Luculia is one of my favourite shrubs, or perhaps that should read "they are", because we have eight of them in our garden.
What better way to brighten up an autumn garden than with a gaudy flowering shrub. The common one is Luculia gratissima and it's easily the best for town gardens. When translated, gratissima means pleasing, whereas Luculia is a native Himalayan name for the shrub.
The rounded flowers are reminiscent of hydrangeas, but they are in a shade of pink we are unlikely to see in Taranaki, with our acid soils turning hydrangeas either blue or purple.
You could also describe the shrub as a poor man's kalmia, with the domes of pink, but it's much easier to grow and has the benefit of a strong scent and more attractive leaves.
Luculia flowers begin to appear in autumn, with the main flush appearing around mid-May, and by the end of the month, they are in their prime, with a mass of bright-pink blooms.
I'm delighted to see that colour is back in fashion in gardens and shrubs don't come more colourful than this. You can spot a luculia from 100 paces and when you get within 20 paces, you will be sniffing the air for the luxurious perfume. It really is perfume, smelling like some high class eau de cologne.
Plant one near your garage or entranceway and you will get the benefit of that heavenly scent every time you walk by.
They are easy to grow in any frost-free site and prefer to be in full sun, but they will cope with some shade from buildings and trees. Because they like warm temperatures, they also like warm soils, so make sure you choose a spot with good drainage.
Luculias are tough, resilient plants and will happily grow in borders next to the foundations of the house or garage. They are evergreen and with big, bright- green hand-sized leaves, the plants looks good all year.
One of the attractive features is the way the plants shed some leaves throughout the year and each one turns a rich orange or red before falling.
They are never deciduous, but those few leaves add a dash of colour to the plant. There is a cultivar called 'Early Dawn', which is worth seeking out for the brighter intense pink flowers.
There are several other species and they are all worthwhile. L intermedia has pale-pink flowers and is often the first to flower, beginning in March. I'm not sure why it has a name implying intermediate when it looks like a smaller version of L gratissima and shows little resemblance to the other species.
L grandifolia is aptly named, having the biggest leaves of all of them. Sitting proud on the tips of the stems are big, white tubular flowers. The flowers are so grand that you could mistake them for vireya rhododendrons, because the individual florets are slightly separate in the head rather than being a dense dome. And the scent is glorious, perhaps the best of them all. The leaves are special, rich green almost the size of a breakfast plate, with bright-red stalks or petioles.
During the colder months, the leaves take on a hint of red. The plant is often half evergreen or half deciduous and is a bigger more rangy shrub perhaps more suited to woodland gardens. It responds well to hard pruning and this keeps it tidy.
There is another species which grows happily in the shade as well as the sun. It may well be hardier and worth a try under trees in colder frost-prone gardens.
Luculia pinceana 'Fragrant Cloud' is readily available in garden centres. This clone was introduced by Os Blumhardt, the famous magnolia and camellia breeder from Whangarei.
Blumhardt is no longer with us, but he left a legacy of wonderful plants for us to enjoy.
This clone has bold, dark-green leaves. The flowers are big and bold in a rich dark-pink and have that typical luculia scent.
Mark Jury selected a white form he named 'Fragrant Pearl'. It's a better plant, because it has bigger flowers and a longer flowering season, from March to June.
There are only five species in the world and luckily we have four of them available in New Zealand. All of them hail from the Himalayas and, given the altitude of their homelands, it's a wonder they're not more cold hardy.
Luculias are in the rubiaceae family along with the equally scented gardenia and perhaps more surprising coffee.
Our native coprosmas as well as that horrible climbing clingy weed we call cleavers or goose grass are in this family too.
Luculias are naturally tidy shrubs with a neat rounded outline, but if your shrub gets too big or rangy, it's easy to prune.
If the bush is just a little tatty, then a light prune will suffice, but you can cut them really hard back to stumps if the plant has been frosted or is too leggy.
They quickly regenerate with a flush of new growth capable of bearing flowers next winter.
Remember the golden rule with pruning shrubs, other than roses and hydrangeas, is to prune immediately after flowering, giving the bush 11 months to make new growth and flowers.
No pests or diseases ever seem to bother them, so they really are easy-care shrubs, providing they have a free draining site. The two threats are frosts and strong winds. They are easily battered and broken by our coastal storms.
So with all these things in favour of luculias, it's a wonder we don't see more of them. What more could we ask of a bush than it be pretty, tidy and scented? Well, maybe frost resistance.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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