Buying plants when they are dormant or by mail is always fun and a good way to get a surprise. These can be nice or nasty. While I would not suggest that the plant below is nasty, it is not as lovely as I had hoped. The plant is Physalis alkekengi var. franchetii ‘Variegata’. Most of us just call the plant Chinese lanterns because of the bright orange, inflated calyces that surround the berries. Physalis are a complicated bunch, some edible, others less so, one assumes. Being in the Solanaceae they are a dangerous bunch to experiment with. Some are annuals but this one is a perennial.
It has a (deserved) reputation for being a bit of a thug, spreading widely by creeping stems just under the surface of the soil. Because it is so decorative in autumn it is frequently sold, in October, in garden centres, bedecked in lanterns, at stupid prices that disguise the fact that it is a plant that could take over your garden. I suspect that most of these don’t get the chance though because they are sold for immediate effect and most live, and die, on a windowsill or stuffed into a hollowed-out pumpkin. Anyway, despite the fearsome reputation and the rather dull leaves and flowers, I wanted a patch in the garden. But I wanted an edge on the plain plant so picked out the variegated kind. I had no idea what the variegation looked like but I was hoping for a crisp, white edge to the foliage.
Variegation can make a dull plant good but it can also ruin a perfectly good plant. It all depends on what kind of variegation. I tend to like neat edges, lines or blotches and am not so keen on ‘bird dropping’ variegation where the leaves are irregularly splashed with white. I like irregular yellowish patches and blotches even less – they just look as though the plant is recovering from weedkiller drift.
And that, after a considerable preamble, is where my physalis comes in.
I am not going to complain too much because the pot arrived with no signs of growth. Two shoots appeared and one soon died. Neither showed any sign of variegation and I thought I had been ‘had’ again. Very slowly my one shoot grew and was eventually joined by others. Once they got into their stride the variegation started to show and now the leaves are marbled with yellow, as though recovering from a touch of paraquat or a hideous virus. None of this matters, I suppose, since the highlight of the plant is in late autumn when the leaves are stripped away by frost and the lanterns are exposed. I will find it within myself to look away all summer and only enjoy it in October. And, of course, when it tries to take over the garden I will hardly notice when I have to spray it off!
In complete contrast, Kniphofia rufa has won my heart with a single flower scape. Another new one to me, arriving as a pot with a merest wisp of grassy leaves. This South African red hot poker is quite cute, reaching only 45cm. What I like is that it has an elegance that many kniphofias lack – not that I don’t like them. The colour contrast between the red buds and the lemon-yellow open flowers is nice but the airy heads and graceful placement of the flowers is very special. I hope it settles in as well as the other kniphofias in the garden. Many nurseries list Kniphofia rufa ‘Rasta’ which I doubt is any different to the species. I could be wrong but I think it is just a name added to drum up trade – totally unnecessary with a plant as nice as this.