By Patricia Jordan
I read a most interesting article on the web recently about the origins of flowering plants. Apparently, they make up around 90 per cent of all living plant species but before any flowers appeared, ferns and conifers dominated the earth. Dale Russell, a palaeontologist at North Carolina State University and the State Museum of Natural Sciences, said that “the earth was like a Japanese garden – peaceful, sombre and green, inhabited by fish, turtles and dragonflies. After the flowering plants appeared, the world became like an English garden, full of bright colour and variety, visited by butterflies and honeybees”.
This was many millions of years ago, when the first flowers (or angiospermums as they are known botanically) came about. As they grew, they eventually began to dominate the other plant life and the earth became a brighter, more colourful place. It is thought that dinosaurs were responsible for the distribution of many seeds as they roamed through the forests, clearing the ground and letting in light as they did so. Rather like as with present-day animals and birds, hard cased seeds were dispersed in their droppings.
An obscure shrub found only in New Caledonia emerged as probably the first flowering plant found by man. Amborella trichopoda, right at the bottom of angiospermum list and living deep within the tropical forests there, has tiny, 6mm, greenish-yellow flowers. It is thought that water lilies were next in line, closely followed by star anise. During 30 years of research sieving through sand and clay sediment, scientists have found many more traces of tiny ancient flowers.
In the flowering plant world, there are thought to be around 300,000 species, whose colour and form enhance our gardens and verandas with their beauty and perfume. Not all are decorative and some provide us with food. Others have uses like carpentry, clothing (linen, flax and cotton) and charcoal to cook with. Plants can be male or female (see plant of the month), needing fertilisation between them to make the seeds with which to further the species, while others are known as hermaphrodite, meaning that they are able to self-fertilise.
Largest of all the plant families is Asteraceae with daisy-like flowers, having about 24,000 named species. The next largest family is orchids, which are very popular now as houseplants but which grew on trees not that long ago. The list goes on and on, with grass (Poaceae) and potatoes (Solanum) both plants that give us nourishment as well as flowers. Last but not least, peas and beans are part of the Fabaceae family, where the seeds appear in pods, and are known as legumes.
All these plants, except some of the grasses that are wind pollinated, depend on insects to fertilise them. Drawn to the flowers either by their perfumes or by colours in their search for nectar, they are able to carry pollen grains on their bodies to nearby flowers, thus ensuring in the fullness of time seeds, which will ripen and germinate.
Our problem nowadays is not dinosaurs rampaging through the earth and disrupting the way of life but global warming so that our choice of plants may well become very limited as temperatures soar! I have spent the last two years writing a new book called Flowering Plants for Hot Gardens, which lists plants that can cope with the expected hot weather. It is in the bookshops now and on line at www.gardenclubofcyprus.com.
WHAT TO DO IN THE GARDEN THIS MONTH
February can be a cold, wet month, when we usually get the bulk of our rain. It seems that those who are in charge of our dams and water sources fret every year about the lack of winter rain and it is a worry in this small, normally hot island. The best rain to have is that which is able to sink through the earth right down to where the feeding roots of trees and shrubs are, and not frenetic showers that just wash the soil away. It’s a good idea to hoe any compacted soil around the base of trees, for not only does this remove any offending weeds, it also loosens the soil, allowing the rainwater to penetrate the earth rather than bounce off. However, we do need some sunny weather as well to have a reasonable garden and to encourage us to get out there and start on the jobs that should be done in February.
This is the time to start pruning your fruit and nut trees. There are likely to be fruits still on the branches but you can always come back to deal with those once you have picked the fruit. It is very important to use sharp and very clean secateurs or loppers for the job, as you may transfer disease from tree to tree if you don’t. Look for any dead or diseased branches and those that cross in the centre of the tree. If the centre is crowded, it creates an environment where diseases, like botrytis, can develop. Check out professional orchards and you will see that the trees are all kept to a manageable height for cropping the fruits. This means that you don’t have to risk life and limb to do so. Keep the trunks clear of growths (fingers and thumbs are useful here) and ensure that the bottom branches are not so low that you can’t get in there to feed and weed. This month you should be giving your trees their first feed of the year. Use 20.10.10 fertiliser, 900g (3 mugfuls) for large trees and 300g (1 mugful) for smaller trees. Spread this around the base of the trees between the trunk and the edge of the tree canopy, where the feeding roots are. Pomegranates generally don’t need feeding after the first couple of years.
Vines also put on enormous growth during the year and the supports have to be very strong to take the weight. Most people grow them over a framework of scaffolding poles firmly dug or cemented into the ground. Make pruning a priority job before the sap starts to rise or the vine might bleed if you cut into it too late. Like the other fruit trees, you should cut out any dead or diseased branches and try to keep the centre clear of growth. Cut back the fruiting stems to one or two buds and only keep the strongest shoots. Later on, take off any non-flowering trusses and cut those stems back to five or six leaves. You can make new vines by planting the strongest prunings straight into the soil, and when they have calloused, they will make new roots. This can take quite a while though and if you are in a hurry to have fruits, then you should buy rooted plants from a garden centre. The best green seedless grape is Thompson and for reds, many people like the very large ‘Veriko’ grape, but it has a tough skin and many pips.
PLANT OF THE MONTH Skimmia japonica
These potted compact evergreen shrubs are available in garden centres here during the winter months. Originally from such far away countries as the Himalayas, China and Japan (which gives rise to their botanical name of Skimmia japonica), their aromatic, glossy leaves provide a perfect foil firstly for the red flower buds and then the dainty panicles of small, white flowers. Skimmia plants will be either male or female and to get berries you need one of each! As the plants available here are only labelled skimmia, it is impossible to tell whether they are male or female. Rubella is a male plant, but there are some that are hermaphrodite, meaning that they have both male and female sex organs. These plants will give you flowers and berries. Whichever they are, enjoy their buds and flowers!
In northern Europe you will find them growing in gardens quite happily but I have found that they do not transfer well from pot to plot here. Watch out for plants that have the thick roots winding around inside the pots – a good way to discover this is to check that roots are not protruding from the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. In the garden, they need a good neutral to acid soil with some added humus or well-rotted manure. Skimmia can tolerate periods of drought if grown in open ground, although they prefer a shadier spot as the hot sun can turn their leathery leaves yellow.
These shrubs are very easy to look after, and rarely need much in the way of care and attention once established. Feed every spring with a balanced granular plant food. Those suitable for camellias and rhododendrons are a good choice, especially in alkaline soils. Propagate by seeds in the autumn. Plants rarely need any pruning, but if needed this should be carried out in spring after flowering has finished. All parts of skimmia, including the berries, can cause discomfort if eaten.