Bright, vivacious winter-blooming Chinese hat plant gets tongues twisted

Chinese whispers, that thing when information distorts as it passes from one recipient to another and another, were at play this week at the garden club meeting.

One of the club’s regular competition entries drew particular admiration from members, being a string of scarlet and tangerine blooms on long spines. (Bench competition is where garden club members bring something from their garden they are especially proud of to display on a bench and everyone votes on them.)

Even many of the seasoned gardeners could not identify this stunning exhibit, until someone exclaimed what sounded like “holusscolia”.

“What is it?” several clamoured.

“Holus bolus.”

“No, holuscollus.”

‘I think he said “holksollia.”

And so it went on, name guessing rippling around the room, which admittedly, did have its fair share of hearing aids.

I came away with a string of possibilities, certain only that the plant’s handle started with H, and very keen to  research it because it was an absolute standout flowering beauty in our semi-tropical mid winter.

Thank you, Google gardener. It is a Holmskioldia sanguinea, whose common names include Chinese hat plant, cup-and-saucer-plant or mandarin’s hat.

See! A pesky Chinaman was messing with our heads!

With good reason, given it’s difficult-to-get-your-tongue-around name, it is sometimes called parasol flowers, because the holmskioldia blooms are button-shaped with a little stem. They grow in clusters along long graceful arching branches that can be up to three metres long, flower best in full sun, from autumn through to spring in almost any soil and need only spare watering.

They can be a feature shrub or a tree in your garden. If you leave it, holmskioldia will get to about 10 metres  high and five metres wide.  When pruning, cut the branches back to ground rather than chop midway.

Holmskioldias come in vibrant tangerine, bright yellow or mauve varieties. Some are deciduous, some evergreen. The dropped flowers of some of the species have colours contrasting to the calyces and look dramatic scattered over the garden floor.

And bees, birds and butterflies love them.

Holmskioldia  can be easily struck from cutting, so no prizes for guessing who was first to snaffle a piece?

The man responsible for its tricky name is 18th century Danish professor and physician Theodor Holmskiold, who discovered them in the Himalayan lowlands.

Another flowering beauty out this month is the nutmeg bush.  These pretty tetradenia riparia or ibosa riparia shrubs are about now in fluffy splendour, from white to lilac and some pink, so it’s also known as the misty plume bush.

The male flower spikes in profusion create more of the “mist” effect than the female flowers which tend to be more compact.The scallop-edged leaves are sticky to touch and also have a distinctive gingery smell. They make a great addition to an aromatic herb garden, where mine is, competing with salvias, tarragon and lemongrass for the headiest scent.

But the nutmeg bush flowers are definitely for the kitchen window sill, where the aroma wafts across invitingly.

Another reason to love the nutmeg bush is that it flowers right through winter, is tough as old boots and thrives on neglect. It is very easy to propagate. During spring and summer, stem or branch cuttings will strike quickly in a slightly moist, sandy mix.

The name ibosa comes from the Zulu word referring to the aromatic leaves. It’s been used to relieve chest complaints, stomach ache and malaria. Inhaling the scent of the crushed leaves apparently also relieves headaches. It’s a rewarding garden plant which is fast growing – up to 80cm per year – and will flower in its first year. It prefers water in summer but not as much in winter, so it’s a good water wise plant for summer rainfall areas. Prune it back hard after flowering to keep it neat and promote blooms. It tolerates full sun, except in very hot areas where midday shade or light shade helps.

It’s heaven scent.