Monday, 28 March 2016

Delightful Flowering Gingers

During February last year, we had the good fortune to stumble across potted specimens of two beautiful, flowering gingers. Of all unlikely places, they were purchased at our local fruit shop.

The ginger plants were kept in their pots in a shady location throughout the warm autumn months, simply keeping them well watered. They remained in their pots right through winter, the plants dying back as the colder weather of May set in. Finally, with the arrival of spring, they were transferred to a specially prepared garden bed.

The selected ‘gingers’ bed was in a semi-shaded environment. Having seen wild beehive ginger plants, growing contentedly at the shaded feet of forest giants in the jungles of Malaysia, we were not prepared to ‘risk’ a full sun location… Australian summer sun can be very fierce! At the time of planting, the dormant gingers were well fertilised with pelletised chicken manure and heavily mulched to suppress weeds. In addition, a number of chilli plants were allowed to grow as cover for the gingers, whose first shoots were unfurled in early November.

Along with the flowering gingers and protector chillies, the ‘gingers’ bed contains common ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa). These are grown for the table rather than the flowers.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

 Come February, after three months of leafy growth, the first of the gingers flowered again. This was the lovely Siam Tulip (Curcuma alismatifolia) with its delightfully attractive pink torch flower. 

As an interesting aside, this ginger has become the centrepiece of eco-tours in Pa Hin Ngam National Park and Sai Thong National Park in the Chayaphum region of Thailand.

Just a few days later, the flowering of the Siam Tulip was succeeded by the pendant, appropriately-named blooms of the Dancing Ladies Ginger (Globba winitii).

The flowers of the Dancing Ladies come in a range of colours ranging from white, through pink to purplish tones. 

 Not only are these two gingers interesting floral specimens, they will also maintain their flowers over a period of two months or more, creating an eye-catching display.

With further good fortune, a few weeks back, we were able to purchase another gorgeous Siam Tulip, this time a white variety. This white Siam Tulip is a smaller plant than its pink namesake. When it is added to the dedicated ginger bed in the coming spring, it will need to be given a ‘front-row seat’ to show off its brilliant flower heads.

Now, there is one more flowering ginger which we have been attempting to grow. It is the very impressive beehive ginger. After four years of struggling to gain a foothold on life, our ‘beehive’ is finally beginning to flourish, putting out a number of healthy vegetative stems. Unfortunately, we have not as yet been blessed with flowers… Perhaps, the temperate climate of Sydney is just too cool for this beautiful ginger to bloom… Nevertheless, the plant has found a comfortable home at the foot of one of our jackfruit trees.

Beehive ginger in the home environment

A Beehive Ginger in its natural Malaysian environment

Over the past four years, we have become accustomed to the growth cycles of our turmeric plants, in particular. Applying similar principles to the establishment of our flowering gingers, we hope that our attempts to naturalise these beautiful plants will be successful, allowing them to prosper and multiply.  In fact, it would be lovely to have more than one colourful pocket of these summer and autumn bloomers in the garden.
With the colder weather of May approaching, it is time for one last feed of these delightful plants.

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Frangipani Collar Rot

It is disappointing to lose one of the most beautiful plants in your garden. In the case of frangipanis, however, the problem has a solution...easy, but not preferred.

Our Fruit Salad Frangipani in healthier days

At the start of spring, our Fruit Salad Frangipani was struck down with collar rot. It is my belief that the disease was induced by its heavy layer of mulch. Under normal conditions, mulch is an asset to a garden, because it acts to conserve valuable water and limit nutrient-stealing weeds. However, the thick mulch had been pushed up against the trunk of the plant, creating an overly damp environment. The probable vectors of the plant's demise were a pair of Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula) which regularly scratched and fossicked in the mulch in search of worms and other garden organisms. The lesson has been learned the hard way: ensure that the mulch stays right away from the trunk of the plant… especially with the presence of blackbirds!

Peeled bark at ground level... symptom of collar rot

Apart from the physical symptom of collar rot, a type of ring-barking of the trunk at ground level, the frangipani appeared ‘delayed’, rather than dead. For some time, we were puzzled that the plant was not flourishing. Flowers had been produced right throughout the spring and summer, but no leaves, only juvenile leaf stubs were present, giving an appearance of life. This behaviour was clearly a signal: the tree continued to flower in hope of re-creating itself before it died.

