Monday, April 25, 2016

Gardenias - Which One to Plant and How to Care for Them?

FAMILY: Rubiacae
ORIGIN: South East Asia and South Africa

Gardenia magnifica

(Hallelujah! - One of the few plants with a botanic name that is the same as its common name AND it only has one of those - gardenia)

WHAT:  Gardenias are rightly among the most popular plants in Australian gardens (they certainly are in mine - I have four varieties) grown especially for their glorious white, perfumed flowers and evergreen, glossy leaves.  The added bonus, for us gardeners, is that they come in a variety of heights and shapes - which means that there is one for every spot in the temperate garden, making them among the most useful of landscaping plants.

Gardenia radicans The lowest growing of the gardenias that rarely gets above 50cm. which makes it very useful for edging, borders, rockeries and courtyards.  The leaves are small, pointed (narrow elliptic) and evergreen.  It flowers profusely - mostly in November and December with fragrant irregular white blossoms.
TOP TIP:  The radicans part of its name means 'with rooting stems' which means that it is very easy to propagate this variety from its side stems which readily throw out roots - you simply cut off the rooted stem and plant it.

Gardenia radicans in flower and used here, to great effect, as a border for these steps in this Asian style garden

Gardenia augusta This is a medium sized shrub - more wide than tall 2m x 1.5m.and a great evergreen 'filler' for the sub-tropical garden. 

The most common varieties are 'Professor Pucci' and 'Florida' (a variety of which is a ghastly thing called 'Golden Magic' the flowers of which turn from their gorgeous creamy white to a sickly yellow as soon as they open).  Known as the florists gardenia augusta makes a wonderful cut-flower and has an extended flowering season, throwing out blossoms throughout the summer with it's peak through November and December.  Leaves are small and a lustrous dark green that are paler beneath.  It's easy to keep this plant small, but it does require regular pruning.

Gardenia augusta

Gardenia magnifica  The queen of the gardenias (photo of flower at the top of the page) A taller shrub, which will get to over 2m if you let it, with glossy leaves and the most beautiful matt-white perfumed flowers.  It doesn't flower as profusely as the other varieties, with its main flowering time before Christmas.  I find that they prefer a little less light - happy in the morning sun with filtered light in the afternoon, whereas the radicans and august as will tolerate full sun - but not the hot afternoon sun from the west.

This plant in my garden was over 2m tall and  looking pretty sick - leaves turning yellow and falling leaving mostly bare stems.  I couldn't find any sign of pests or diseases.  What did I do? Cut it right back, fed mulched it and hoped for the best. This was a couple of months later.

TOP TIP: I am writing about gardenias now because, while they have their main flowering flush in early summer, they will keep popping out the odd flower throughout the warmer months .  They have just had their last dash so NOW IS THE TIME TO PRUNE THEM.  

Big mistake people - don't let the stems get long and leggy like this, PRUNE THEM - and don't do it when most people do, in spring, because you will be cutting of the developing flower buds.

Because gardenias flower on the current seasons' growth you will get more flowers if you prune them because pruning creates a multitude of side shoots that increase the flowering potential.

The above photo shows a Gardenia augusta in my neighbour's garden (sorry Dixie!).  What do you think this plant is crying out for?  1.  A haircut - note the leggy, bare stems. and 2. A feed - note the pale, yellowing leaves.

COMMON PROBLEMS:  There are two reasons why gardenias do so well is the sub-tropical garden and both are related to their origin - they come from the sub-tropics, from the edge of pine forests with inherently slightly acidic soils - as are ours (5.5-6pH) - so generally they are going to be quite happy in conditions that mimic their place of origin: a warm frost free spot, humidity and a slightly acid, rich soil.  Without this they may struggle - round pegs and square holes people!

1.  Plant generally pale green with yellowing leaves - (not to be confused with NORMAL winter yellowing of some lower leaves)  If you look at the plant in the above picture, you will notice an overall pale green colour with quite a few yellow leaves.

SOLUTION:  Give the plant a dose of Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) - gardenias quickly become deficient in magnesium, mulch it (they like cool roots) and feed it at least three times a year with a slow release organic fertilizer.  All of this will correct any pH problems and feed the soil with all the nutrients that these plants require.  

