Like the proverbial Job – sitting on a heap of ash, lamenting the meaning of it all – I was ready to hang up the garden gloves and put the garden trowel away forever. The incessant heat, lack of rain, water restrictions and a garden withering away, was enough to pull me into into a deep, dark tunnel of despair with no light at the end. And then, we had rain! Not much, but enough to top up the pool, green up the mole-cricket infested lawn and give new life to the plectranthus in the forest.
I had little hope of seeing any plectranthus in flower this year, but miraculously after the rain, the withered leaves greened, the wilted stems straightened and flowers appeared! Masses of them, I guess in celebration of the gift of rain.
Autumn has arrived early, gone are the stifling hot days, replaced with balmy days which 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.
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. Spring with all its glory can muddle the onlooker as it can be too bountiful, too frenetic, too exciting. Autumn is quiet, serene. At this time of the year the various species of Plectranthus species come into flower, my favourite garden plant. 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.
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’, 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. 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 1b) 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.
Plectranthus spp are wonderful plants for dry or damp shade. Even in a sunny garden one can find a suitable microclimate for these plants, such as the south side of a wall where it is cooler with less sun. The forest species generally require slightly acid soil. They thrive on compost and natural non-burning organic products such as Neutrog.
Recommended varieties for the garden:
Shrubby plectranthus: mostly tall plants and best positioned as background plants.
Plectranthus eclonii: Medley Wood ( blue) , Erma (pink), and Tommy (white)
Plectranthus fruticosus: Mauve flowers, leaves purple below
Plectranthus saccatus: P.saccatus subsp.” King Goodwill”, has white flowers while “Ngoye” is similar with mauve flowers. P.saccatus subsp. saccatus ‘Nkandla’ is a real survivor, robust and resilient. It has a hooded upper lip, reminiscent of a shower head and best grown near a firepool where there is an ample supply of water.
- P. ambiguous: mauve flowers
- P. ciliates: white flowers, leaves purple below
- P. laxiflorus: white flowers
- P. madagascariensis : white flower
- P. neochilus: mauve
- P. strignosus: white flowers
- P. verticillatus: white flower
Alien Invasive Species Category 1 b, Remove and destroy.
Growing in gardens in Knysna also along roads in wooded areas, please take action and eradicate these plants
Plectranthus barbatus var. grandis = P. comosus, Abyssinian coleus, Wooly plectranthus