Prehistoric plants

Striking and often easy to grow, ancient plants have caught the public’s imagination.

Dioon edule - photo: Adrian Thomas
Dioon edule - photo: Adrian Thomas

Wollemia nobilis

The rare and striking Wollemi pine — HW’s Best New Plant Variety 2006 — has attracted a great deal of media interest since its discovery in Australia in 1994. Low-maintenance and easy to grow, it is ideal as an outdoor feature plant, although in good light it is also suitable as a houseplant.
Plants in cultivation should reach 20m. Naturally multi-stemmed, they can be pruned to form a single-stemmed specimen. Lush growth spurts produce apple-green foliage that turns dark green or grey-blue and pendulous when mature. During the winter, the buds develop a white, waxy coating, while the mature bark is said to resemble bubbling brown chocolate.
Plants are hardy to –12°C. They favour well- drained and fertile, slightly acidic soils; full sun to semi-shade, and should be watered only when the potting mix is dry. For rapid growth, apply a slow-release low-phosphorus fertiliser (18:3:10).

What the specialist says:

Bruce Harnett, managing director, Kernock Park Plants, Cornwall
“Interest has been superb. It is such an amazing story that the plant sells itself. We are raising more than 10,000 plants for appointed retailers for the spring. It will feature at Chelsea and pre-sold plants will be made available on Wollemi Weekend [26-28 May].
“We suggest that retailers display a larger tree with smaller sale plants, so that customers can get an idea of what plants will look like in a few years’ time.”

In practice

Sarah Elson, senior sales assistant, Kew Gardens, London
“Response has been really good. It is a talking point and people are buying for the next generation. Many people have bought trees as a gift item — some as an alternative Christmas tree. People have not been put off by the price; they understand the conservation value.”

Cycads are the oldest extant seed plants and encompass several genera, of which Cycas, Zamia, Encephalartos, Macrozamia, Lepidozamia and Dioon are commercially available.

The symmetrical and exotic-looking cycads are primarily a long-living houseplant in the UK. Some species and some larger mature plants may be hardy. Palm-like in form, they make excellent feature plants in the garden.
The cylindrical trunk is often largely underground. Individual leaflets are thick, hard and pinnately arranged, forming straight or curved leaves from 30cm to 2m in length, generally spirally arranged to form crowns. All plants are dioecious, most producing decorative cones varying from orange to blue-grey.

Cycads grow in well-draining, sandy gravels and light loam, in neutral to slightly acidic soil. They should only be allowed to dry out slightly between watering. Those with green leaves prefer shade, those with blue-grey leaves prefer sun, but all indoor plants must have good light. Many are drought and wind tolerant, and most can endure very low temperatures in unheated glasshouses or conservatories. Fertilise monthly in the growing season from April to September.
Pests include cycad aulacaspis scale and mealy bug. Propagation is by seed or basal offsets.

What the specialists say

Ian Watt, owner, Brooklands Plants, Dorset
“We grow and sell those cycads that tolerate the cold winters, such as Dioon edule. Because of their value we bring them inside in the winter into unheated greenhouses, primarily to get them out of the wet. Cycas revoluta was a very good seller for us about 10 years ago, but they are now plentiful and sell cheaply everywhere. It is absolutely stunning, adaptable and not too expensive. Growing cycads from seed is a slow process, though.”

Species and cultivars

•    Cycas panzihihuaensis is one of the hardiest and fastest growing. Straight, bluish-green leaves 1-2m long.
•    Cycas revoluta (AGM, H1), the sago palm, is the most widely cultivated species. Mature plants will withstand frost when transferred to the garden. Tolerates dry, cold conditions. Rapid growth spurts. Straight, shiny, dark-green leaves 50cm-1.5m long.
•    Dioon edule (AGM, H1) has stiff, upright, bluish-green leaves 30cm-1m long, with a short trunk.
•    Macrozamia communis grows quickly. Arching green leaves 1-2m long.
•    Zamia furfuracea is the most popular cycad in cultivation after C. revoluta. Has a short trunk, with 1.3m-long leaves, spreading to 2m.

