Better late than never: Anisodontea ‘El Rayo’
Anisodontea are one of those plants that gardeners love but must drive botanists to distraction – or at least keep them in work. They seem to be one of those genera that cause confusion. They have always been valued by those who know them, on the borderline of hardiness but remarkable for their long flowering season and intricate flowers.
With no great certainty as to name, Anisodontea capensis is a plant I have grown, now and then, for decades. I first met it when a student at Kew where it was used for summer bedding. Stiffly upright and always studded with pretty, button-like flowers of a slightly hard-to-love salmon pink, I have always treated it as a tender plant. I always valued it despite it having a rather constipated look.
It sometimes appears in garden centres but the last few years has seen the availability of a new kid on the block, ‘El Rayo’. Universally admired and getting a lot of coverage, including from Jimi Blake of Hunting Brook Gardens, it is the thing to have in your garden. Among its many merits is the ability to bloom all year round, or so the story goes.
I can’t discover where this plant comes from but it is a looser, more pleasant, plant than ‘capensis’ with larger blooms that have a more open shape but still very obviously like miniature hibiscus, something that adds to their charm. The petals are silky and the colour crisp and bright. What is not to love?
It is said to be hardy to -5c but I am rather unsure about whether it would survive here. Winter is more than just temperature and I am sure that moist soil and storms would do as much harm as cold itself. I am afraid that I am past the days when I would plant something tender outside and be satisfied that it just ‘survived’. If a plant looks unhappy all winter and just about recovers by October, just to be thwarted again it depresses me. I would rather keep it in a pot and give it the conditions it needs. But ‘El Rayo’ might ‘do’ if cut back in spring to remove the tattered growth. I will know more when I have taken cutting and can experiment. My plant was acquired in autumn and has been in the cold greenhouse over winter where it has done as expected and bloomed all winter.
Anisodontea are plants from South Africa and the Eastern Cape, usually from winter-rainfall areas which explains the year-round growth. ‘El Rayo’ can grow to 1.5m high, attaining that in a single season and is not long-lived, like many shrubby malvaceous plants, but is easily raised from cuttings. The lobed leaves are greyish and attractive. A quick internet search reveals that there are other cultivars doing the rounds under various species (‘Cristal Rose’, ‘Miss Pinky’,’Lady in Pink’, ‘Donna’, ‘Merimbe’, ‘Slightly Strawberry’, ‘Priscilla Pink’, ‘Elegans Rose’, ‘Elegant Lady’) so I don’t think ‘El Rayo’ is the last we will see of anisodontea in the future. I have another that was labelled simply ‘Large Pink’ but may be ‘Elegans Rose’ which may be the same as ‘Donna’. Just to add to the confusion, ‘El Rayo’ is also listed as ‘El Royo’.
For now I will treat my plants as tender and keep them inside till late spring. How they are then treated will depend on how many cuttings I get to root.
A hotter and better drained situation has suited it more here. It a wetter spot it showed and inclination to dying back. In both conditions it is inclined to sucker gently which is a good way to recover from die-back, I suppose. Timing of pruning might be important. In growth, April or so, seems best. It is enjoying its time in the limelight, the fashion shrub of recent years which one simply must have!
I didn’t expect it to sucker. I would expect a late spring prune to be best, rather like the shrubby lavateras that had their days in the spotlight a while ago buy seem to have fallen from fashion. Anisodontea must be a perfect garden centre plant – saleable for months, quick to grow and likely to need replacing in cold areas.
Yes, an April prune seems to work best.
The fashionability was what I found to be unappealing about the species, although not the cultivar, while it was so overly common during the 1990s. That was likely prior to the development of some cultivars. If I remember correctly, the most common sort was only known by its species name then. I find it to be more appealing now that it is less common. It performs very well through the warm and dry summers of the Santa Clara Valley, but also performs about as well on the coast, although it develops distinct personalities in response to the climates in which it grows. Frost is no problem here, but fast growth during warm weather may shorten its life span, since it performs well for only a few years.
Likewise here, it can put on great growth spurts.
Yes, it can get quite vertical when it wants to.