In The Garden: Honey bush appreciates a warm summer welcome
Honey bush has enjoyed the mixed summer weather and luxuriated. The plant gets its name from the copious quantities of nectar secreted by the flowers during the summer months. However, that only reliably happens in this plant's native South Africa.
Grown in this country, it often fails to flower and only does so in gardens near the coast that are favoured with a benign climate, and its prodigious production of nectar is not often seen. In South Africa, the flowers are visited by sunbirds that drink the nectar and carry out pollination in much the same way as humming birds in South America.
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The honey bush is more widely known here by its botanical name of Melianthus major. Melianthus translates as sweet flowers, referring to the sweet nectar. Here the plant is well known to flower arrangers and hardly known otherwise. It is widely used in flower arranging for its magnificent foliage. The large leaves are 30cm or more in length and about 15cm wide. They are divided, like an ash tree, into pinnate leaflets, usually about seven on each side and one at the tip.
The number of leaflets varies with the size of the leaf. Also the leaves have a main stem that is arched somewhat and this presents the foliage nicely for flower-arranging purposes. It has good strong colour too, a rich glaucous blue-green or greyish green. Along the edges of the leaves, there is strong saw-tooth pattern, which is quite dramatic either in the garden or on the flower-arranging table.
While this evergreen native of the Cape of South Africa is not hardy, it is tougher than given credit for and lends itself to being grown for its foliage primarily but also for its flowers in some places. Melianthus is considered to be a shrub and it has woody stems at ground level, although they are not very woody, soft and a bit brittle, easily smashed by wind and killed by frost. But it has great powers of regeneration from ground level and just below. Very often, it can grow back to more than one metre during the summer. This has led many people who grow it to treat it as a herbaceous plant, cutting it back in spring, removing the old winter-damaged shoots.
However, it rarely flowers if cut back to the ground, either deliberately or by frost. To get flowers is not too difficult if the branches can be carried through undamaged to the second year of growth, and this is possible in mild areas, even if the foliage looks a little bedraggled in spring and early summer. But new foliage soon grows and along with it come the flowers. The flowers are carried in a spike of brown and dark crimson, each flower about three centimetres long and clustered along the stem, opening in sequence over a good period.
In colder areas of the country, melianthus can be grown in a large pot and taken outdoors in summer or it can be used as a greenhouse or very good conservatory plant where it will flower if not cut back too hard. It can reach two metres indoors, outdoors it does best in rich soil, well-drained and a sunny place.