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Retro Plants We Still Love

Retro Plants We Still Love

Retro Plants We Still Love

Are they gone and replaced with other plants, or will we plant them again if we can? Fashions and trends seem to be circular, and that includes plant popularity. What was once very ‘in’ can suddenly be ‘out’. But, just like smoky eyes, the mini dress and hot pants are not permanently consigned to the past, some old-fashioned plants might return to our gardens. We take you on a nostalgic trip to remind you of them, but we also look into the reasons why they went out of fashion, if there are real reasons…

Abelia x grandiflora (glossy abelia)

In the colder gardens in particular, and even in ‘difficult’ climates such as coastal gardens, you could depend on the glossy abelia, normally the first plant listed in gardening books or catalogues. Although the genus includes about 30 species from Mexico and Asia, the glossy abelia is an evergreen garden hybrid that grows to about 2 x 1.5m, with long lateral branches. Its small oval leaves are dark green and glossy with a bronze tint on both older and new leaves. It produces bunches of subtly fragranced white bell-shaped flowers with a soft pink tint and rosy to light purple calyces. Although there is no shortage of flowers when in full bloom, it was never planted primarily as an exceptionally attractive flowering shrub, but rather a reliable grower that holds its own as a background shrub or informal hedge in sun and light shade.

In a nutshell

• Easy to grow – no special soil preference;

• Attractive to bees and butterflies;

• Unlikely to succumb to pests or diseases;

• Good winter foliage;

• Medium water user.

On the other hand…

This reliable shrub probably lost its popularity due to many later hybrids with smaller mature sizes and colourful variegated foliage. 

Grevillea lanigera ‘Mount Tamboritha’ 

An utterly charming, low-growing shrub also known as the spider flower, it copes perfectly in a wide range of climatic conditions. This native of Australia resists every heavy blow that Mother Nature throws at it in Africa, from stormy coastal winds to hot and dry summers to extreme winter cold. It is evergreen with dense and soft needle-like foliage and a neat growth habit up to 50cm high, as well as a surprisingly wide spread up to nearly 2m, which makes it ideal for planting over retaining walls or on warm banks. Unusual looking pinkish-red and cream flowers with protruding stamens appear from winter to summer.

In a nutshell

• Dense ground-hugging shrub suitable for all climates;

• Easy grower;

• Low water usage when established.

On the other hand…

As grevilleas belong to the Proteaceae family, they will basically have the same characteristics as our fynbos. ‘Mount Tamboritha’ can sometimes be lost due to root disturbance, root disease or over-fertilising, giving it a bad reputation.

Hebe diosmifolia (veronica)

Back when we still loved to plant mono-coloured gardens (especially those with only white flowers), the old-fashioned Hebe diosmifolia was a rather popular bordering plant with small,  lustrous, dark green leaves and petite flower heads full of white flowers. It is a hardy little shrub that scarcely grows larger than 25 x 30cm. The genus Hebe, named after the Greek goddess of youth, comprises in excess of 90 species and is the largest plant genus in New Zealand.

In a nutshell

• Cute filler plants for lasting summer colour;

• Medium water consumption;

• Ideal for smaller gardens.

The downside…

The hebes of the past were not the easiest plants to cultivate. They could produce beautiful flowers and foliage one season, only to be riddled with rust, twiggy growth and virtually no flowers the next, due to the rather erratic behaviour of the older varieties. There is renewed interest in hebes with new hybrids that are much tougher. They are disease resistant, have compact growth habits and carry beautiful, multi-hued blooms.

Ixora coccinea (flame of the forest)

The flame of the forest is the showy relative of the coffee plant, as both are members of the Rubiaceae family. This beauty, with its glorious summer and autumn display of large flowerheads consisting of densely packed scarlet tubular flowers, is more cold tolerant than the other exotic ixoras, so is suitable to subtropical climates. The growth form is evergreen and densely branched up to 1.2 – 1.8m in height, with glossy, leathery dark green leaves. It likes full sun or shade, and moist well-draining soil.

In a nutshell

• Often used as ornamental hedge;

• Great as a patio plant or indoor flowering plant;

• Good for poolside planting in roomy containers.

On the other hand…

I don’t really see a downside, as it is great for flower arranging too. In India and other parts of Asia, it is widely used as a medicinal plant to cure skin infections, hiccups and combat dandruff, amongst other ailments. Maybe it lost its favour due to the availability of numerous smaller cultivars in a wide array of colours. We can sure do with hothouse-grown ixoras to use as flowering houseplants!

