Christmas is season for lilies

By Gareth Winter

Come Christmas and most gardeners are not thinking too much about what is happening in the garden, apart from trying to keep the watering up to date and perhaps harvesting some early season potatoes and salad greens. But there are several plants traditionally associated with Christmas. In some cases, the traditions hark back to the Northern Hemisphere but, in other cases, they are New Zealand-born.

Perhaps the oldest traditional plants are the holly, ivy and mistletoe, although I suspect scholars of religion might tell us the association with the season pre-dates Christianity and actually refers back to pagan mid-winter rites. The various holly varieties are quite popular in Britain, being among the hardiest of evergreens, thus providing some needed green power in the winter garden, and they were once quite popular in this country, but have pretty much fallen out of favour with the swing to native plants. Perhaps the best alternative for native gardeners is Olearia macrodonta, sometimes called New Zealand holly.

Like most of the shrubby Olearias, this has rugged leaves, undulating and serrated, and racemes of yellow-centred white daisy flowers that have a musky scent. It grows near the bush line and is hardy, but makes a lovely garden shrub, sometimes also being used for hedging.

Ivy was once popular as a wall covering, but its tendency to get out of hand, and its habit of seeding everywhere have made it a most unwelcome intrusion into most gardens, although some institutions like to use it for ground cover.

Wairarapa was once home to one of the common European mistletoes, no doubt introduced by someone homesick for England and looking for an excuse to kiss the girls, but we also have our own fabulous species, some of which are among our most colourful native wild flowers. There used to be a wonderful example of the red form of beech mistletoe, Peraxilla tetrapetala, alongside the Atiwhakatu River, just upstream from Donnelly Flat, but it has died in the past few years. This glorious plant was once common in Wairarapa, but it seems opossums have largely dealt to it. It is a pity as it was a stunning sight.

Undoubtedly, the native plant most associated with Christmas is the New Zealand Christmas tree, the pohutukawa, Meterosideros excelsa. This coastal-dwelling plant is equally remarkable for its summer display of brilliant red flowers, and for the tenacious way it can cling to the steepest cliff and somehow eke out a living in what seems like the most inhospitable conditions.

Pohutukawa are difficult to grow in inland areas of Wairarapa, but they flourish on the coast. I was out at Castlepoint last week and the yellow-coloured trees were in flower, but I did not see any red flowers. I am sure they will be in flower now or very soon.

If you live in a hilly site where the frosts can drain away, they are worth a try, but you will have to keep them covered for a few years until they grow through the danger zone. Otherwise you are probably better to try the dwarf shrubby Pacific Island species M. polymorpha Tahiti, which you can easily accommodate in a large pot where it will happily flower for years. Just beware though, this mainly flowers in winter and spring, thus it is not really a Tahitian Christmas tree.

Most of the other flowers associated with Christmas are either white or red flowered - or perhaps both. Prime among these is the Christmas lily, the delightfully scented Chinese species, Lilium regale. This has trumpet-shaped flowers, wine-coloured on the outside as the trumpet expands, then pearly-white inside, with a marked golden throat. The flowers are finished by large anthers covered in bright orange pollen, which we always remove before bringing the flowers inside as they are so liable to stain passers-by or furniture. We have some plants I grew from seed a few years ago, and they must have been crossed with a triffid as they now reach up over two metres, rather than their usual metre and a half, which is the restrained height their parents confined themselves to.

These are true lilies, of course, but there are other lilies commonly associated with Christmas, albeit ones that are not actually lilies. I refer to Hippeastrums, the large flowered cousins to naked ladies, Amaryllis belladonna. They are often sold as Christmas gifts as they can be packaged as dry bulbs, or grown on in pots and sold as budded plants at this time of the year.

If you have been given one as a gift, they are relatively straightforward to grow. Just pop the bulb in a pot at least 150mm wide with good quality potting mixture, keeping the top third above the mixture and making sure the roots are well spread out. Do not overwater - just give sparing applications of water, making sure you do not splash water over the nose of the bulb and that water does not sit in the tray underneath the pot. Keep the pot in indirect light and make sure the temperature does not drop too much at night. The bulb should start to flower about three to five weeks later depending on variety. Once flowering has started take the pot into a cooler area away from sunlight and make sure you do not water over the top of the flowers as it will enable the flower to last longer.

Once the bulb has finished flowering pop it back into a warm spot and keep it fed and watered until early autumn, when it can be dried off and laid on its side for the winter. In October or November, start the process over again and you will soon have another season of glorious flowers. And, if you can time it right, you can have a splash of red and white for the festive season.


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