Flowers but no true leaves

Sadly, the tree will need to be removed.

Fortunately, frangipanis are relatively easy to grow from cuttings. Not only tips, but also full branches can be struck to create new plants.

When you take your cuttings, ensure that the milky sap flowing from the cutting has dried. Some people will recommend leaving your cutting to dry for a fortnight before potting up. I even know of a person who successfully struck a frangipani cutting after neglecting it for months.  For me, two days of drying out is sufficient.

The milky, white sap drips from a fresh frangipani cutting

Once potted, do not over-water your frangipani cuttings: water sparingly every few days, because frangipanis resent having ‘wet feet’.

Our original Fruit Salad Frangipani was cutting-grown and had shown that it was a fast growing variety, reaching over two metres in its first three years. The replacement cuttings are showing the same, energetic growth habits and have quickly established over the past month. They will remain in their pots through the winter months. However, when the weather warms again, the strongest cutting will be selected to replace our ailing frangipani. No-one wants to lose one of their favourite trees. However, we can be thankful that frangipanis are so easy to replicate!

A new cutting with first signs of success

Two thriving cuttings from the Fruit Salad Frangipani

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Common Australian Crow Butterfly

The beautiful black and white Common Crow visits us almost every day. The graceful flight of this medium-sized butterfly is a welcome sight… It is a distinctive butterfly, with its bracelet of white spots set against its shiny black predominance. Of the various butterflies to visit our garden over the warm season, this has been the most prevalent.

The Common Crow is a relaxed visitor. Unlike other passing butterflies, it will settle for long periods, feeding upon nectar-bearing flowers, moving unhurriedly and elegantly from bloom to bloom. Apparently, its body can produce a leave-me-alone scent to deter attack from birds. This scent acts as a warning that the butterfly is unpalatable to our feathered friends.

We have seen the Australian Crow feeding at a number of our garden plants. It frequents the limau kasturi at flowering time. At other times, it is a delight to watch it circle the lime tree in search of any available little white blossoms upon which to feed.

It also drops by the large pink flowers of our Grevillea ‘Caloundra Gem’. This shrub is also regularly visited by two bird species, the Noisy Minor and the Rainbow Lorikeet… our butterfly seems undeterred and unconcerned by their presence.

Without a doubt, however, its most common haunt is the China Doll plant (Duranta erecta). Every fine day, one, or a pair of, Common Crows can be seen feeding for long periods on the abundant blue and white blooms on display, regularly in the late morning and again in the late afternoon. Here, it must compete with all manner of flying trouble, ranging from bees and wasps to dragon flies. Regardless, it returns to sup time after time.

Yesterday provided an interesting encounter with a Common Crow. I was hand-watering some pots. In the process, water spilled onto our bush rock pathway. Without a care, a passing Common Crow landed right at my feet to drink. Our interaction continued for some time, the butterfly unconcerned about my presence or about the fact that our cat, restrained, was sitting beside me!

The Australian Common Crow (Euploea core) appears to be one of a number of closely related species which can be found throughout the Southeast Asian nations, northern Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Fascinating Fish Chilli

Sometimes, one can be surprised by the gifts passed on to you by other gardeners, especially if that gift comes in the form of seed.

Seven years ago, my mother was given two sets of chilli seeds by a friend, aware of my interest in growing them. Unaware of what we had been given, but very grateful for the gift, the seeds were planted in my mother’s garden… and promptly forgotten! Some weeks later, a group of four or five pretty little plants had sprouted. To our surprise, the plants had lovely variegated leaves.

The little plants were lifted and grown on in the Colinas garden. Within weeks, some beautiful white flowers appeared to be followed by the most unusual striped fruit in shades of cream and lime green. To the internet…

The chilli was Fish Chilli, a variety of Capsicum annuum, an heirloom variety… an absolutely wonderful gift!

