Can She Try This At Home? Restios, Ericas and a Ketzel in the
Swartberg Mountains of South Africa
Photo: David Salman
I didn't just start jonesing for South African plants out of nowhere. It started when I moved to the Northwest. In the years I've lived here, I've seen enough Phygelius, Melianthus, species gladiolas and calla lilies to convince me that South Africa had to be the mother lode of cool plants.
So when I visited plantswoman Linda Cochran's personal botanic garden outside Seattle last week -- she calls it Froggy Bottom -- I was kid-in-the-candy-store giddy to see all the South African gems she grew. Now that I had a context for where these plants came from, I could observe and absorb how this masterful gardener had integrated them as garden plants.
The biggest kick was that she was growing plants in the restio family, grassy plants that look like rushes and make up the backbone of the western Cape fynbos (pronounced FEIGNbose). The fynbos is a community of plants that also includes ericas (we call them heaths) and proteas (those bizarre and expensive conelike oddities sold as cut flowers), a trio of companions particular to the western Cape.
Linda's lioness in Mediterraean grasses with a South African restio behind her.
Here's Linda and that same restio, Elegia capensis, both thriving near Seattle.
Linda had a bunch of cool restios (including simple, elegant reeds in the genus Chondropetalum) and -- heart be still -- she gave me a cutting of her amazing Elegia (haven't killed it yet). Both these plants are hardy to Z8; in colder climates, you could grow and overwinter them in pots.
Naturally she had Kniphofia, the red hot poker plant -- also from South Africa -- which I saw in bloom several times during our trip. Major cheap thrill that Linda had paired hers with the South African honey bush, Melianthus major, which looked every bit as good in her garden as it did in the wild.
You'll know it's a melianthus if you rub the leaves and they smell like peanut butter. That's red hot poker to its right.
And here's red hot poker again, growing wild on a western Cape roadside. Different generations, same family.