A year ago my Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) flowered in early December.
This year they are blooming in time for Christmas, one of the many treats thrown up by this extraordinary season. Last year's two bulbs produced one offset, so I hope eventually to have a lovely big Christmas clump.
Madonna lily bulbs can be hard to find so keep your eyes open when spring bulbs come into nurseries in the new year. Like snowdrops (Galanthus) liliums have no summer dormancy, so plant them as soon as you get home. They need good drainage and plenty of lime.
Meanwhile if you're under pressure to produce a last-minute Christmas gift there's no better place to look than a nursery.
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Flowers make lovely presents: watch someone's face light up when you give them a bunch. Scarlet poinsettias from Mexico bloom in winter in warm climates but growers here have mastered the trick of producing small plants in midsummer, often carrying one huge double flower to enhance your Christmas décor. Poinsettia belongs to the euphorbia family so beware the poisonous milky sap when children are around.
Pelargoniums and alstroemerias are also in bloom now. Regal pelargoniums are the grand relations of everyday geraniums, with clusters of bigger, trumpet shaped flowers in shades of purple, pink, pillar box red and white, each carrying a dark blotch at the base of the petal. Peruvian lilies or alstroemerias have orchid-like flowers in cream, pink, red and orange, streaked and splashed with a darker colour.
Always check an alstroemeria's label to be sure it's a large-flowered hybrid, not the invasive parrot lily species, A. psittacina. The latter's flowers are greatly inferior and no-one will thank you for the fleshy, dead men's fingers roots which are a nightmare to eradicate.
Pots make lovely gifts, especially if you have time to plant one up with a few small plants. There's plenty of choice of seedlings and rooted cuttings for under $10 in the 10 centimetre pot bracket. Try a small collection from one group - cacti, succulents, herbs, say - in contrasting shapes, textures and colours.
Herbs make a lovely present and seedlings planted now can be kept going until autumn. Basil, coriander and Vietnamese mint (Persicaria) are all easy. For contrast, add some flavoursome sorrel, Rumex sanguineus Raspberry Dressing, whose lime green leaves are heavily veined vivid red.
Poppies, sweet peas and honesty are seeding now, and native tree seedlings like casuarinas and wattles are emerging, exactly the right size to dig and pot up for planting next autumn. Have a happy Christmas.
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