Summer's splendid purple patch in full bloom

Summer's splendid purple patch in full bloom

Life & Style
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Early summer is jacaranda time in NSW.

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Jacaranda flowers appear before the leaves and totally envelop the tree in early summer.

Jacaranda flowers appear before the leaves and totally envelop the tree in early summer.

Early summer is jacaranda time in NSW.

This year I caught the annual floral miracle twice: at Grafton Jacaranda Festival in October and then again in Sydney three weeks later, where despite heat, drought and ferocious winds hundreds of jacaranda trees turned on a sensational display of fragrant, rich purple flowers.

Jacarandas belong to the Trumpet Vine (Bignoniaceae) family and are native to tropical and sub-tropical central and south America. J. mimosifolia, the most commonly planted species, is large, spreading sub-tropical tree (up to 15 metres high x 10 metres wide) from drier parts of South America, which is partly why it has adapted so well to life in Australia, the world's driest continent.

It is almost evergreen, its ferny leaves turning yellow at the end of winter and falling just before the flowers appear in dense clusters that envelop the trees' stems and branches.

According to Derelie Cherry in her biography Alexander Macleay, From Scotland to Sydney (2012), it was Macleay who brought the first jacarandas to NSW for the fine garden he was making at Elizabeth Bay House.

Macleay was a passionate plant lover and gardener - he was secretary of the Linnaean Society in London from 1798-1825 - and he introduced many lovely plants to Australia, including wisteria, double white Camellia japonica and many roses.

He grew jacarandas from seed imported directly from South America, and native plants from Western Australia previously unknown in NSW.

Although sub-tropical, jacarandas tolerate light frost but in cooler areas trees grow more slowly and their blooms are smaller and less dense. Good-sized trees flower every November on the hinterland west of Sydney, in locations up to an elevation of 500m.

They like full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. In districts with dry summers, they will need some irrigation. If you'd like to emulate Alexander Macleay and grow one from seed, it will take longer to flower than a grafted tree and its flower colour may vary.

If you already have a jacaranda, look out for seedlings: who knows, you may discover an exciting new variation in flower colour.

I'd dearly love a jacaranda tree but even in my most optimistic moments, I can't seriously imagine one surviving a winter in my garden, let alone flowering.

Luckily, there are lots of frost-hardy flowering trees for highland and inland gardens.

The Persian silk tree (Albizia julibrissin) is startlingly similar to the jacaranda, with ferny leaves and a broad, spreading canopy. It carries bunches of fluffy pink flowers and tolerates temperatures down to a bitter -20 degrees.

Equally hardy is the smokebush, Cotinus coggygria (survives -25 degrees, brrr). Mine are all large shrubs but left to its own devices the smokebush grows into a splendid small, spreading tree. It's reliably tough and drought-hardy, with early summer flowers like puffs of mist and large, rounded leaves turning gorgeous red, orange and gold in autumn.

Marginally less hardy (to -18 degrees.), the evergreen Loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica, five to 10m.) has creamy flowers, golden orange fruit and a striking, architectural shape.

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