Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones.
One of the clearest signs from the plant kingdom that autumn is upon us is when members of the Barleria spp. or Bush violet burst into masses of dainty violet, purple, blue, pink or white flowers. Along with the arrival of the Cape Autumn widow butterfly fluttering along grass verges and in Steenbok Nature Reserve, as well as gradually shortening days and cooler temperatures, there can no longer be any doubt that autumn has arrived. If you haven’t already ordered your stocks of winter firewood, do not delay.
Barleria is a large genus named to honour a 17th century French botanist Jacques Barrelier, and comprises 120 species mainly from Africa and tropical Asia. In South Africa there are about 50 species. The most well-known and most rewarding is Barleria obtusa, with violet-blue flowers as well as baby-pink and white forms. The violet flowering form which grows in the wild from the Eastern Cape as far north as the Soutpansberg, puts on a spectacular show. Every branch is covered with dainty flowers. The pink and white forms, as well as the Barleria ‘Purple Prince’, with its darker violet flowers and slightly glossy leaves, are not nearly as prolific. Barleria repens, a lower-growing scrambling shrub, is useful as a ground cover and comes in deep cherry-red or royal purple.
Barleria obtusa and B. repens grow well in full sun and semi-shade, and can grow in a wide variety of soils, but do enjoy compost. They can be allowed to sprawl in a border or trimmed into a neat hedge. The shrubs can tolerate wind so are good coastal garden plants and thrive in rockeries as well as in pots. They need occasional watering during dry spells and can benefit from spring and midsummer feeding. Do not overdo the feeding as too much will result in a wonderful display of leaves and no flowers. Shrubs should be pruned back hard after flowering to ensure neat and compact growth. They can easily be grown from cuttings or seed and often seed themselves.
These undemanding, fast-growing and reliable evergreen shrubs are an asset to any garden, particularly when grown en masse, and fully justify their place with a beautiful autumn display during April and May.