Cold winter days of eternal grey and wet can make one easily think that winter might never end. But cheer up! For an uplifting perspective on the changing season, one only has to take a good refreshing walk and look around outside.
There's colour, lots of colour! Yes, even in this wintery world, Nature is already well prepared for the new season of life just ahead. Plants are much more sensitive to natural changes in their environment than we are. They have already sensed the increasing day length and stronger intensity of the sunlight as the Earth swings its Southern Hemisphere upward to face into the warming Spring sunlight.
The Taiwan Cherry, Prunus Campanulata, is among the first of the magnificent cherries to herald
springs’ earliest arrive with blossom and song. Deep pink clouds of small, bright cerise bells smother the upright spreading branches. The cascades of flower clusters attract a variety of birds (especially New Zealand native Silver Eye, Tui, and Wood Pigeon) that fluttering and dangle from the branches like elaborate feathered ornaments drinking the sweet nectar of early spring blossoms.
These trees prefer a well drained, humus rich soil and a mild, sheltered position out of strong winds or extremes. They are hardy throughout the temperate and subtropical regions. So hardy that they have been declared a ‘noxious pest’ in New Zealand’s Waikato region where they have taken a great fancy to beautifying the highlands around Taupo. It appears ironic that so many native bird species find them much more attractive than the agencies so determined to eradicate them; so
attractive that they received the ‘Award of Excellence’ in 1966.
Their tall, upright, arching nature makes them a superior avenue, arbor or feature tree. After flowering, the foliage ripens to a most attractive, cool green and in the autumn, transforms into vivid coloured foliage in shades of yellow, gold and crimson.
Bare winter branches reveal a bronzing bark with a metallic luster, offering some avian shelter and light wind protection while allowing winter sun to warm beneath it making the Taiwan Cherry an ideal specimen in a woodland garden, and a most valuable addition to a great variety of garden, landscape and urban settings.
Vireya Rhododendron is another winter jewel for colour and sometimes fragrance in the
garden. Vireya varieties and hybrids can flower at various times throughout the year, but many of the finest flower through the cooler winter months.
These are tropical and subtropical rhododendrons found from sea level to the high mountain forests of Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Southeast Asia. Because they often grow in high, cool mountain latitudes, just below the frost line these plants are quite adaptable to cool, moist, humid climates that remain nearly frost-free. They thrive in similar environmental conditions to the normal rhododendron or azalea but will often tolerate more sun without the foliage burning.
These are epiphytic plants absorbing moisture and food from the air as much as from their roots. They prefer a fluffy, humus-rich ‘forest’ soil that drains freely and remains slightly acid and always lightly moist. Mulching with peat, compost or well aged manures is beneficial. Where their growing environment remains moist, humid and warm, they are easily grown in similar conditions to cymbidium orchids and bromeliads.
Fertilizer in a slow release or granular form can be added to the mulch in which they grow. Some gardeners prefer a mix of blood and bone plus a commercial azalea/camellia food. Being epiphytic they also respond well to foliar feeding. It's best to feed lightly but constantly throughout the year.
Best times to feed are especially right after a burst of flowering has just finished and before the next layer of growth begins; and very lightly soon after a tight flower bud emerges in the central rosette of maturing foliage.
The spectacular flowers are clusters of waxy, tubular flowers in a vivid array of colours and forms. Some create massive domed heads; others are petite translucent bells, or clusters of pendant ornaments. There are species that flower in singular clusters throughout the year while others are smothered in bloom all at once or go through repeated blooming cycles throughout the year.
Golden Charm has huge yellow golden bell-shaped blooms, Java and Java Light are impressive glowing trusses in edible shades of orange; Candy is a soft pink with delicate smaller trumpets; and Simbu Sunset is a breathtaking bright golden yellow with a florescent orange edge to each petal.
Vireya are easily grown in containers where they will happily flower for years. Their epiphytic nature means they are as much reliant on the appropriate growing environment as their container and growing medium. In temperate climates experiencing frost or freezing, they make excellent subjects for the cool or heated glasshouse and sunroom.
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