Even though the name may not be familiar, everyone knows pericallis. They include what used to be, and still are in common parlance, cinerarias – the pot plant type, and the very modern Senetti – those colourful plants that are sold in bloom for early summer display (below). Before I get to the main purpose of this post I need to say a few things about the above-mentioned plants.
The traditional cinerarias were grown as spring-flowering, biennial potplants. They were sown in summer, overwintered in cool, bright greenhouses and then produced a spectacular display of ‘daisy’ flowers in a huge range of colours. They were roughly divided into compact sorts with rounded flowers and leaves and, the sort I liked best, bigger plants with more spikily edged leaves with starry flowers and were called ‘stellata’ types, I think. These big plants were more suited to conservatory display than windowsills so were never so popular except by councils when they used to have their own nurseries and people gave a damn about floral displays rather than just get the contractors in to prune parks with hedge trimmers once a year and throw in some begonias. The smaller types are still sold in spring as inexpensive potplants and although there are lots of colours it is the amazing, metallic blues that always impressed me most.
These cinerarias are among the most difficult plants I have ever tried to grow. They dislike high summer temperatures and need very careful watering. The large basal leaves wilt if they dry out and never recover and too much water will lead to root rot. They are also incredibly prone to insect pests, especially aphids, whitefly and leaf miner. Look in old books and the growing instructions are very precise.
And after all that effort, they are biennials and discarded after flowering.
Which brings us to Senetti, which were bred from these bright pot plants crossed with wild, Canarian pericallis. They are a whole new subgenre of plants that are easy for nurseries to grow – they tolerate low temperatures – and quickly make salable, colourful plants with a huge range of flower colours. For garden centres to sell they are a great thing; not too expensive and with lots of wow factor. But for the gardener they pose a bit of a problem – they dislike summer heat and although, in theory, if they are deadheaded after flowering and fed they will bloom again, in my experience they are not happy in summer. But if you can keep them going they may bloom better in autumn and if you keep them frost-free in winter they will bloom the next year.
So, off we go to the Canaries. Here there are several species, which are biennial or short-lived perennials. They are slightly woody at the base and usually grow on moist, but well drained slopes, often in shade and often in grass and other herbage at the sides of the road. They flower in spring and I get very excited, as we drive around in January, when we have to go, if I see one flowering precociously. So two years ago I sowed seeds of Pericallis webbii, which is from Gran Canaria to see how I got on. The seeds germinated, in spring and the small seedlings grown on in pots. In summer the plants were not happy and hardly grew, some with strange marks on the leaves, but they survived. In winter, in the unheated greenhouse, where it rarely fell below 0c, they seemed happy and in spring, in 12cm pots, started to grow and produce flowers. The blooms were a mix of colours, some like the one above, while others were white. They had a pleasant honey-like scent and I wished I had treated them a bit better. I let the flowers fade on the plants and, unknown to me, self-seeded in the greenhouse border.
I kept the old plants to see how they would do and although the plants are no great beauties, they have started to bloom.
I potted some of the smaller self-sown seedlings and they are doing OK but a couple of the larger ones were put at the edge of the greenhouse border. These were planted out in about May. And they have grown into monsters. They are now about 2m high – allowing about 30cm for the raised bed. They need to flower soon because they will be in the way of summer crops.
These are fascinating plants and although not the most practical plants for everyone I have learned a lot about Canarian flora and climate through growing them.
Talking of the Canaries – do you know why Canary Wharf in London is called Canary Wharf? It is because, in the early 20th century (I think) all the tomatoes grown in the Canaries, were exported to the UK and guess where the ships arrived!