SOME FAVOURITE SMALL PLANTS (THAT AREN’T WATER GUZZLERS).
by Lyn Edwards
One of my favourite groups of small plants for shady areas with low water needs over summer is the Epimedium family – the Bishop’s Mitre plant. This is a plant for all seasons, starting in spring the new leaf stems resembling shepherd’s crooks and the flowering stems appear. The small, cupped downward facing long lasting flowers range in colour from white, yellow, orange, pinks and pale purples and combinations of some of these colours.
Flowers open in mid spring as the new leaves are unfurling. There are newer varieties available with larger more colorful spurred flowers than of old. New leaves are bronze-pink in colour and mature to a soft green, some with bronze tonings for the summer. The shape of the leaves is roughly oval to heart shaped, a number to each wiry stem.
Some species are very small but larger varieties grow to about 35 – 45 cm. The leaves remain fresh and cool looking through summer into autumn when they change to a good rusty red. These are retained through winter when they are most welcome till the first signs of spring growth when they are best removed to allow for the new growth to be seen.
Some, but not all, spread and make excellent ground cover in shady areas. I haven’t grown any I would classify as thugs, unwanted pieces are easily removed if required. Once established they don’t require large quantities of water to keep them happy and are low maintenance in that they tend not to be damaged by pests and diseases. The following is a short list of some I have found to grow well in Canberra.
Epimedium versicolour ‘Sulphureum’ 15cm high with pretty light yellow flowers and autumn foliage.
Epimedium acuminatum-about 30 cm with the long spurred purple-pink flowers.
Epimedium pinnatum 20-30 cm with bright yellow flowers, leaves are deep green in summer.
Epimedium grandiflorum-30 cm -there are many named cultivars in this group. The flowers are long spurred and come in white, pink, yellow and purples.
Epimedium x warleyense – this grows taller and spreads more than most, the flowers are yellow with orange sepals.
Epimedium x perralchicum, clumping to 30 cm around, large leaves which colour well in autumn and bright yellow flowers.
Epimedium x youngianum Niveum – a smaller grower with white flowers.
The hardy garden cyclamen is a water miser’s dream. Of course most bulbs don’t require watering during dormancy but these rate very highly. As plants suited to shady areas, they will carpet quite large areas in time as they seed themselves around freely. The seeds are covered with a sweet sticky exudate that the ants love and because ants will spread them, new plants may appear elsewhere in the garden, often in places that wouldn’t have been considered,
My favourites, and the easiest species to grow in the ground in this climate are C. hederifolium, C coum and C. repandum. The flowers are lovely in season but these would be worth growing for their wonderful foliage alone. The soft green and grey coloured leaves come with beautiful patterns and some are pure silver or pewter. A combination of all three species will give flowers from late summer through until late spring.
C. hederifolium sends up its pale pink or white flowers in late summer or early autumn generally after rain. The flowering will be earlier in a garden with regular watering. The leaves do not appear till flowering is almost finishing and last through winter till about Christmas time when they die down over summer. This species has ivy or arrow shaped leaves with many patterns, there are named varieties depending on the pattern or colour of the leaf. All are easy to grow.
C.coum In a very sheltered position this species holds its round shaped leaves year round but will lose them if they dry out. As well as solid deep green leaves there are patterned and silver leaf forms. The flowering period is through winter till early spring and may be white or pale to deep pink with chocolate coloured “noses” and rather dumpy in shape compared to C.hederifolium .
C.repandum The leaves on this species are quite large, ivy shaped and heavily patterned in the usual cyclamen manner, the flowers are a mid pink with long petals and flower through spring and so extending the flowering period of cyclamen in the garden.
There are certainly more cyclamen worth growing in the garden, including the small C.persicum hybrids available in punnets from the garden centers in autumn and winter.