Saturday Independent, August 2016

Spring is always such a joyous time of the year as everything wakes up and we wait in anticipation for the new leaves and flowers to appear from there winter dormancy. I feel spring is starting earlier and earlier each year with the odd cold snap confusing us. The snow that feel a few weeks ago after the huge rain that caused havoc without warning brought so much joy to those who have never experienced snow before. I could not imagine what is must be like for those who have snow for 9 months of the year. Not for me. I love the sunshine as it brings so much more life to an environment. I have been visiting a number of nurseries around Kwazulu Natal this past week and the one plant that is always an indicator plant that spring has arrived is the Blood Lily, Scadoxus puniceus. Dormant in winter, this bulb slowly pushes its flower spike through the soil exposing a flower that always brings a smile to my face. It is best to plant this bulb in mass as seeing this in flower especially in dark shady parts of your garden is such a joy.

One tree that is fun watching awaken after spring is one of the most common trees found in the greater Durban region. Albizia adianthifolia, or better known by its common name of Flat Crown is found growing in most parks, forest regions and urban gardens. Not only does it create shade in summer but produces spectacular fragrant flowers in spring, is rich in cultural history and adored by elephants and butterflies. It is a pioneer tree so often pops up in gardens that have recently been disturbed or in open land that is being prepared for development. It can grow into a large tree up to 20m and gets its common mane from its flat grown, which makes it very recognizable in open forest and ravines along the coastal regions of Kwazulu Natal. Probably some of the largest I have seen is at Hluhluwe Game Reserve but just drive along the coast and you will immediately recognize it from its flat appearance. Albizia derived its name after Filippo degli Albizzi, and Italian naturalist who introduced a specie of genus into European horticulture in 1749. The specific name refers to the resemblance of the leaves, folia, to the maidenhair fern, genus Adiantum.

The tree has a very distinctive grey to reddish brown bark that is rough and used extensively by traditional healers. I remember when I was a young student many years ago working with Geoff Nichols at Silverglen Nature reserve that they had to paint the bark to try prevent the bark being removed for the Muthi trade. The leaves are very characteristic of the legume family. 4-8 pairs of pinnae each bearing 6-12 pairs of leaflets. The leaflets are rectangular with the midrib diagonally across it. The flowers are spectacular appearing in mid-August to November. The flowers stand up above the foliage with white petals that are joined for at least two thirds of their length. Stamens are fused partly to form a tube. Very fragrant. Once pollinated it produces a very thin pod which dries and dehisces and opens exposing the small flat brown seeds.

Although this tree is not under threat, over collecting by traditional healers by ringbarking and removing the bark is putting strain on the wild populations. The bark is used to cleanse the blood. Flat-crowns usually occur in moist and tropical areas such as forests and woodlands. Geographically it is distributed from the northern parts of the Eastern Cape in South Africa throughout the tropical countries up into Senegal in West Africa and east to Ethiopia. It also occurs in Madagascar.

Flat-crowns produce such an abundance of flowers that they attract butterflies that feed off the nectar and sap that seeps out of the branches. There are 2 impressive butterflies, Charaxes Cithaeron and Charaxes ethalion that lay their eggs on the leaves which the hatching caterpillars feed on. Elephants feed on the foliage. It is also used extensively throughout Africa for many medicinal purposes from controlling tapeworms, to treating headaches and sinusitis and warding off evil spirits. The Zulus sometimes make a love charm emetic from it. It is easy to grow from seed. Soak the seed overnight in warm water and sow the next morning. The tree is quick growing once in the ground and it grows into a very impressive shade tree. It will lose its leaves in winter so be careful about growing this tree next to swimming pools. To me this is one of the most iconic trees found in Kwazulu Natal and should be grown in most gardens.

Things to do this month:

  • This is the time to prune all your shrubs. I have just this past week cut back all my Brachylaena discolor (Coastal silver-oak), Tecoma capensis (Cape Honey suckle), Plumbago auriculata, Dombeya burgessiae (Pink Dombeya), Leonotis leonoris (wild dagga) and hypoestes aristata (Ribbon Bush). Make sure you have a sharp pair of pruners so that you don’t tear the cuts and make the cuts at a slight angle so that when it rains the water runs off the cut area. Mulch with leaves that fall in your garden to keep the soil warm, prevent weed growth and provide some organic matter to the exposed soil area.
  • Lift, split and replant many of your groundcovers. I do this every year and I find the growth on those plants that have been split and replanted far superior too many of those not divided. Plants that respond best include. Anthericum saundersiae (weeping Anthericum), Chlorophytum bowkeri (hen and chicken), Tulbaghia violaceae (wild garlic), Dietes grandiflora (wild Iris) and Crassula multicarva (Fairy Crassula) . Once you have lifted the plants remove any dead or diseased leaves, cut off dead roots, cut back some of the leaves especially on the Chlorophytums to reduce the water lose from the plant. Prepare the soil well with lots of decomposed compost and add superphosphates to strengthen the root systems of the plants. Replant the groundcovers and water well. I would water twice a week till you see the new growths appearing.
  • Cut back your grassland grasses especially Aristida junciformis (Ngongoni grass) and Melinus nerviglumis (Natal red top). Once cut back they will produce a new flush of green leaves as the days lengthen and the rains begin in spring. In many of the grasslands these grasses get burnt once every few years which rejuvenates the soil.
  • Concentrate on planting water wise plants. This includes most of the succulents but especially Aloes, Crassulas, grassland grasses and winter flowering shrubs such as Leonotis leonoris and Hypoestes aristata.
  • Repot many of your indoor plants. Remove the plants from the pot, remove any dead or dying roots, remove old soil from around the roots, wash the roots with a fungicide (Dithane m45) and buy a new potting medium plus compost from any of the soil suppliers such as Gromor or Grovida. Mix 50.50 compost with potting medium and repot your old plant into the pot with the new mix. Press down the soil so that the plant is straight and secure in the pot. Water well for the next few weeks. You can add osmocote which is a slow release fertilizer.

This coming week end which is 19-21 August the Botanical Society will be holding their annual plant fair at the exhibition grounds near the workshop. If you are looking for all the plants I have discussed over the years this is the place to find all those plants. They will also have experts on hand to assist you with any queries.

Happy gardening

This article is sponsored by Chris Dalzell Landscapes, specializing in landscaping, consultation and Botanical expeditions. If you have any questions please contact me on the following email address: cgmdalzell@gmail.com