Ginkgo biloba
A native of China, the maidenhair tree is a robust long-living ornamental, tolerant of pollution, drought, confined root space and most soils. It is also popular as a bonsai.
Trees are deciduous and the fan-shaped, bi-lobed leaves turn vivid yellow in autumn.

The male tree and cultivars are planted as the fruit of the female trees and gives off an offensive smell. Both sexes are rarely found on the same tree. The species can grow very large, while cultivars are smaller, often considerably so, and slower growing. Forms available include upright, narrow, conical and pendulous.

They are fully hardy to –30°C. Tolerant of most soils, they prefer moist, deep, well-drained neutral to acid sandy loams, in full or partial sun. Grown from cuttings and seed. Honey fungus is the only major pathogen.

What the specialists say

Brian Phipps, director, Goscote Nurseries, Leicestershire
“We stock the Ginkgo because it is a bit of history. It’s robust, hardy and it’s not fussy. ‘Fastigiata’ is upright, almost flame-like. ‘Autumn Gold’ has superb autumn yellow colour and ‘Saratoga’ has narrower leaves. We graft ‘Fastigiata’ onto G. biloba rootstock to guarantee the uprightness, which is not apparent in the juvenile plants.”

Robert Vernon, manager, BlueBell Nursery & Arboretum, Derbyshire
“We sell ‘Fastigiata’, ‘Golden Globe’ (a bushy, round tree) and ‘Variegata’ because customers demand it, though we don’t encourage it as it always reverts.
“In my experience, growth can be almost non-existent for the first 2-3 years, after which point they start growing. Although they are hardy, they like plenty of heat in the summer.”

Species and cultivars

•    Ginkgo biloba (AGM, H4) has spreading branches and butter-yellow autumn leaves. Reaches 20m, spreading to 10m. Fully hardy.
•    Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ is a fast-growing male cultivar, reaching 17m high with a spread of 12m. Bright yellow autumn colour.
•    Ginkgo biloba ‘Fastigiata’ is a tall male cultivar with upright branches. Nearly columnar in shape, with large leaves.
•    Ginkgo biloba ‘Mariken’ is a compact pendulous cultivar 1m high with a spread of 2-3m. Suitable for bonsai.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides
The dawn redwood was thought to be extinct until rediscovered by Chinese botanists in the 1940s. It is now widely distributed and is a popular choice for large gardens and parks.

A deciduous conifer, it has bright green feathery leaves that turn bright golden orange in autumn. The base of the reddish-brown trunk is flared or buttressed. It has a massive root system, giving it wind tolerance, and can reach 45m. The cultivars grow slower than the species.
It needs to be planted in full sun and wet soil and grows rapidly. Grown in damp neutral to acidic soil it can tolerate seasonal flooding, although watering will be required during periods of drought.

What the specialists say

Russ Mills, retail manager, Ornamental Tree Nurseries, Herefordshire
“We grow the species and ‘Gold Rush’. In autumn, we include them in displays for their excellent colour. On the plus side, we find them to be both pest and disease free, but being fast growers they soon outgrow their containers, and they require a different watering regime to other deciduous trees — without regular attention they can suffer drooping and sudden dieback. There is a limited market for the Metasequoia. It is suitable for people with a lot of land and who want to make a statement with a large tree.”

Jonathan Tate, owner, Lime Cross Nursery, East Sussex
“We have sold more Metasequoia in the past six or seven years as the cultivars have become available, of which ‘Gold Rush’ is our best seller. A quick grower, it is a spire-shaped tree with wonderful golden foliage. We also sell the variegated ‘White Spot’ and the new ‘Matthaei Broom’ and ‘Miss Grace’. The smaller, slower-growing culti-vars are better suited for gardens than the species.”

Species and cultivars

•    Metasequoia glyptostroboides (AGM, H4) has soft foliage that is light green in spring and broadly columnar in shape. It is fast growing (up to 1m a year).
•    Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Gold Rush’ has bright yellow foliage. Smaller than the species, it is pyramidal in shape and grows lush in a sheltered spot.

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