2.  Scale and sooty mould -  the waxy dots on the mid-rib of these gardenia leaves is a SCALE - a SAP SUCKER and a common pest of gardenias.  Note the ants all over the leaves.  ANTS and SCALE live in a symbiotic relationship - clever critters! The ants give the scale a piggy back to a new plant (scale can't fly), to feed off honey-dew that is exuded by the scale after it has sucked the life out of the new leaves, leaving them weakened and unsightly.  If you have noticed a BLACK SOOTY coating on the leaves  - this is a mould (that gets transported in the air) that lives off any excess HONEYDEW after the SCALE and ANTS have had their dinner.
SOLUTION: A simple, non-toxic, home-made eco oil - don't reach for the spray can!! (Click here for the whole story about SAP SUCKERS and how to control them).  Just mix this up in a spray bottle, give it a good shake and spray on affected areas - this smothers the scale - problem solved. Repeat as necessary.
3 tbsp cheap cooking oil
4 drops washing-up liquid
1 litre warm water

Infestation of caterpillars in the growing tips of gardenia

3.  Bud worm - damage to the growing tips of the plants and flower buds can be caused by a wide range of winged insects that lay their eggs on the gardenia and when they hatch the larvae (caterpillars) eat the juicy new bits.  I had noticed this recently on most of my gardenia bushes with tell-tale chewed shoots and leaves and webbing all over the growing tips.
SOLUTION: I am reluctant to reach first for any kind of control of garden insects, knowing that infestations are usually indicative that the plant is under stress - they are a bit like us, when we are run-down we get sick too.  Importantly, I didn't know how this critter fits in to the life cycle of other species.
1.  First of all I tried pruning all the bushes and cutting off the affected areas.
2.  When some persisted I sprayed the affected areas with Dipel - a non-toxic biological control of caterpillars.

1.  Gardenias are relatively easy to propagate from semi-hardwood, leafy tip cuttings with a heel of older wood - in other words, a stem tip that is not entirely green and beginning to turn brown. Cuttings are best taken in autumn and winter - makes sense to do it after you have pruned them - you have lots of propagating material! - and strike in a mixture of sand and compost.  For a detailed explanation of how to do this, go to this link.  I have four magnifica bushes in my garden, all growing from cuttings from of a bunch of gardenias I received about 12 years ago - it's that easy!
2. Refer to Gardenia radicans.  Their ability to throw out roots from side shoots is not unique to this little fella - all gardenias will do it.  Simply find a side shoot close to the soil, weigh it down with a stone, or peg it with a piece of wire, cover in nice moist soil and mulch and leave for a few weeks.  When it has grown roots, you simply cut off that stem and plant it.

You've got to love a plant that is named after a chap named Garden?  Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist (1707-178) and father of binomial nomenclature - the bloke who set about naming all plants and animals in a standardised and logical way - named the gardenia to honour Alexander Garden (1730-1791) - a Scottish physician and amateur plant collector who left his chilly homeland for the southern states of the USA where, I suspect, he saw gardenias for the first time and fell in love with them too?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Rose Petal and Rhubarb Jam

If you have never tried this you are in for a real treat - just opening the lid and smelling the wonderful fragrance of this jam is enough to have you running for a slice of fresh, crusty bread and butter.

I was prompted to make this yesterday because my adult son and daughter are taking a short break to visit their grandmas in the UK - my mum is 87 and my mother-in-law is 97 - and my son hasn't been for nearly 30 years and my daughter for 20.  What better than a jar of homemade jam to take for them - just hope they can fit it in when we take them to the airport this afternoon!

Traditional in cuisines of the Levant - eastern Mediterranean, I first tried this jam this whilst we were staying in an old Venetian villa on the Greek Island of Folegandros - it was made by the owner's grandmother and had me determined to try it for myself when I got home - it was so delicious.

Young, plump rhubarb (about 1 kilo)
White sugar - same amount in weight as the rhubarb
About 400 g fragrant, fresh, red rose petals
Juice of 2 lemons

1.  Wash the rhubarb and cut into one-inch pieces and place in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan.

2.  Sprinkle with the juice of the lemons and cover with the sugar.  Cover and leave to stand overnight.  DO NOT ADD ANY WATER.

3.  The next day, stir in the rose petals and bring to the boil.

4.  Do not reduce the heat but boil rapidly until setting-point has been reached. It will need to occasional stir to stop it sticking and burning.

