Urban gardener: Fierce creatures

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The Independent Online

The Pseudopanax I mentioned a couple of weeks ago is still giving me the eye. The variety, P. laetus, was one of two impulse buys from Architectural Plants (the other being the Chilean Myrtle, Myrtus lechleriana), and proof that it is possible to exercise a reasonable amount of self-restraint at this nursery where plant quality, excellent customer service and a stunning setting (with equally stunning loo) might conceivably bring on a touch of RSI from the reckless use of a PIN code.

Sporting a red label (the nursery's traffic-light indicator of how hardy the plant is; red means that it's only really hardy in large cities or conservatories), the pseudopanax is temporarily tucked up near the back door, next to an over-wintering Agapanthus africanus, where warmth and shelter offered by the house should keep them safe from frost damage.

Having no obvious place to put it, I'm wondering what it was that had me fumbling for my wallet as soon as I met its acquaintance. It could be that I'm pining. You see (and this may sound a bit like a title for a science-fiction movie) I once loved a Pseudopanax ferox. I'm fairly certain that it loved me too, despite a modicum of neglect on my part from time to time. It sat in our small backyard and steadily outgrew each pot it was transplanted into over a period of about 10 years, and must have been a good six feet high when I gave it to a friend whose unconventional lifestyle seemed to suggest they'd make perfect bedfellows.

Pseudopanax is the plant kingdom's version of the Addams Family. P. ferox, known as the ferocious lancewood (actually it's more weird than ferocious), is the oddest looking and I'm yet to find a client with enough space or eccentricity to plant a grove of them. I've even thought that they'd make for a good conceptual garden, where they would be walled up together, or in separate cells with nothing else to remind them of home (New Zealand in this case) and an under-planting of hops (Humulus lupulus) twining around their stems to entangle them and anaesthetise any hope of freedom. The suggestion that they were being quarantined indefinitely in a foreign land and for no good reason apart from looking alien would make it a sort of horticultural Guantanamo Bay.

The ordinary lancewood, P. crassifolius, is still weird by most people's standards with long, thin leaves hanging at their distinctive 45 degree angle but without the (ferocious) teeth of P. ferox. Its branching habit, though, still fits within the parameters of what people perceive as "plant-like" whereas P. ferox looks utterly ridiculous and not of this planet no matter how you look at it. P. chathamicus is even more "normal" (at least by Architectural Plants' standards), being tree-like with similar thin leathery leaves; this is perhaps why I chose P. laetus as it goes against the grain with obovate, glossy evergreen leaves not unlike a type of Schefflera. Confused? Not half as much as I am, I can assure you. I thought that writing this piece would be the perfect catalyst to focus on finding a home for it, but the only thing I'm certain of is that it will stay in a pot.

The indomitable Angus White, owner of Architectural Plants, will tell you that a pot is no place for a plant (and I'm inclined to agree, although they are without question a life-line for us urbanites who just haven't the space to express ourselves in terra firma), but that Pseudopanax laetus is an exception and duly obliges given the said winter protection. In its native New Zealand it grows as a large shrub or small tree to four or five metres, its purple stems particularly attractive against the rich-green lobed foliage, and thrives in sun or semi-shade. Climate change may well mean that plants such as these will soon be more common in urban backyards, but don't let that lull you into believing that they'll be able to look after themselves from now on. Ours has survived being outside for half the winter, but a couple of days of frost and late winter gales definitely unsettled it. It's not exactly a pout and I'm sure that as long as I get it in to a decent-sized, free-draining container and keep it close to the house, all will be well. Now what to do with the Chilean myrtle?