Lately, walking through some of the residential projects installed by Contours Design Studio, I noticed some unusual plants making a regular appearance. Many of these you might not know yet, but welcome them into your garden and they will reward you with their hardy, versatile and attractive presence.
This mound-forming perennial and evergreen grass-like plant, with its fine strappy leaves and small yellow flower, spikes from April through to October and is a low-maintenance alternative to conventional lawns. It will reward you plentifully, without asking much.
A firm favourite of Lucy Schnell, CDS’ senior landscaper, she says she has made use of this plant in many landscapes because of its attractive, tough, and versatile nature. Non-seeding and therefore non-invasive, the Australian native Lomondra Tanika is featured in more and more South African landscapes due to our similar local climate.
Characteristics and special features of Lomondra Tanika:
- As a perennial, it grows about 50-60cm high and 65cm wide.
- The planting density is either 3-6 plants/m2 or 2-3 per linear metre.
- The shape of this plant lends itself to architectural landscaping.
- It is extremely drought and frost-tolerant but does not like wet feet or salt-laden winds.
- Adding to its versatility is that it can be grown in full sun, but also tolerates a shady spot – as long as it is not full shade.
- It tolerates being grown in many soil types – from sand to sandy loam, to clay, as long as the soil is well-drained.
- Every 2-3 years – or when they look like they need it – Lomandra should be cut back to about 15cm.
- Lomandra can be used as a border- or specimen plant, but also looks great when planted in mass. They also do well on tricky slopes.
Blue flax lily
This is another regular sight in Contours gardens and residential landscapes. Also an Australian native, Daniella ‘Little Jess’ is a very compact, clump-forming, grass-like perennial plant with narrow, tough, bright green foliage and a profusion of purple, star-like flowers that is quite the sight in spring. After flowering has taken place, flower stalks should be cut back.
Characteristics and special features of Dianella ‘Little Jess’:
- Planting density is usually 6-10 plants per m2 or 3-5 plants per linear metre.
- Dianella ‘Little Jess’ is drought and frost tolerant, grows in sun and shade, and can be planted in sandy or clay soil as long as drainage is good.
- It grows about 30cm high and 30cm wide and doesn’t need much maintenance.
- This grass-like plant looks great used as a border or edging plant, lends itself to mass planting, and also looks good as a container or feature plant.
Violet-flower Pelargonium/ Fairy cascades
Native to the Eastern Cape Valley Bushveld, this plant is extremely hardy, being drought tolerant as well as frost hardy. And it is as pretty as it is hardy! Pelargonium ionidiflorum produces masses of beautiful, light pink to dark violet-pink flowers with wine-read markings all year round.
Characteristics and special features of Violet-Flower Pelargonium:
- This indigenous small, woody shrublet grows up to about 40cm high (sometimes shorter) and can be used as a taller ground cover or filler plant.
- It can be planted in mass and looks great in rockeries, but can also be planted as a pot plant or in flower boxes.
- Pelargonium ionidiflorum prefers full sun but also tolerates half-day sun.
- They can be grown in most soils as long as they are well-drained.
- Not much maintenance is required but the odd light pruning will do this plant a world of good, keeping it compact and in shape.
This indigenous, clump-forming perennial grass grows up to a maximum height of 1m but is sometimes smaller than this. It produces attractive – and currently very trendy in home decor circles – mauve plumes in summer, and its wispy blades look great when a breeze moves through the plant.
Characteristics and special features of Gongoni Grass:
- This grass is very versatile, growing in most soils, wet and dry.
- It prefers to grow in full sun but can also tolerate some shade as long as it is not full shade.
- Gongoni grass looks great when planted in mass in groups but could also be used as a filler.
- People often use Gongoni grass to help with soil erosion on banks, and it is also useful for grassland and wetland wildlife.
- This grass is fast to establish when planted.
Anastrabe is a large evergreen small tree or shrub – depending on what you want to use it for. If pruned and controlled, it makes a lovely shrub; if left to grow on its own accord it will grow to about 3-4m high. Although it can grow this big, it has a compact root system and can therefore be planted in smaller gardens and compact areas.
Pambati trees have a compact growth pattern with small to medium leaves glossy dark green. From October through to May masses of clusters of yellow scented bell-shaped flowers appear, attracting pollinators.
Characteristics and special features of the Pambati Tree:
- Anastrabe is quite versatile and can be planted in full sun or semi-shade
- It tolerates most soils, as long as it is well-drained.