5.  Remove from heat, cool slightly and pot in sterilised jars.  Seal when it has cooled.

NOTE:  Leaving the rhubarb overnight, covered in the lemon juice and sugar, helps to draw the moisture out of the fruit - repeat, YOU DO NOT NEED TO ADD WATER - if you do, it won't set.

This is what it looks like in the morning after sitting overnight - notice how much fluid is in the pan?

Any fragrant, old-fashioned kind of rose will do.  I used Papa Meilland because I have it growing in my garden.  "Roses in the sub-tropics" you might ask, but there are many that do well - specifically those that come from the sub-tropical parts of China - like this tea rose.  It has a long flowering season, sensational dark red colour and heady fragrance.

Talking about tea - time for a cuppa anyone and a slice of bread and jam?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Red Mullett: Eating Fresh for Less

Concerned about the sustainability of the fish we eat?  Look no further than the mullet - particularly the red mullet - a prized fish in the Mediterranean that sells for peanuts in Australia and then when you eat it you will see why barbounia is one of the most esteemed  eating fish in Greece.

Greek Island of Sifnos - where I first ate barbounia

This is one of my favourite spots in the whole world - a wonderful walk through the herb scented hillsides, along ancient Byzantine pathways - and then a divine dip in this beautiful water!

Red Mullet - Barbounia in Greece

RED MULLET:  I made a surprising find yesterday that made me very excited.  The Brunswick Heads Fish Co-op had fresh red mullet for $6.00 per kilo - yes, that's right folks - six bucks!  This is the most prized fish in Greece that you can pay about 50 euros ($100) per kilo for - they call it barbounia and generally cook it whole.

 Cherronissos Taverna, Sifnos - a red mullet experience!

I love fish, and all things from the sea, but the cost can be prohibitive - have you bought any salmon lately?  An article in Good Living last week (food supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald) was encouraging consumers to steer away from the costly popular varieties of fillet fish (like salmon, barramundi, tuna and jewfish) and adventure into the world of lesser known species (and mores sustainable) - and buy them whole - like our friend the red mullet.

So, after buying it from the Brunswick co-op the test was going to be; 1. Would it taste the same as the wonderful ones we had in Greece?, and 2. Would I be able to cook it the same way (I am not a good fish cook)?

Fresh local mullet from Brunswick Heads - $3.60!

I did my best!  Leave the heads on, gut them and give them a light dusting of flour then cook in hot olive oil for a minute or so on either side. I always cook fish outside on the burner of my barbecue (the smell!!) - so this was another 'torch job' in the dark and cold.  It was worth it - they were delicious with just a squeeze of lemon, thick-cut fried potatoes and a fennel salad.  The verdict from him - tops!!  Put it on the blog!!  As for me - well, just for five minutes I was back in Sifnos.

NOTE:  Like eating whole sardines and anchovies, you simply pick up the whole fish and eat the flesh off the bone - then leave the skeleton on your plate!  This is a relatively stress free experience with barbounia because it doesn't seem to have a lot of 'floating' small bones.

Fennel and Fish have always been good partners as it's digestive qualities help to counteract the strong flavour and oiliness of some fish - like salmon and mackerel.  It has always been popular as flavouring in fish soups and, along with lemon, in stuffing large fish before baking.  Go to the post about fennel.

Sifnos has 365 chapels and churches - one for every day of the year - this is one of them!

NOTE: Another surprising and delightful find this week has been the blog written by Maria Verivaki from Chania, Crete called Organically Cooked.  I found it while looking for the recipe for an amazing squid and potato dish that we had in Crete flavoured with fennel - I have put a link to it in the sidebar - and she has sent me the recipe - to be continued.  She has lots of wonderful Greek recipes.

NOTE:  Nicholas Culpepper is one of the most famous herbalists that ever lived and wrote the 'bible' for anyone interested in herbs Culpepper's Complete Herbal.  He just happened to live a very long time ago 1616-1654 and published his famous book in 1653.  Here's what he had to say about fish and fennel:

"One good old fashion is not yet left off, that is to boil fennel with fish: for it consumes the phlegmatic humour which fish most plentifully afford and annoy the body with.  I suppose the reason of its benefits this way is, because it is an herb of Mercury and under Virgo, and therefore bears antipathy to Pisces.  Fennel is good to break wind, to provoke urine, and ease the pains of the stone and helps to break it."  So there you go - from the horses mouth, so to speak

Sifnos, an outdoor oven with a view!