Autumn has arrived. The balmy days are followed by crisp evenings, the dusky skies are streaked with hues of pinks and the morning mists hang heavily in the valleys.
The fruit- bearing shrubs and trees are covered with tasty berries to entice Loeries, Bul-buls, Mousebirds and Orioles. The autumn flowering bulbs and shrubs are putting on an amazing show to say goodbye to yet another year of being hosts to butterflies, bees and other insects. To me this is the most beautiful time of the year. There is a sense of fulfillment, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of a job well-done.
It is the time of the year various autumn bulbs and shrubby perennials come into their own: they can now take center stage. Spring with all its glory can muddle the onlooker as it can be too bountiful, too frenetic, too exciting. Autumn is quiet, serene.
My great loves of autumn flowering plants are the various Plectranthus species. Brush past them and they reward you with fragrance of musk, freshness of lemon, lavender, sage and thyme. Their soft shades of pinks, blues and purples create a fairy landscape in shady areas. They are very easy to grow, and fairly drought tolerant. I never feed or water the plants that are growing in the forest: the falling leaves of the trees provide all their nutritional requirements and the rain from the heavens their watering. In February we had good rains and that laid the foundation for a magnificent display this year.
Plectranthus belongs to a large cosmopolitan family of Lamiaceae. Familiar members include sage, mint, lavender, thyme and rosemary, which are known for their aromatic odours. The name pletctranthus means spurflower; plectron = spur and anthos = flower, which refers to the characteristic spur at the base of the corolla tube of Plectranthus fruticosus, the first plectranthus to be placed in the genus. The name is confusing because very few plectranthus species actually have this spur, but the French botanist L’H?ritier, who described the genus in 1788, did not know this. There are plus minus 350 species world wide, of which 59 occur in Southern Africa. You can find 7 species in the Western Cape, most of them occurring in our region. The indigenous Plectranthus from our forest and savannahs are among the gems of our flora.
Various hybrids have been introduced in recent years, of which Plectranthus ‘Mona lavender’, bred by Roger Jacques. It is a cross between P. saccatus and P.hilliariae, and the result is a short shrubby plant with an extended flowering season.
Plectranthus ciliatus ‘Sasha’ appeared on the garden scene a few years back under the Keith Kirsten label.
The exotic species P.barbatus from Tanzania, Sudan and Ethiopia has naturalized in South Africa, growing mainly in waste places. Because of its invasive status (category 3) it may no longer be sold by nurseries and I do encourage readers to remove and destroy these plants if you see them growing along roadsides.
Plectranthus species are pollinated by honeybee (apis mellifera) butterflies, bumblebees, and bombyliid flies. The tall flower spikes, flowering from March to April are easily seen by pollinators. Inflorescence dries during late autumn and winter when dispersal takes place by either wind or animals passing by.
These wonderful plants are worth cultivating – they do equally well in containers in a light shady spot. The trailing species are most suitable for hanging baskets or cascading down shady banks. In nature the plants last for about 3 – 5 years, but this can be increased in cultivation through regular pruning after flowering.
Contributor: Esther Townsend
Photos: Esther Townsend