Shaving brush plant stands out in the garden

If you like odd-looking plants, nothing can beat haemanthus albiflos – more commonly known as the shaving brush plant.

It is the most commonly available of three evergreen species of haemanthus hailing from coastal areas of the southern Cape through the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

It is one of those plants that gardeners occasionally have languishing at the back of a greenhouse or under a bench – hence it is very good at taking total neglect for months.

Mine was gathering dust up a corner so, feeling rather benevolent, instead of binning it I started to water my rather dishevelled specimen and now it is in full bloom and looking gorgeous with its short greyish green leaves and shaving brush-like flowers.

H albiflos has a long flowering period, extending from early April through high summer and occasionally through autumn and into winter under cultivation.


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I think mine is flowering becase it had been suffering from a near-death experience! The first thing you notice when gazing at this rather odd-looking plant is its flower heads (known as an umbel in botanical terms) which are compact, usually about one to two inches wide, consisting of numerous erect, narrow white flowers, enclosed by several broad, greenish-white bracts on a very short stem.

The erect stamens protrude conspicuously beyond the tips of the flowers and their anthers turn bright yellowy orange when ripe.

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If pollinated, bright orangey-red fleshy berries are produced with a distinctive musty odour.

The name haemanthus is derived from the Greek haima meaning blood and anthos meaning flower – a reference to the red flowers of most species, though albiflos refers to the white flowers of this particular species.

On a less bizarre front are the 'fairies' of the garden, the many dwarf cyclamen that are in bloom at the moment and well into the autumn. I absolutely adore them as they flower in the dappled shade of trees and shrubs pushing up through leaf litter where they sparkle in pools of light.

Luckily I planted quite a few of these diminutive gems many years ago and they have now distributed themselves around the garden. Most of mine are in more arid parts of the garden as they are dormant during the summer, hence they take dry conditions well, although the recent rains have promoted masses of flowers.

Cyclamen hederifolium is the most commonly available in shades of rose pink, pale pink and purest white with some having dark crimson markings around the centre.

The 'ivy-leaved' foliage quickly follows the emergence of the flowers, usually in September depending on the rains, making attractive groundcover throughout the winter until the following spring when they disappear below ground again during the summer.

The flowers of this autumn-flowering cyclamen often appear well before the leaves, with some coming into bloom by late July at the Exotic Garden.

Although they are usually considered as dappled shade plants, they originate from the Mediterranean, so are equally happy in sun, taking dry conditions well as this simulates their native habitats.

They look excellent planted en masse in a woodland setting with ferns and other shade-tolerant plants or around the base of deciduous trees where they will grace your garden for months with their diminutive beauty.

Earlier in the year I bought several potfuls of the late winter-flowering cyclamen coum Maurice Dryden which I planted on the grave of my late Devon Rex cat Dweezal – I'm sure he would have approved. The leaves on this form are a strong shade of silvery-pewter edged with the smallest amount of green. From late January, good-sized, dumpy white flowers appear, heralding the start of the new gardening year.

September is often a difficult month for colour in the garden, but if you have dahlias, you are always guaranteed a really good show. Unfortunately they are very brittle-stemmed plants that, if not well staked, easily break and fall over. This past week with high winds has been a real challenge for dahlia-growers. Thankfully mine are all fine apart from a few snapped flowers.

In early August I mentioned dahlias, but now they are all flowering to perfection.I have gone mad with dahlias this year as they are such spectacular flowering plants that bloom profusely from high summer right through to first frost providing they are dead-headed regularly.

For years I had been put off dahlias but they are well and truly back in fashion and not only in my garden. I still have some bright orangey-yellow dahlias I rescued from my father's garden after he passed away. They had been growing happily with little or no feed for at least 40 years, through many an icy winter. They are now in their second year here having easily survived two really cold winterers in the ground.

One of the first large-flowered ones to come into flower this year was dahlia Wittemanns best, a semi-cactus type, with well-formed flowers of intensely vibrant red six to eight inches across which stand out really well above the bright green foliage. Staking has to be very solid as it grows five to six feet tall.

Dahlia Thomas Edison has to be my favourite this year. It is a decorative type noted for its stunning, very intense dark violet flowers that can be eight inches or more across on four-feet stems.

Over the last 20 years or so the many dark bronzy-leaved forms have become popular with dahlia Bishop of Llandaff being one of the best-known – not surprising as it has show-stopping scarlet red, semi-double flowers with yellow centres held on tall stems above strikingly deep greenish-red leaves and stems, growing to around three feet tall.

There are several others forms of this popular dahlia with names like Bishop of York which has a combination of dark foliage and warm orange-yellow flowers. Bishop of Oxford has bronze-purple foliage and copperyorange flowers, while Bishop of Leicester has pale pink flowers.

•This article was first published on September 10, 2011.

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