Sunday 18 March 2018

Deadly beauty of spider flower

The striking spider flower carries cyanides in the flower but its nectar is harmless
The striking spider flower carries cyanides in the flower but its nectar is harmless

In the Garden: Gerry Daly

The spider flower is a gem, unusual, but becoming better known and more widely grown. It has clusters of red, spidery flowers about a hand-span across, each spider-leg flower being about half that. The red flowers open in succession from curling buds, the curled part of the flowers straightening out to make the legs. It is very attractive in flower and looks exotic, and it is, being native to Australia.

It is a cool season flower in that country and is widely used in gardens, with quite a few named kinds and other related species. The one grown commonly here is mainly the species Grevillea rosmarinifolia, but named kinds appear from time to time in garden centres. It is a member of the protea family, an ancient plant family that mostly grows in Australia, South Africa and South America.

The name honours Charles Greville, an 18th century British antiquarian who had an interest in botany. Tuggan tuggan is an aboriginal name for the plant, because the native people of Australia used to shake the flowers to release nectar onto their hands. The flowers carry poisonous cyanides but the nectar is safe.

The flowers are pollinated in their native land by honey birds, which come to feed on the nectar and rub pollen onto the female flower parts in the process. This explains the strange structure of the flower. But, though unusual, the shape of the flowers is decorative, and the flowers make a lively contribution to the garden, flowering from late winter to summer and occasionally at other times.

The second part means having leaves like the herb rosemary. The leaves are short, needle-like, and in some cases may have small spines at the tip, which are evergreen and almost like a conifer's. They're brighter green than rosemary and more attractive in winter.

Spider flower makes a spreading bushy shrub, sometimes arching with ascending branches. It has loose open growth and it is sometimes seen at over two metres tall and as wide. For an exotic from Australia, the spider flower is remarkably robust and can tolerate freezing temperatures to minus 7C and probably lower. Even so, it is mostly seen in mild coastal areas. The variety 'Canberra Gem' is reputed to be somewhat hardier than the species itself and it is more likely to be seen for sale.

The plant looks well on a bank with good drainage and low fertility to grow it hard and is less likely to be frost-damaged and flower better. It is best in a neutral or acidic soil but can often be seen doing fine where the soil is likely to be at least a bit limy.

A camellia to suit my front garden?

Q: I'm looking for a small variety of camellia that will look good in a small front garden. I am going to put my next camellia in the ground as I have already killed a camellia in a pot by accidentally letting it dry out. P Murphy, Dublin

A: You're in Dublin with limy soil, so you will need to address that by using lime-free soil and compost before planting camellia, which needs acid soil. The Williamsii kinds, such as 'Inspiration' or 'Debbie', are good, not too big and can be pruned after flowering to reduce or maintain size as necessary.

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