Autumn is usually associated with the warm colours of deciduous trees whose leaves shade to red and gold as nature prepares to enter winter dormancy.However, our lovely climate has produced some plants that burst into autumn bloom and many of these are cool blues, purples and pinks that seem to reflect the cooler weather. The best-known of these are undoubtedly the many forms of Plectranthus. The shorter days trigger flowering and many of the varieties will continue to bloom for most of the winter.
If you live in one of the colder areas of the country, you will need to plant your Plectranthus in a fairly protected position. Luckily, they like shade and trees are often able to protect shaded areas from frost. I have seen Plectranthus recover after being frosted almost to ground level in the Free State, so a touch of frost won’t be fatal in most cases. In milder climates, most Plectranthus varieties can be grown in full sun or shade, whichever you prefer.
Plectranthus have been popular pot plants for many years, and it’s quite likely that your granny had one growing on her stoep. They also make good house plants provided they can be given strong, filtered light. They never went out of style and they’re still very popular in Europe where day length manipulation is used to make them flower in spring. Greenhouses are fitted with blackout shades and the plants are given a dark ‘night’ of twelve hours or more in order to ‘force’ flowering.
Apart from their pretty flowers in shades of purple, blue, pink or white, Plectranthus also have very attractive foliage. There are so many species and hybrids available: you can get variegated leaves, dark greens with purple on the reverse side and fresh pale greens. The growth forms are also very diverse indeed. You can get shrubby Plectranthus that range in height from about 50cm to 1.5m depending on the species or you can go for trailing ground covers that also look great in hanging bowls.
These tough, practical plants are re-ally easy-going and they’re quite drought tolerant too. I’ve seen them reach wilting point and remain there for days and yet they recover fully as soon as there’s a bit of moisture.
Let’s look at a few examples of Plectranthus in order to get a feel for the type of choices they offer you.
Tall, shrubby Plectranthus ecklonii can reach a height of 3m. However, this is rare as most people cut them back quite hard after flowering to encourage fresh, dense growth. There is a stunning picture on Kirstenbosch garden’s ‘Plantzafrica’ website that shows a border of pink, white and blue Plectranthus ecklonii planted en masse as a bed-ding plant: simply superb. This Plectranthus tolerates both sun and shade – handy for those spots in the garden that get a bit of both.
The Lobster Claw (Plectranthus neochilis) is everywhere to be seen. It’s one of those plants that tolerate massive neglect, so landscapers love using it for those shopping centre gardens and traffic islands that don’t get a lot of loving care. That means that you’ll seldom see this plant at its best, but it tolerates the stress and just keeps on flowering. In garden situations where it gets a bit more attention, it can be truly spectacular. The growth habit is flat and once again, we are looking at a plant that will grow in sun or shade. This particular Plectranthus will flower at any time of the year and the silver-tinged foliage is great for creating contrasts in mixed borders.
Plectranthus cilliatus is an all-time favourite. This spreading ground cover has pink or white blooms but the best thing about it is the large, deep green foliage, which has purple undersides. Apart from being a su-per ground cover for sun or shade (best in light shade), it makes a very attractive pot plant particularly in hanging bowls where you can see the bright purple undersides of the leaves clearly. Growth is fast, so you might want to give your plant regu-lar, light trims, especially when growing it as a pot plant to keep it bushy.
My favourite Plectranthus has big, showy blue blooms with the speck-led throats that are typical of the species and fresh, green leaves. This gorgeous groundcover prefers shade and is known as Plectranthus ambiguus. They’re incredibly beautiful and as vigorous as you could wish!
Apart from all the Plectranthus species types out there (44 species are indigenous to South Africa), there are also tons of gorgeous hybrids such as the well known and loved Plectranthus Mona Lavender and the internationally popular Cape Angels series which includes two shades of pink, a blue form and a white form. These plants are strictly for shade and all of these examples are low-growing shrubs. With the exception of Cape Angels white, all of them have glossy, dark green leaves with bright purple under-sides. Cut them back after flowering and keep trimming them to shape until December. Remember, the more branches you encourage, the more blooms you’ll get when they flower.
There’s certainly a Plectranthus to suit every taste and every garden and their ease of cultivation makes them great subjects for low-maintenance gardening.