Philadelphus coronarius (mock orange)

A cold-hardy deciduous shrub for dry background borders. This large shrub (2.5 x 1.5m), with its old-fashioned charm, has arching branches with dark green summer foliage. In spring it is smothered in four-petalled, cup-shaped white flowers with a lovely orange-blossom fragrance.

In a nutshell

• Tolerant to frost;

• Moderate watering requirements;

• Was often used as an informal flowering hedge in large gardens.

The downside 

Although it is fantastic when in bloom, it can deteriorate during the rest of the year if not pruned immediately after flowering. Sometimes a drastic cutback to ground level is needed to rejuvenate tired plants. It also has a suckering habit with new plants coming up all over the garden.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Canary Island’

A friend of mine always called this shrub, which gives you a flower on every summer and autumn day, ‘common’. Well, show me any other shrub that will flower so joyously in subtropical, temperate and hot coastal gardens. They have many uses in the garden, as screening, hedging, a small tree if trained into a single-stemmed plant, or as a standard topiary specimen.

In a nutshell
• Fast-growing;
• Wind resistant;
• Low water usage and low care once established.

On the other hand…

‘Canary Island’ and many other old-fashioned varieties have lost their place in our hearts due to the release of modern varieties with extremely showy flowers and smaller sizes, making them suitable to small gardens and to grow in patio pots, which is great. But I still love my big old plant, which always has the lower branches stripped bare of the lovely and safe flowers the kids so enjoy playing with.

Mahonia lomariifolia (Chinese holly grape)

This is not a plant that will invite you to touch it, as the crowns of quite ornamental, dark green feathery and leathery leaves, which can reach a length of nearly 50cm, have extremely spiny edges. There are lots of them too, as this strange upright plant (up to 3m high and 2m wide) is multi-stemmed. What made the Chinese holly grape so popular before is its willingness to grow in very deep shade. Also, its tolerance to wind, long periods of drought, extreme cold and heavy frost. Another bonus is large and upright plumes of small yellow flowers that are produced from late autumn to winter, even if the plant is growing in the most difficult conditions. They are followed by small dark blue to nearly black fruit.

In a nutshell
• Extremely hardy;
• Lover of darkness;
• Good security plant;
• Attractive to fruit-eating birds.

The downside

Even though Mahonia can grow into a dramatic specimen plant, is has the negative habit of losing a lot of its hard and spiny leaves when reaching maturity, which leaves it with bare stems. Leggy plants can be pruned back hard in spring to encourage compact and bushy growth, but it defeats the object of the exercise and creates uncomfortable pruning work.

Chaenomeles speciosa (flowering quince)

When this Asian plant sheds its leaves in the cool months, it mucks around with anyone who has a sense of order – the tangled and dense twiggy growth with spiny branches do give a neat effect, but after a cold and long winter it will suddenly burst into the most beautiful watermelon-coloured blossoms that nobody can resist.

In a nutshell

• Tough security hedge;

• Late winter colour with showy blossoms before the leaves come;

• Edible and fragrant fruit, but more suited to jams and jellies than just for picking off the plant.


The downside

On the sustainable food-scaping side, you would probably benefit more if you plant a real quince. On the ornamental side, I can tell you that the blossoms on this plant beat all other blossoms hands down, and that you will venture into the prickly depths to pick some branches covered in flowers to bring inside your home despite being left a bit bloodied…

Thryptomene ‘Paynes hybrid’

In the days before we could plant our own heathers or Erica species (because they were not commercially grown yet), we looked to ‘Paynes hybrid’ instead. An Australian native resembling a heather or erica, it comes complete with masses of dainty pink flowers during winter or spring with tiny heath-like leaves that are aromatic when bruised. The growth habit is spreading with a height of about 1m and a spread of 1.5m. The parentage of heather-like ‘Paynes hybrid’ is unknown, although the species T. Saxicola might have contributed a pollen grain or two…

In a nutshell

• Trust-worthy winter and early spring-flowering shrub with no holding back on blooming performance;

• Suitable to a climate that is not too hot nor too cold;
• Pest and disease free.

On the other hand…

This plant just had to make way for the vibrance and variety of our own indigenous erica species. Although we never worried about cutting off a thryptomene’s spreading branches covered in tiny flowers to display them in vases indoors, none of us have the hearts to do it to an indigenous erica that we have grown successfully, even though the plant is actually pleading with you to do it. See it as gentle pruning to encourage new growth and the floral repayment after giving it a chance in your garden.

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