The price of a couple of geraniums and busy lizzies would buy one or two of these tender shrubs to give an exotic feel to the garden. They would need shelter, of course, as much sun as possible, and they must be in a pot so they can be brought into a frost-free place during the winter.
Abutilons, which a few years ago might have been too pricey and too fussy, can now be bought for pounds 5. They will be only two feet high or less, but a couple of weeks of sun and some plant food should bring them into flower. Many of the newer varieties will be happy in a British summer. Abutilon `Canary Bird', which is clear yellow, A `Kentish Belle', with two-tone flowers, and A `Ashford Red' are all fairly widely available. They would make a smart centrepiece for a large pot or tub, perhaps with yellow-leaved helichrysums or the variegated ground elder aegopodium.
A couple of years ago at Columbia Road flower market in east London they were selling cream flowered oleanders for pounds 3. Mine has flowered regularly since, and although not quite as big or brash as the huge ones which line the roads in the south of France, it has a delicious scent which provides a breath of the Mediterranean. It is correctly called Nerium oleander, and there are several different varieties available.
The real holiday brochure flower, bougainvillea, which sprawls over so many whitewashed villas, is not quite so easy to please. Bougainvilleas need sun if they are to flower, and they must have protection from wind. It is important to picture them on their home ground to decide what suits them. They are often at their best seemingly struggling in a patch of rubble and stones at the foot of a bakingly dry wall.
Bougainvilleas are now available in a range of stunning shades from the raspberry red of B `Mrs Butt' to the yellowbronze of B `California Gold'. They need a pot of their own, as they are far too dramatic and special to share one.
The same goes for the elegant daturas. The experts have renamed them brugmansias, although some nurseries seem to be ignoring this directive.
Brugmansias produce dozens of four- or five-inch long trumpet flowers which hang down from arching branches. They range from cream to dark peach, and their scent in the evening is out of this world. They should be cut down in winter, so they would not take up too much space when they need to be protected from frosts. One of mine was the bargain of all time: 50p at a charity plant sale, at the same time that a noted nursery was selling them for pounds 18.95. Their price has levelled out rather - it is fairly easy to get one for about pounds 7. They need regular feeding to produce flowers - and a vigilant eye for red spider mite.
The heavenly Plumbago auriculata, which covers itself with sky blue flowers and grows almost like a weed alongside the Los Angeles freeways is not difficult to grow in this country provided it has a big pot with a framework to scramble up. Brian Hiley, who grows many tender plants at his nursery in Wallington, Surrey, says it is pretty hardy, and suggests a little brinkmanship: leave it outside until it is cut down by the first frost, and then bring it inside, remove the frostbitten bits, and it will sprout anew.
Another tender plant, so new it is not in the books, created quite a stir on the Hiley stand at the Chelsea Flower Show. Alyogyne has leaves like a pelargonium, with a blue mallow-type flower. There are several different varieties around although they may not yet be very easy to find.
Growers in their search of more plants to tempt the gardener have bred several new citrus varieties which will produce fruit in our climate. One of the best is a small lemon, Citrus x meyerii Meyer, which will flower and fruit when only a few years old. The scent of all these citruses is one of their features, as well as providing the slice for the gin and tonic. City garden centres charge rather regal prices for these trendy lemon and orange trees, but on a trip out to a specialist in the country one could be found for pounds 7 or so.
Brian Hiley (0181-647 9679) and Reads Nursery, Loddon, Norfolk (01508 548395) both have a range of tender shrubs and sell by mail order