- It can tolerate periods of drought.
- It is most commonly used as a hedging or screening plant and because of its compact root system is often used to hide ugly walls or structures.
Red Yucca / Coral Yucca
Hesperaloe is not a true Yucca but is commonly referred to as the Red or Coral Yucca because of its thin, yucca-like evergreen leaves which are normally blue-green, but turning a plum colour in winter, and are formed in a neat architectural rosette form.
From March through to July spikes are formed with many coral-red tubular flowers which are known to be popular with sunbirds, as well as butterflies and bees.
Characteristics and special features of Red or Coral Yucca:
- Hesperaloe usually only produces flowers when it is older and it will take about two to three years to get to flowering size.
- This plant will grow in most soils and is extremely drought tolerant and frost tolerant.
- It looks lovely when planted in mass, but doesn’t have to be as they also look great planted in pots.
- Red or Coral Yucca does well in rockeries and is often planted on slopes.
The Bladder nut is a truly beautiful indigenous evergreen large shrub or small tree. Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Bladder nut is its dark green, striking glossy foliage. It also produces masses of creamy, fragrant white to creamy yellow flowers plus eye-catching reddish-brown, papery, balloon-like fruit pods. The crown of this plant if left to grow as a tree has a dense, round to sometimes pyramidal crown. This large shrub or tree is found growing naturally in forests and on mountain slopes and rocky places.
Characteristics and special features of the Bladder Nut:
- The fruits of the Diospyros are edible and the roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute.
- It is a great tree for a small garden, makes a great hedging plant, and also looks great in a container.
- The Bladder nut prefers growing in semi-shade and does well in loamy soil or make sure soil is well–composted.
Large forest Asparagus
This is an indigenous, robust, thorny creeper that produces attractive white flowers, followed by red berries. The white flowers produced are sweetly scented and appear from September to December. These flowers attract bees and other insects and the red berries are a favourite with birds.
Characteristics and special features of Large forest Asparagus:
- Asparagus falcatus is such a thorny plant that it is great pruned into a security hedge.
- Think twice before planting it or rather put careful consideration as to where you plant it as it can grow up to 6m high.
- It prefers growing in shady positions and can grow in most soils as long as compost is added if the soil is ‘poor’.
- It is quite drought tolerant but does like water if possible.
- The root system is quite large so be careful when planting near structures.
Forest num-num & Mini num-num
While Carissa macrocarpa and Carissa ‘Green carpet’ are very well known to most people, Carissa bispinosa and Carissa ‘Storm’ are two which you may not be as familiar with. Carissa bispinosa is a dense bush or rambling shrub usually found growing in wooded spots.
The branching of this shrub has a forked pattern. The leaves, red edible berries, and sweetly scented white flowers of this shrub are smaller than the macrocarpa but the ultimate growing height is similar.
Characteristics and special features of Forest Num-Num and Mini Num-Num:
- This shrub makes a great security hedge and to achieve this should be planted about 1m apart.
- The Carissa ‘Storm’ is a smaller growing variety with tiny, dark green, glossy leaves.
- The small compact, thorny, shrub ‘Storm’ is great for creating borders and is extremely neat and tidy. This variety can be a little more difficult to find.
These exotic plants, being succulents, are very drought tolerant and perfect for planting in gardens that take a beating from the harsh South African sun. The leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds of the purslane plant are all edible with a sour edge.
Rock Purslane exhibits light to mid-green, diamond-shaped leaves, and from spring to fall, poppy-shaped, stunning bright magenta flowers are formed on stalks. These flowers have a country feel and almost look like they shouldn’t belong to that of a succulent.
Characteristics and special features of Rock Purslane:
- This succulent perennial grows about 20cm high, making it a great ground cover as well as filler.
- They don’t like wet feet, especially in winter, so make sure that you plant them in very well-drained soil, otherwise rotting will occur.
- This plant is fantastic in rockeries and can also be combined with indigenous or fynbos planting. It prefers full sun but might be able to take some shade as long as there is at least half a day of full sun.
I hope this list inspired you to consider adding some of these lesser-known plants that are making a comeback to your garden. They are all attractive, low-maintenance and bound to become a more prominent sight in the landscaping world. You should be able to get them from your local retailer. Feel free to ask them to order some if they aren’t already on the shelf already.
The article was written by Jessica Ruger (Horticultural blog writer) on behalf of Contours Landscapes and Contours Design Studio.