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Posts tagged ‘lavender’

Empire of the herbs

I have been empire-building.

What started with a need to rehabilitate raised bed 2, and therefore move a rather lovely rosemary and a struggling sage, mutated over the winter into a case of near-herbal overreach.

After digging out the two plants with as near tender loving care as I could manage, in contrast to the usual approach among Egypt’s gardeners (i.e. smash and grab), I placed them in an ill-prepared spot in full sun at the side of the house. And waited.

Not content with the two plants, I removed a bit of lawn and added an oregano seedling and a touch of chives. And waited a bit more.

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Next came a small and straggly thyme from the raised bed dedicated to herbs (last photo above); I had thought it was a seedling, but, as I went to dig it out, found it was a layered branch of the mother plant. It didn’t seem to mind the dis/re-location.

You may wonder why the new bed. What’s so special about herbs that I’d risk another battle with rampant rosemary, woody sage infested with mealy bugs, leggy thyme and seedy oregano? Not to mention chives that develop the prettiest of flower heads and then seed themselves absolutely all over.

The answer is, I cherish them for their extraordinary qualities. Herbs fill in gaps in the lower hedge where other plants fear to root (rosemary, basil). They add interest to borders (basil, dill, fennel, dianthus). They give food for our bees and other pollinators (rosemary, lavender, thyme, borage). They are food for us too, whether in our cooking, our salads or our honey. Their flowers may be technically insignificant, but they range from pretty white (thyme) to unusual blue (borage) and stunning purple (lavender); and you have only to brush against the leaves on a hot day to release a whole cloud of amazing scent that rises on the currents of air, filling the atmosphere with the heady perfume of essential oils filled with beneficial compounds. What’s not to like?

So through the winter I have worked with the gardener to dig up turf – expertly turned with the fas or adze, a tool used since ancient times. It can be wielded with as much refined precision as brute strength, depending on the need of the moment. We expanded the bed outwards, and then found it taking on a life of its own as it crept northwards along the side of the house.

Out went the bees’ water jar, for the duration, and in went more plants: zaatar or Lebanese thyme, dianthus, a baby sage. I managed (somehow!) to leave space between them: Close planting has been a bit of a problem in other parts of the garden, and I’ve learned my lesson, I hope.

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I’ve struck a deal with the lavender. She stays in her pot so long as she is flowering, since to be full of blooms is a generous and unusual gesture among the lavenders I’ve grown in Egypt. I’ll only transplant her into the bed when she is ready. Nearby, there’s now another, smaller lavender (L. spica, grown from seed brought from Italy); fingers crossed that she will thrive. And a gift from nature, a self-seeded plant that may be a rock rose – I am not sure – undoubtedly the descendant of plants popped into the border last year.

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The bees have their water pot back in situ. This was timely: as the temperatures has risen recently, their need for water has become more urgent.

What is needed now is to add more variety to the existing space, rather than dig out more of the lawn. Attempts to grow melissa (lemon balm) have failed – sigh! I wish I could grow this lovely herb, “the elixir of life” according to Paracelsus, a wonderful aid to work on the anahata (heart) chakra. Hyssop also refused to germinate, and the Thai basil is shrivelling up in the sun. Worst of all, I forgot to make sure we have sweet basil, a terrible omission that must never be repeated: For now, we are senza basilico, the ultimate horror for a family of pasta-lovers!


Summer colour-fest

The title might be an over-estimation. Summer colours in our garden can be spectacular – the bougainvillea in the hedge, the May-flowering Jacaranda tree – but I wouldn’t say it is the best time of year for a garden in Egypt.

Now, however, as we gear up for the start of summer after yesterday’s “Spring Festival”*, we have some glorious colours on the pergola and in the herbaceous borders, in all shades from salmon pink to deep, luxuriant crimson:

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It is likely that the weather will continue hot and dry for the foreseeable future. That said, we can never be quite sure: A week ago, we had a heavy, overcast day, the light ominously grey tinged with orange, followed by  a night of spectacular lightning and thunder and a downpour that soaked everything.

The climbing rose (variety uncertain – no label when bought) is adorned with beautiful blooms, as you can see in the slideshow above. It climbs from the right of the pergola across the front where it is met by white jasmine (J. officinale) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Behind, the poor Ipomoea (Morning Glory) ripped by an unfeeling gardener from its original position while still in the pot, tearing I don’t know how many precious roots, is clearly recovering well (below left).

While the honeysuckle on the pergola isn’t flowering yet,  it is well away along the green fence nearby, with lovely flowers scenting the air:

All these honeysuckle plants, and many more besides in the Jasmine Garden, originated as layered branches from the mother plant, bought from a nursery several years ago. Other “descendants” are to be found in a garden elsewhere in New Cairo, and on a balcony in Alexandria!

The bottle brush (Callistemon citrinus) is particularly lovely right now, the brilliant red stamens of its flowers tipped with yellow:

The bottlebrush originates in Australia and is not uncommon in Egypt, although it is something of a specialist shrub; there are specimens on sale at the Spring Flower Show this year.

