Drought has an upside

By Gareth Winter

The long summer has continued unabated, despite MetService confidently predicting we will have southerlies and showers at least once a week.

You will have no doubt noticed these are dry southerlies, with a bit of heat relief and even some cloudy periods, but they have been marked by a complete lack of moisture.

I had to tell the Head Gardener to keep a look out for me at the weekend when I mowed the lawns - well, the bits near the edge of the borders that end up getting accidentally watered. The front lawn has developed such large crevasses I thought I might get lost down one of them and need rescuing.

The hot weather and relentless lack of moisture have suited some shrubs though, and even though some garden plants are literally shrivelling this summer, there are a few that have been seen at their best this year.

Probably the best performing among these is a plant seen surprisingly little in Wairarapa gardens, as it can provide one of the brightest and most floriferous displays in the middle of a sustained warm spell. I am talking about Lagerstroemeria indica, the Crepe Myrtle, a small growing deciduous tree from Korea and Japan, with many relatives in the warmer parts of the world, including Australia.

In the wild this is a small-growing tree that distinguishes itself by amazing displays of crinkled flowers that have earned it the "crepe" part of its name. These flowers are borne from summer into the autumn and at their best they can smother the whole tree giving a very dramatic effect.

The type species, and the one most commonly seen, has lots of lilac-pink flowers, but in more than 200 years of cultivation, a wide range of hybrids have been raised. Overseas this shrub has become a very popular potted plant and dwarf varieties have been released, some of which are now available in New Zealand. They make fabulous plants for VARIETY: Nerium oleander Mrs F. Roeding'.

the patio as they can cope with a little bit of benign neglect.

Flamingo has flowers that, despite the suggestion in the name they might be pink, are in fact a deep red, while Soire D'Ete is a lovely soft pink. Funnily enough, Petite Snow is a dwarf white form, but I don't think it works as well as the brighter coloured varieties.

These plants are not too fussy to grow in our climate, but they do not like being in the shade, and they do best in well-drained soil as well. Their ideal spot would be in the full sun in a relatively warm position, where they should flourish and provide lots of summer colour for many years.

I guess they have not become more popular because people think they are a little tender - and they certainly do look as though they are slightly tropical but they will cope with any frosts the Wairarapa winter will throw at them.

The other reason they are not commonly planted is, I am sure, the prejudice against deciduous plants. The compensation with so many shrubs and trees that lose their leaves in autumn is they often have pretty autumn colour - and this species does - or they have attractive bark - and this does that too!

If you really cannot face a deciduous shrub but want lots of garden colour at this time of the year the best bet would be to go for an oleander. These have also gone out of fashion a little, perhaps as a result of their toxicity becoming better known. I am not wishing to say they are not poisonous, because they are, but a survey of statistics in the United States for 20 years found only three deaths - far more people died from food poisoning contracted while at church picnics! In fact, the three deaths were all murders or suicides, so it is possible to overstate the danger of this plant.

It is an evergreen shrub with leaves that look a little like a green olive leaf, hence the botanical name Nerium oleander (Olea is the Latin name for olive). Their prolific flowering habits are so well known they scarcely need repeating, but some of the darker coloured varieties seem to be a bit prone to botrytis, and they are prone to bud drop, especially when the season is a little damper.

If you want lots of bright flowers you probably should go for Punctatum, which is the single, light-pink form. It just seems to flower and flower - it is probably the most free-flowering variety.

I am unsure of which is my favourite. I think it is probably 'Mrs F. Roeding, because it has the most wonderful salmon-orange flowers with a strange hint of lilac in them.

There is a glorious double-flowered white that is also very attractive - Madonna Grandiflora.

In this case the pure shining flowers are semi-double of hose-in-hose form - one flower sitting atop the other. It seems to flower a bit later than some of the other forms, meaning you can extend the season if you have planted a few plants.

Oleanders are sun-lovers and thrive on summers like this one.

They need free-draining soil to be seen at their best, but are very wind and salt tolerant so make great coastal plants. They are also quite quick growing and form useful shelter for less hardy plants. They can be nipped back by hard frosts (the so called 'yellow' forms are not so hardy) but they soon grow away again.

Their natural shape is a rounded, multi-stemmed shrub, well clothed, and with supple branches that move in the wind.

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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