one of my friend’s with a truck to move it to the greenhouses at work? Why yes this is exactly what I’m going to have to do. I can’t see this thing melt come the first flash FROST in November, that would be a sad day indeed.

Some people in Europe have hypothesized that E. pinniana could be breed via survival of the fittest in hopes of breeding a hardier hybrid of E. pinniana. While deep freezes of -6C and below will surely kill you E. pinniana some seedlings have been recorded to survive. Even stranger the frosts don’t seem to kill the seeds viability in the soil, many seeds in the soil will remain viable until spring even through wicked winters. I suppose there is hope yet. Once I get mine to flower I might attempt to do some selective breeding myself.

A word to the wise before handling E. pinniana.
The plant’s new leaves are soft and felt like, but as they get older the leaves develop an almost cacti like nature. While thinking it would be smart to carry my plant by the shaft, I got a handful of prickly spines in my hand. The fuzz above is a lot sharper then you’d think and if you’re not careful you’ll end up with a handful. Wearing gloves and avoiding too much contact would be a much easier solution. SMRT !

I grew E. vulgare last year which is a much smaller dwarf variety. The flowers are similar to E. pinniana but on a much smaller scale. Not knowing that it was a biannual at the time, I deadheaded the spent flowers and thus never saw it again. What a shame.

There I was lounging about on a beautiful Saturday morning when I thought to myself. “I need a new plant”

Of course the truth is that I DO NOT need anymore new plants this year, but how can one resist. Like a nervous itch, this is the new trend in my life, packing my backyard with as many borderline hardy and totally tender useless BEAUTIFUL needy plants as possible.  There’s something more exotic about tropicals and/or non-natives. After working at a nursery for nearly half a decade I need something more “exotic” then a leucanthemum, stonecrop or god DAMN petunia! GOD DAMN STUPID PETUNIAS… I digress,  off I went to find the latest and the greatest.

Stopping at a couple of my usual nursery haunts (Elk Lake, Garden Works etc) nothing really jumped out at me. One needs to be reletively selective at this point of the crippling plant collecting game. Eventually I found myself at Brentwood Bay Nurseries, a nursery that is quickly becoming a personal favorite. They’re definetly #1 on the island for succulents and if you have a keen eye you’ll probably spot one or two plants you’ve never seen before. Walking into the nursery I visited the hot house, saw the usual great selection of succulents, and then spotted this amazing Puya Mirabilis just about to bloom. On my last visit I had noticed this strange specimen, and having read up on these rare bromliads earlier in the year, I made note of it. If we were more south I’m sure you’d see more plants like this, but up in Victoria you don’t come by Puyas very often. The fact that this one was in perfect bud, just about to pop, seems to good to be true. The price was right (it just so happened to be 25% off succulents) and I found my latest specimen.

Puya mirabilis, which in Latin mirablilis means “amazing, wondrous or remarkable”. While the plant’s foliage is relatively non exciting, looking much like a patch of scratchy saw grass, the blooms are known to be quite beautiful.  P. mirabilis is native to Argentina and Bolivia and is a long way of from home in my back garden. While many bromiliads grow in trees, Puyas for the most part are terrestrial and grow in ground. P. mirabilis can handle light frosts but in wet cold climates you’d be wise to bring it indoors during the winter. Many people report that you can water P. mirabilis like you would any other plant during it’s growing season but to be on the safe side I would recommend allowing it to dry between waterings.  Like overwintering many tropical plants decreasing water significantly in the winter would probably be a good idea.  Sun to part shade, if grown from seed it will take up to three years to flower. Propagation is from seed or rooting an offshoot, I’ll try my hand at splitting this pot once it has finished flowering.

Some scientists suspect some Puyas to be semi carnivorous in the fact that small animals often get caught in their spines, decay and thus nourish the plant below. While the thorn size varies from species to species, you can see that a large patch of P. mirabilis would be a real pain to weed close quarters. In Chili some people refer to Puyas as “sheep killers” although I think this dwarf Puya would have difficulty catching anything that big. Perhaps it could help with the mouse problem we have around here, a win win eh Mr Puya Plant.

Looks to be like growing barbwire. A welcome addition to the collection.

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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