It is believed that Fish Chilli originated in the United States in the coastal areas around Baltimore and Philadelphia. The African-American communities used the cream-green, immature form of the chilli to season creamy oyster and crab dishes. The fish sauces would retain their cream colour, untainted by the colouring of red chill, but would have a surprising piquancy. The origin of this chilli is a fascinating tale in itself and there is an interesting recount of this at Garden Betty.

Fish Chilli is not a tall plant, growing to about 50 or 60 centimetres in height. It is beautiful at all stages of its growth: When the cream-green, immature pods ripen, they become orange with red stripes, some remaining totally red. 

Like all Capsicum annuum plants, the Fish Chilli has a disconcerting, or fascinating habit… this depends upon your attitude, of course. If it is close planted with other Capsicum annuum species, the wind and insects performing their pollinating duties, its progeny will develop characteristics of the nearby plant… Unusual colour forms will appear in your garden… If you wish to retain genuine Fish Chilli plants generation after generation, it must be planted at a distance from other chilli plants. Be warned… the albino variegation of the Fish Chilli is a recessive gene: it is possible to lose the original characteristics of the plant over time, even in the first new generation of seedlings.

On the positive side, the remarkable variegations of the Fish Chilli might well be passed on in other plant forms and colours.

Minor variegations of the leaves of a black chill seedling

New pod shape and colour on the original variegated bush

A beautiful deep purple hybrid of Fish Chilli

It is a worthy plant for all gardens, a curiosity of the chilli family.

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Water-Loving Laksa Leaf

I rarely buy a potted herb on impulse… there are some herbs which will run rampant through a garden, given half a dose of water… I am thinking members of the mint family at the moment… whereas others will ‘turn up their toes’ if their growing conditions are not absolutely correct, leaving you with a patch of shrivelled brown.

In establishing our garden fish pond three and a half years ago, I wanted to grow one Asian aquatic plant which could be utilised in the kitchen. After a lot of reading, I decided to experiment with daun laksa (Vietnamese Mint) … and the experiment has been largely successful.

Daun Laksa (Persicaria odorata) will survive in a fish pond. However, in a filtered fish pond, the plant might not find sufficient nutrients for its needs. This is indicated by the development of small leaves, lacking the true colours of the plant. In fact, in its micro-environment in our garden, the plant grows most healthily where it has escaped the pond, running on to the pond margins, under the cover of a native grevillea.

In recent weeks, I have continued the experiment with the laksa leaf, by taking cuttings. The first cuttings were placed in small pots with the addition of some organic fertiliser and put into a shallow area of the pond. These cuttings failed.

A second set of cuttings, however, were successful. They were potted identically and covered with an up-ended halved water bottle and left in a shady area. These were given daily water until roots formed. New vegetative shoots indicated that the plants were succeeding. Only at this time were the little plants placed in the pond where they continued to send out new growth… The strongest plant has since been transferred to our kitchen garden where it appears to be living happily with a rice paddy plant, kangkung, lemon grass and chives. Under the shade of a kaffir lime tree and given daily watering it should grow happily in its new location.

For us, the daun laksa is largely an ornamental plant, due to its striking, green and chestnut lance-shaped leaves. In the past we have used it to make the famous laksa of Malaysia and a Thai salad which requires the leaf. In addition, we sometimes use it as one of the ingredients of rice paper rolls (popiah).

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Kota Kinabalu Night Market

Sometimes, one can overlook the most interesting attractions in a new location. So it was with us. In our obsession to find a place to dance in Kota Kinabalu, we neglected to research properly our second love in Malaysian towns – the night markets. Full of life and colour, with interesting stalls and tasty finger food, night markets deserve one’s attention.

Kota Kinabalu is in East Malaysia, the capital city of the state of Sabah. We spent five days in Kota Kinabalu. However, we did not find their splendid night market until our second last evening. Even then, this was a chance finding.

As night started to descend on our penultimate evening in Sabah, we sought out the Rumba Latin Bar and Grill, looking for a dance venue. The name sounds like a dance venue, doesn’t it? Nobody, even taxi drivers could tell us where it could be found, so we searched among the bars along the waterfront. We had no luck… no dancing tonight… but we did enjoy a lovely meal before a stunningly beautiful sunset descended upon us.

