Melianthus Major

13 Jun

In the popular imagination, flowers are nice. I’m sure there are quite a few tropes along those lines; but I have one in particular in mind, to do with flowers and bees. Bees feed on sweet nectar and make sweet honey. It’s a wholesome image.

But Melianthus, literally Honey-flower, makes the popular imagination seem more saccharine than sweet. It produces nectar in such quantity that it drips from the flowers – viscous, dark and toxic – onto the foliage below. To me, this makes it just perfect for the garden; perfect and poisonous.

I got hold of a couple of these plants just as they were finishing flowering. My long-suffering mother carted them down yesterday in the car, no mean feat given that they are odorous plants (i’d describe the scent as somewhere between elderflower and peanut butter) and are a good 5′ tall:
“You must be sick of the smell Mum”
“It’s not so bad. I’ve got something dark and sticky on my arm though.”
“Erm, you might want to wash that off.”
“Why, is it poisonous?”
“Apparently.”

As I say, most of the flowers have set seed now, swelling into rose-blushed, pale turquoise box kites. Here’s a picture:

Realistically, in this climate, they are foliage plants. The two examples I have have been grown in a greenhouse, hence the flowers. Flowers are produced on the previous year’s wood but Winter will cut them to the ground here. In their native South Africa they are evergreen shrubs, flowering in Spring after experiencing warmer, drier Winters than in Britain. Here, they need a little protection from Winter wet and cold if they are to emerge from the ground again next year. Not a problem. I’ve put them in the large raised bed, which has tons – literally tons – of sand and grit added to the soil.
But, yes, as I say, these are to be foliage plants. And what leaves they have, appearing as though cut out with pinking shears from some blue-grey material.

Happily, I had a couple of free places next to the Strawberry Tree Arbutus unedo, whose new, apple green leaves are a good complement for glaucous Melianthus. I’m having trouble with the camera at the moment, hence the blurring . . .

One more thing about this plant. Like many suitable for ‘exotic’ gardening in my part of the world, it is a noxious weed in warmer parts of the world. Here, it does its best to take over, growing strongly once the ground is warm enough, creeping around with its roots in a similarly adventurous way to bamboo, until hard frost checks its progress each year. In New Zealand it gets everywhere, it drips, stains, reeks, interweaves with other plants and the older growth sticks around long enough to look brown and shabby.

With a bit of persuasion, you could say I get the best of both worlds from this plant: the vigour and the attractive new foliage. After all, having a garden that looks like some other, far away place isn’t the point. It’s not veldt or jungle i’m after, it’s inappropriateness.

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2 Responses to “Melianthus Major”

  1. Loree / danger garden June 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Great minds thinking alike, I posted photos of Melianthus blooms today as well. No seeds yet though, they are still in their early days.

    Enjoying your blog!

    • thechthonianlife June 13, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

      Hey, thanks a lot; you have the honour of first comment here! Which is nice, as I enjoy reading your blog.

      No doubt these plants won’t attain the same stature next year, though I hear that the seeds germinate fairly easily so no big problem: i’m happy to settle for quantity over quality.

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