Several other plants in our garden are of South African origin, including the plumbago (P. capensis), both white and blue – which generally flowers later in the summer – and the spectacular trailing African daisy or Osteospermum fruiticosum/ecklonis. 

These are excellent at filling in space; if anything, they are inclined to sprawl a little too much, as well as seed themselves everywhere (including in the lawn!), so they need to be controlled.

Another couple of border sprawlers are the rose geranium Pelargonium graveolens (or maybe capitatum) and tansy or Tanacetum. In truth, I am not sure which species of these two herbs I have in the herbaceous borders: I have moaned before about the lack of labels on plants in every nursery I know in Cairo (and the “top professionals” at the Spring Flower Show are not much better). But the plants are true winners in terms of filling in space, and lovely for long-lasting masses of flowers (tansy) and striking green foliage (geranium – her flowers are insignificant and don’t last long, but even so the bees appreciate them):

One odd thing about all these beautiful flowers is that none of them appeared in ancient Egyptian gardens, as far as we know. I wonder about tansy: quite apart from its many medicinal properties (e.g. anti-inflammatory and insecticidal), its name is derived from the Greek athanasia or immortal since it has preservative properties – ideal for mummification, one might think.

Lastly in my review of the early summer colours of our garden, one of my favourites: lavender (Lavandula). We have two seedlings of Lavandula spica from Italy to be planted out when they have grown a little more. They promise greenish leaves and aromatic deep purple flowers. Our two locally-sourced plants, with grey leaves and blue-ish spikes, are also flowering this year, a relatively rare occurrence in my experience of the plant in Egypt:



Lavender blues

There’s a strange and unexpected lack of colour in the garden. Normally, we would have  some kind of a show of roses, but not so this summer, and I’ve heard other people comment on the shabby roses in their gardens too. It seems to be a bad year.

When we lived in the Arabian Gulf, there were always colourful vincas (Catharanthus rosea) to fall back on, thriving in summer with glossy green leaves and flowers from white to purple-red providing splashes of colour all around. We had several in the garden here in New Cairo, but most of them have disappeared.

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Lavender is a good border plant for well-drained and poor soil, and one of my favourites. But our record has been patchy. Positioned in full sun in light soil, the plants have tended to do well for a few months and then to die off. Others were left in pots, which meant I could move them about, but they didn’t do much better. The latest trial, two plants bought from the Spring Flower Show at El-Urman Gardens, identity unknown as there were no labels, are doing marginally better. I’ve re-potted them and taken them up to the top balcony. No sign of any flowers – lavenders very rarely produce any in my experience in Egypt – but the leaves are an attractive silvery-green colour and wonderfully aromatic. That’s a lot to be grateful for.


Then we have the jasmines. Best of all is the “yasmeen balady”, J. officinale,  with its long trailing stems and bursts of delicate pink buds opening to starry white flowers. Climbing above the Jasmine Gate and over the pergola, and cascading down the full height of the hedge in several places, it spreads a delicious perfume around the garden, especially at sunset. Every day, the lawn is sprinkled with the star dust of fallen blooms – so beautiful!

Other species, such as J. sambac or Arabian jasmine, are more compact shrubs bearing single or double white blooms that are even more intensely perfumed.  We have them all around the garden. Whenever I catch their rich scent, I’m reminded of days gone by when flower sellers used to dart among the traffic in Cairo’s busiest streets carrying necklaces of the fresh flowers for sale.

There’s another (query) jasmine in a pot in the front garden, also sourced from El-Urman Gardens, identity unknown. It bore jasmine-like flowers earlier in the summer… it needs to climb, but haven’t found a spot for it yet.

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However, there are still bright flashes of colour here and there. As you know, the hibiscus are among my great favourites and we have them in red, pink (including doubles), orange and yellow. There are also two groups of cannas, C. indica, one with brilliant red, and one with flaming orange, spikes, and elegant, variegated leaves. They make quite a show.

The great thing about the cannas is their ability to put on the show right at the back of the border, against the dark green of the Indian laurels (Ficus nitida). It’s not a position much accepted by other plants, which tend to dislike having their back to a wall of laurels, but these are happy to fill in!

With plumbago doing a great job of filling in the middle, swamping everything else and even rising to my sort of height by climbing in among the hibiscus, it’s the front of the herbaceous borders that is proving most tricky to fill in. Dianthus are not doing well (lack of water, perhaps, or poor soil conditions); the dwarf roses flower intermittently only; smaller bedding plants such as pansies and petunias do not survive the summer heat.

To remedy the situation, we called at a nursery in the densely built-up and – from a gardener’s perspective – unpromising suburb of Madinat Nasr recently and stocked up on more of the vinca plants. Below left is one of the survivors from our existing stock; next to it, the new intake, to be transplanted to the border. Popularly known as Madagascar periwinkles, the plants are great fillers, if disappointingly without scent. But, it seems that at this time of the year, either we have colour and no scent, or we have scent and no colour…