When darkness arrived, we spotted the lights of the night market stalls: it turned out to be one of the best night markets we have experienced in Malaysia. The main attraction was the fresh, very fresh fish which was being unloaded from the boats and placed on stalls as we looked on. Further along, stall-holders were preparing and barbecuing fish. The alluring smell of the barbecue and the hazy, smoke-filled atmosphere drew us in its direction...

There was a vast array of other kedai, selling apong balik (folded, crunchy peanut pancakes) and other cakes, banana fritters, curries, ice drinks, fruit, spices and vegetables. Ironically, late in our trip to Kota Kinabalu, we had discovered that this would be open every night… tomorrow night, aisle 3, seafood dinner!

So, just before dusk the next evening, we sought out another beautiful sunset – and we were rewarded amply again, taking many superb photos of the harbour and its watercraft, the Waterfront and Le Meridien Hotel, draped in golden sunset hues.

Once the sun had set, we sought out our fish chef in aisle three: we relished a Tuysilla fish, an enormous tiger prawn each, and a skewer of ten squid, all barbecued in tasty sauces. The fish was a little under-done. However, the chef was very amenable to cooking it for us for just a little bit longer. Eyes bigger than our bellies, we had ordered too much. Satisfied? Yes. Definitely.

As difficult as it was to walk with a belly full of fish, waddling like pelicans, we decided to wander through each of the night market aisles, shopping for goodies for our return flight to West Malaysia in the morning. Sweet Filipino mangoes fell into our basket, along with apong balik, ube and pisang goreng (sweet potato and banana fritters), onde-onde (pandan, coconut and palm sugar dumplings) and kue lenggang (coconut wrapped in a pandan-flavoured pancake).

Then, to top off the bloated feeling, we enjoyed a very simple dessert of ABC (Ais Batu Campur or Ais Kachang).

Memories of our stay in Kota Kinabalu and Sabah are held warmly in our hearts, the night market being high on our list of places to revisit. In fact, this year, we had mapped out our second coming. However, on advice from the Australian Government website, ‘Smart Traveller’, we have decided to forego this pleasure until a later time.

By the way, the Rumba Latin Bar and Grill is inside Le Meridien Hotel!  

Saturday, 5 March 2016

A Tale of Mango Ripening… It’s Almost That Time

The last mangoes of the season are now entering our Sydney stores. Beginning in October in the dry tropics of the Northern Territory, then from December in northern Queensland, delectable mangoes are with us. Ripening of the much-sought-after fruit continues south along the Australian east coast right into March. At the moment, there are still some commercial mangoes available at a very exorbitant price. I spotted Australia’s most famous mangoes, Kensington Pride mangoes, for more than $5 apiece yesterday. These are probably from growers in northern New South Wales… Compare this with the high season (January) price of around $1 each for Queensland-origin fruit.

I do remember my Dad’s old mango tree. Grown from a Kensington Pride seed, the tree became bigger than the house itself.  Most years, it produced a mere handful of fruit, its flowers stems blackened by anthracnose every October. However, the fruit which it did hold until maturity in the third week of February were enormous and so flavourful, even in Sydney’s cooler southern climate… provided that the fruit bats left any for us! The tree was so tall that I was prompted to purchase a mango retriever net at a flower show during a holiday in Bangkok, Thailand. Back home, I lashed the net to a painter’s extension pole so that we could beat the fruit bats to our prized mangoes.

The Thai mango retriever. Note the hacksaw blades on the top frame.

Then there was 2009. Dad had passed on. Mum had had a fall and was hospitalised. I drove 500 kilometres from my southern New South Wales home every Friday… and returned on Mondays… looking after her and the home… and the mango tree! This particular year, it had not rained for a long, long time – unusual for this time of the year in Sydney. We would set the sprinkler running under the mango tree and visit Mum in the local hospital. The flowering season came upon us and, for once, due to the lack of rain, there was little or no anthracnose to damage the tender flowers of the old mango.

