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True Blue Australians
Even when I was still planting 'weeds' I sought out blue flowers - true blues as distinct from bluish purples and mauves. I never yearned for the blue rose, and I don't long for a blue callistemon today; there is no need for such oddities when we have a wide selection of really lovely true blues in our native plants.
The epitome of blue flowers is Lechenaultia biloba and it is the only one I have seen in great sheets of colour. Visits to the lechenaultia spots were a regular part of our winter Sunday excursions during my girlhoood in Perth as my stepmother wanted flowers for the vases. It didn't occur to us that there was any- thing wrong in this as there always seemed to be plenty left and just as much next year. The mid-blue (sky blue, I call it) was the most plentiful although we did sometimes find the darker or lighter variants.
These days I get my 'fix' by buying a plant in flower and I generally get more than my moneys worth of pleasure, even if it does not live to flower for a second season.
Luckily, there are lots of easier-to-grow blue flowered plants available. Admittedly most of them are small shrubs and herbs with a few climbers, but many are capable of making quite an impact.
A patch of sky
Through summer I have had a most satisfying patch of sky in the garden: a clump a good metre across of the local Wahlenbergia stricta - a mass of graceful glowing blue cups, or upside-down bells - yet over winter the ground was bare and one of its relatives with smaller leaves and tiny, but true blue, flowers was more conspicuous. Wahlenbergia stricta has displaced W.gloriosa in my affections as I find it more reliable and, to date, more persistent in the garden; and I really prefer the brighter, lighter blue. (Which is not to say that W.gloriosa is to be despised, it is still a very lovely plant.) Seed from this crop of W.stricta is to be scattered in my grassland; it just might establish - or perhaps re-establish is more precise.
A few weeks earlier Linum marginale had taken its turn, an even bigger, taller clump of waving sky-blue heads. This is another local that comes easily from seed but is not hard to keep in check. This seed will promote a further crop of flowers in the grassland, especially if food and water are supplied.
Out beyond the fence round the house paddock, in the swampy areas, surviving the hazards of grazers of all sorts and the competition of pasture grasses and clovers, is a sky-blue carpet on the ground: a sea of little faces of Isotoma fluviatilis. Just to be sure this continues to survive I have established clumps in the creek floor within the fence and I have it in pots and in the garden. All it demands is plenty of water. Much the same goes for the other blue mat-plant Pratia pedunculata with somewhat smaller, paler flowers.
In the bush . . .
In the bush past the gate I rejoice in a clump of blue pincushions, Brunonia australis. This small herb is found Australia-wide. If it is happy, its basal rosettes of leaves will turn up again and again and it may also seed itself. It is a small plant that does look like a weed when not in flower, so I generally end up losing it from the garden - I've cheated on the replacement this time and bought one.
Also a bit prone to come and go (but much more reliable about coming back) is Isotoma axillaris which is found in rocky outcrops hereabouts. This has interesting finely divided leaves and blue starry flowers. The mid-blue occurs here in north east Victoria but there is a deeper, equally lovely true blue form.
Not far from the brunonias is Cheiranthera cyanea (formerly C.linearis), the blue finger-flower. It is very conspicuous along roadsides not far off and has a wide distribution so possibly is not too fussy as to soil type. It must be pretty tough to live here.
The dianellas in the gullies have blue, not very showy flowers but the berries which follow are superb (if the birds give them time to mature). They tolerate shade and frost and wet places, and their strong tufting growth to half a metre or so can be used to good effect in the garden. I constantly find new plants in our deep gully where they are being brought to light by the removal of blackberries.
We don't have the nodding blue lily, Stypandra glauca, on the farm but it is common locally, seeming to prefer wet spots although found in both wet and dry. In its first flush of growth the arching stem is very graceful, but the stem-hugging leaves become dry and scraggy as the season dries out so it is best to hide its lower parts among other plants. Feeding and watering help to produce more attractive plants and bigger flower trusses. They are well worth the effort. I've sown seed and crossed my fingers. The seed of the related Thelionema caespitosum (formerly Stypandra caespitosa) has not done anything in six months so I bought a plant. This usually induces roots or sprouts in my own propagating trays.
These are just the blue herbs local to this area; there are also all the halganias and the blue dampieras.
One of the vivid impressions of my first trip to Esperance (south Western Australia) was of all the clumps of blue along the road margins, making this the dominant colour. There are lots of lovely dampieras to choose from, but if you want a true blue I recommend you see the plant in flower before you buy as some species are variable.
The Orthrosanthus species that I saw growing wild at Cape Le Grand was a pale shadow (maybe I struck it in a bad season) of the clumps of O.multiflorus I've seen in cultivation. These are tufting plants with iris-like leaves to around 0.6 m and clear blue flowers.
I have a form of Lobelia alata which I call 'Esperance Blue'. This starts flowering at the beginning of summer and continues until the frosts come. The tiny flowers are produced abundantly and it makes a good pot or basket plant. Too rampant, maybe, in some garden situations as it suckers freely as well as seeding - but just the type of plant I need for ground cover among taller shrubs.
I have hopes (but not great hopes) of a little plant of Boronia ramosa, with lovely smokey-blue waxy flowers, grown from an Esperance cutting.
Columns of blue
Climbers create effective columns of blue given a little support. The most commonly grown is Sollya heterophylla, another Esperance area plant, which flowers for quite a long time of the year. I have seen two plants trained up posts to form an archway, making a stunning picture, but don't plant this one where birds might carry the seeds into bushland.
I have only once seen Pronaya fraseri growing, but it was an unforgettable sight. It seems that it is a difficult plant to propagate. Billardiera drummondiana var. collina has no such restriction. It is a climber with light blue flowers - small, dainty, heavenly blue.
In contrast is another of my childhood memories: a garage smothered in the indigo blue flowers of Hardenbergia comptoniana. H.violacea has suffered in comparison although I've yet to grow the H.comptoniana to such a standard here in eastern Australia, but I have been heartened by seeing a pretty good example on a local Society member's verandah post.
A fit of the blues is, for me, nothing to get depressed about. There are just so many lovely ways to solve it.
From the Newsletter of the Society for Growing Australian Plants, Victorian Region, March 1991.
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Australian Plants online - June 2004
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