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Gardening: Blazing South Africa montbretia


ROUGH: Montbretia is ideal in naturalistic corners

ROUGH: Montbretia is ideal in naturalistic corners

ROUGH: Montbretia is ideal in naturalistic corners

The orange-flowered montbretia of roadsides is having a great summer. It loves sunshine and showers, which is why it thrives so well along the western coast. Its arching stems with bright orange flowers are eye-catching and lively, and much appreciated by summer visitors.

Although montbretia is so widespread that it appears to be native, it is not, but it is naturalised, widespread and well capable of sustaining its population. The plant is a hybrid of two South African species, the cross reputedly having been made in France, before arriving here as a garden flower.

Soon it had jumped the garden wall or, more likely, it had been ejected. It was thrown out because, once established, it colonises more ground by making a dense mat of roots, old corms and active corms that is difficult to shift. It competes extremely well with roadside grass and weeds, usually winning the battle.

Montbretia is still a good plant for gardens but only in suitable circumstances. It is ideal for rough corners and naturalistic planting where there is lots of space available. It has bright grass-green shoots in spring and these look well with rhododendrons and especially azaleas flowering in May.

Montbretia is a former name, and now it is called crocosmia, but the old name is still widely used. Crocosmias like good soil, fertile but not too rich, not inclined to dry out but well-drained, with plenty of humus. A sunny position will give more flowers and while some shade is tolerated, crocosmia fizzles out in heavy shade.

Although montbretia is the best known crocosmia, it is a relatively small plant and there are much bigger kinds. 'Lucifer', a bright red form, is a large, very vigorous plant. The colour is dramatic and the flowers are large and plentifully produced. 'Lucifer' screams from the borders of gardens from about mid-July.

But it looks great with lots of big white Shasta daisies, blue agapanthus, foamy gypsophila, yellow inula, heleniums, tickseed and sunflowers. The bronze foliage of bronze-leaved fennel is ideal for softening the blazing red of 'Lucifer'. Crocosmia masoniorum is also tall with upward-facing orange-red flowers.

There are other kinds, smaller in size and not as vigorous.

'Jackanapes' has two-tone flowers with yellow and red petals. 'Emily McKenzie' has large flowers of bright orange and brown markings. 'Solfatare' has apricot flowers over brownish foliage. 'Golden Fleece' has clear yellow flowers on arching stems.

None of these is as hardy as the ordinary montbretia but are generally able to cope with an average winter. The tall kinds have a tendency to flop outwards, especially if grown in rich, moist ground, or fed too generously, and staking may be required.

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