February came. What a year! The stately tree was magnificent… 120 mangoes came down with the Thai-procured net, me balancing on a rickety ladder. Even then, the bats were able to smell out a few green-tinged mangoes, camouflaging in the leaves of the canopy of the mango tree. Friends, neighbours and children feasted on the surfeit. One memorable, behemoth mango tipped the scales at two kilos… Try eating that without help!

This was the last hurrah of a grand old tree…

The following seasons were wet and the flowering was poor, dampened by the dreaded anthracnose. Furthermore, the tree had continued to grow. It was now covering the back parts of the home. It was dropping slippery-when-wet leaves by the garbage-bagful. Its roots had lifted the pathway. The tree had become a life-threatening hazard for my Mum, because another fall might see her off. Our beloved KP mango tree had to go! We could have cried… because the better half’s Mama had chopped down a large Nam Dok Mai mango tree in similar circumstances in Ipoh, Malaysia, too. Shared grief! More than 35 years old, my Dad’s KP mango tree was a landmark, and would have been one of the largest specimens in Sydney.

There would be no more February mango feasts!

The Kensington Pride is a mid-season mango in its usual sub-tropical habitat. However, in the southern climes of Sydney, it ripens right at the end of summer. Late season varieties mature even later, well into our autumn.

So, how is our young Maha Chanok seedling?  Definitely, a later variety, our seedling still has three superb mangoes hanging in the tree. One 400-gram fruit developed its signature pink shoulder at the start of February. We removed it from the tree, ripening it in our bag of rice. It did develop its lovely aroma, but unfortunately, not the delightful flavour we experienced with last year’s little crop. Disappointing. 

The three remaining mangoes will be left to hang on the tree until the end of March before picking. With plenty more days of Sydney autumn heat ahead, the fruit should acquire its legendary taste and texture… And the net? It will not be required. 

The tree is just head-high.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Prolific Pea Eggplant

In a past post on the Pea Eggplant (January), I commented about the extraordinary rate of growth of this plant.

Way over my head. From this...

Well, the time had come. Today, out came the pruning shears to reduce this ‘tree’ to more manageable proportions. In less than twelve months, from a tiny seedling, the Pea Eggplant had reached a height of almost three metres, overshadowing a four-year old mango and a three-year old longan. This situation was not sustainable because the two fruit trees are much more valuable for us than the invasive, little eggplant.

To this... The longan is in the background

Pruning was not a simple process. The small thorns along the stems were a menace at times, needing to be handled very carefully. Finally, task completed, our green waste bin had almost been filled and a bucket of small, green ‘peas’ had been gathered. Of course, Thai Green Curry was in order tonight! However, I am not sure that I have enough friends, who use this vegetable, to discharge the bucket-load of berries! What to do?

They filled the sink!

Now that the Pea Eggplant has been reduced in size, I will be monitoring the reaction of the plant to heavy pruning. My intention is to keep the plant pruned to a lower level, and away from our walkway, so that it does not present further issues with shading… or spiking.

What is the next step with this eggplant? Because the Pea Eggplant bears so profusely, I am trialling a method of pickling the fruit for the winter months. I will post on the success or failure of this at a later time, but at the moment, we might well be enjoying lots of green curry, or even a sambal or two in order to use up our excess of berries… or making more friends!

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Net Casting Spider

One of our constant garden ‘friends’, the Net Casting Spider has made itself at home around the eaves and even the footings of our home… this, despite regular clearing of webs.

Male Net Casting Spider... Deinopis species

It is called a Net Casting Spider because of a curious and unique habit… they create a small web, held between their four front legs which can be opened to ‘net’ passing insect prey. The unwitting prey may be passing by foot or even on the wing! Being a nocturnal animal, you are most likely to encounter a Net Casting Spider ‘at work’ towards the evening hours. Their regular diet consists of other insects, namely ants, beetles, crickets and other spiders.

Should you be unable to observe this little creature around your home, it regularly leaves behind another tell-tale sign of its presence, especially during the summer months – a tiny, suspended globe of eggs, cream in colour flecked with brown.

According to the Queensland Museum, one severe human reaction to a bite from a Net Casting Spider has been recorded. 

This female Net Casting Spider sits with its globe of eggs, legs paired.

Wishing you hours of enjoyment and contentment in your garden…