Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

tree echium

The once large and majestic Echium pininana remains small and meek. A shadow of it’s former glory, it waits and rests until the great sun returns. Drinking very little, it battles with it’s inner demons. It dreams of a tropical paradise from whence it came, but relishes in the admiration and care it get’s from it’s captor. “What do these strange people want from me”, it thinks.  It’s foliage slumps as if to bend in submission. It’s captor, a somewhat short man in stature, studies it with confounded disapproval. It knows in it’s heart that he lusts for a 18 foot flower spike, and then it’s lights out, good bye Echium.

Autumn is finally upon us and summer is slowly saying goodbye. It seems like we waited forever for spring to come, and now the gardening season is nearly at it’s end. Although this will be the 26th autumn I will have experienced, it still seems to astonish me. Where did all the time go, nearly 300 days of gardening come and gone.

“I feel like a bit of a  living, breathing time machine, I blink and find myself in the future. The only problem is I can’t make it stop.”

I digress. The other day I found myself in my small greenhouse reflecting on such topics. By the time I get home, get showered and cleaned up, the sun has already faded from my back garden. I am greeted by a gentle spray of soft muted shadows and an almost instantanous calm. The garden has never looked more lush, full, and jungle like. While most gardeners live for spring’s firework display of flowering bulbs, primulas and other colorful lovelies I might be tempted to say I like late summer/autumn gardens more. The size of everything is so grandiose and developed, a 15 foot jerusalem artichoke grows more everyday. While my climate dictates that I should love plants happy in my zone, I often sway towards the tropics. These tropical tourists do much better in the heat of summer and autumn and really thrive this time of year. The only drawback to the late season garden is that is on it’s way out instead of it’s way in. Rather meaning that like a great movie you don’t want to end, it’s just matter of time before the tropical paradise fades away.

My girlfriend posing for scale under the giant jerusalem artichoke

As I sat there in the greenhouse, reflecting and generally gapping out at my cacti collection, the sun went down, and I found myself sitting in the dark at half past seven. I have been toying with the idea of  doing some night photography and this was the night that I made it happen. Plants are sometimes a difficult subject to capture. Greens on greens, deep shadows, and macro destroying breezes all stand in the way. There has been many the great plant moment that I wasn’t able to capture due to the limitations of technology. It turns out night photography of plants might be ideal, the evening offers far less distraction. I ran inside, grabbed my tripod and flashlight and off I went. Perfect black backdrops every time, it’s so simple it should have been more obvious. An hour must have passed as I looked like a total wierdo photographing plants in the dark with a flash light. My friends will NEVER understand, I’m afraid the new me is here to stay.

Now onto the photo shoot.
Night Photography of Plants: An Autumn Garden Tour.


Echeveria glauca always fascinates me.

Echeveria runyonii ‘Topsy Turvy’ flowers are larger then most echeveria flowers. Amazing!

Euphorbia obesa looks quite alien under this setting.

This cacti is still a NOID for me (A little help!?), but I have two of them, both have spectacular blue green tattoos. I’ve been trying to photograph this one all season with no success. Night photography does a great job.

Melianthus major is a personal favorite. Peanut Butter scented leaves, spectacular blue green foliage. Easily hardy in Victoria, don’t get stressed about it dying down to the ground, it will come back. Mine survived -15 last winter and grew back completely by mid summer. A must have in next year’s garden if you don’t have one already.

The very last flowers of my Zaluzianskya capensis (Night Flowering Phlox). This plant has the most unusual lovely evening scent. A mix of almonds and baby powder, it’s flowers are closed during the day and open at night. For more information about this plant see this post.

Just another oddity hidden amongst the rest. So unusual.

With a clever lcd lighting system, a Tetrapanax papyrifer is converted into a  bizarre night light.

As always the Echium pininana is a glory hog and still holds a large pressence in the garden. What a dramatic shadow it creates. It’s top growing point has been doing unusual things the last couple weeks. Will it flower before frost? Only time will tell.

If not it’s off the greenhouse to seek refuge and warm thoughts.

A rather new addition to the garden, Beschorneria ‘Ding Dong’ otherwise known as false red yucca. Why I felt the inclination to buy more tender plants past August is beyond me. I love the agave like foliage, awaiting it’s bizarre flowers.

The Physalis alkekengi otherwise known as Chinese Lanterns is thriving. It took two years for me to get a specimen of my own. I snagged some seeds from a yard a couple years back. The plants were slow to develop in their first year but really leaped the second. These are the first lanterns I’ve got from these plants, it was worth the wait. Interesting flowers are few and far between this time of year, a welcome addition to the garden.

With autumn comes the first flush of Cyclamen hederifolium flowers. So. Nice!

There you have it. Thank you for joining me for a late night garden tour. Who says you need sunlight to appreciate a garden anyhow!?

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.

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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