Friday 23 February 2018

Cape figwort brings shades of the exotic

COMING into flower in the last few weeks, the Cape figwort will look good for many weeks to come. It has strong stems with nodding tubular flowers, some kinds nearly two metres tall and others a more modest knee-height. The colours are very striking and it brings an exotic touch.

This plant comes from the Cape of South Africa and it is part of the figwort family which includes the foxglove, penstemon and snapdragon, all of which are much better known than the wild native figwort. But that plant was credited as a cure for scrofula and so was important in centuries past.

The Cape figwort is very like its European cousin, tall and leafy with strong stems. The flowers of the African kinds are much more striking than the small, hardly visible, purple brown, little flowers of the native sort. There are two main species of Cape figwort or phygelius.

One species is tall with an open spike of small tubular flowers while the other is shorter with its flower tubes held in a tighter bunch. These two kinds have been hybridised to give intermediate types, medium in height and with more open flower-heads.

The hybrid kinds are ideal for garden use although the original species, Phygelius capensis, has its own gangly, straggling grace, but it can spread aggressively into neighbouring plants. It is not unusual for it to grow under an old stone wall or hedge.

The Cape figwort is not quite a shrub but it has a hard woody base and can make short woody branches in a warm climate. But it is better treated as a perennial flower and cut to the ground in late winter and sometimes this is done by frost in any case.

When cut back in this way, phygelius will sprout a crop of fresh young growths that will carry fine new flowers in summer. It can also be grown as a showy conservatory plant in a large pot or tub, but in the open ground.

There are many new named kinds in a range of shades of red, yellow, peach, salmon and purple. The Funfair series has named varieties in orange, yellow, cream, coral and includes 'Funfair Wine', pictured above, very popular and a good repeat flowerer. The Candydrops series has a similar colour range.

'Yellow Trumpet' has light yellow trumpets, closely held. 'Moonraker' is even paler with dusky yellow flowers, more spaced. 'African Queen' has bright red flowers. 'Salmon Leap' has dangling, spaced out trumpets of deep pink-orange. 'Winchester Fanfare' is orange red and nicely displayed. Plant it in a sunny spot in good soil, well drained.

Sunday Independent

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