Monday, 25 July 2011

Honey bush

This gorgeous foliage belongs to the honey bush, Melianthus major. Year after year, I grow it in my garden and, sure enough, year after year it expires.

Admittedly we have had two exceptionally harsh winters, the last of which arrived several weeks early – rather unsporting, I thought. I adore this plant, and have done since we first encountered it in Cornwall, where it grows alongside enormous spires of echiums and other fantastical looking things. I love everything from the dusky, glaucous blue green of its sharply toothed leaves, to the smell of peanuts it gives off when touched; the amazing sight of new foliage unfurling, and the outrageous, dark red flower spike that appear from some admittedly rude-looking buds. In its native South Africa it grows like a weed. (Typically, like so many of my favourite plants, it’s horribly poisonous and will kill you as soon as look at you. Fortunately, the odd smell tends to prevent any animals from even considering munching upon its leaves, and it’s the roots which are the most toxic.) Technically an evergreen perennial, hardiness in our climate is not something with which this plant has been blessed, and protection is really required in order for it to survive anything other than the mildest of winters. Up until the point at which the cold November winds whip it to kingdom come, just before the frost renders each stem a necrotic black, it does exceptionally well in my garden. If I have to grow it as an annual then I will, just to enjoy its presence.

Recently, I’ve been scouting about for a replacement plant, my usual sources not being able to help this year. My search took me to the RHS plantfinder, and from there to the very wonderful Plantbase near Wadhurst where Graham Blunt, the effervescent owner, had not only several specimens of what I sought in stock, but also two other related species (M. comosus and M. villosus), both a little hardier and better suited to our climate.

Graham is evidently a person who knows his subject, belying modest assertions that he’s entirely self taught, eschewing book learning for a more hands-on approach. His nursery is an Aladdin’s Cave for the plant enthusiast, with some truly amazing specimens — as we arrived, he was waxing lyrical about some very evil, spiny-looking solanums, one with bright orange thorns which was very special. We were completely won over by the many echeverias he has — one of which, E. cante (a present from Kew), is truly beautiful and seems to radiate light, but is alas not for sale this year until he has had a chance to propagate from it. I particularly loved the colour and form of the ghost echeverias, Echeveria lilacina – powdery lilac-grey rosettes which seem somehow both architectural and entirely other-worldly. The plants are laid out loosely in terms of habitat – jungle, woodland, alpine, waterside, prairie - and visitors are encouraged to roam, and to ask questions, the answers to which Graham is only too happy to provide. I would thoroughly recommend a visit — we left with our wallets slightly thinner, but with massive smiles on our faces a whole list of plants we will be coming back for.

Did I take the sensible route and opt for the hardier relatives of my precious honey bush? I confess, not. It may well end in tears once more, but at least I’ve found someone who can feed my honey bush habit.