PLANT OF THE WEEK #62: Luculia gratissima

Even as a young and enthusiastic apprentice, when the world was one big, happy, plant-diverse place, and I was too green to understand the seasonal cycles and their relative weight of floral glory, it was clear that Luculia gratissima was a total stand out.  

This large, sprawling shrub is truly exotic in virtually every part, and injects into grey, old, early winter a perfume and flamboyance that feel like they belong in warm, humid tropicality.

Luculia peering over a large old camellia in the RBG Melbourne

In June – yes June! – the flowers form a showy domed cluster of powder pink, superficially resembling an old-time mop-head hydrangea.  They smell how they look – both powdery and ‘pink’.  The perfume may not be of the very first order, but I’m no scent-snob, and it feels like a gift from God at this bleak moment.  Furthermore, behind the powdery pinkness, when you get up close, is a heady, ethylene-like punch as from a bowl of over-ripe bananas.  To seek a full body slamming of this isn’t really the point.  It’s more that this background alcoholic element seems to turbo-charge the scent on the air.  Just last week while walking through Melbourne RBG, I loved watching a cool young couple wandering up and down a path, sniffing this and that, trying to work out where the amazing scent was coming from. 

The leaves don’t get a good wrap.  They’re large, and subject to wind and weather damage, but they’re of a really good deep green that perfectly sets off the flower colour, and are pleasantly quilted along their veins.  If you cut the whole plant back hard after flowering, the foliage is quickly and entirely renewed.

The biggest challenge with this plant is its size.  In gardens they tend to sit at about 3m tall, and only slightly less wide.  The new growth arises, cane-like, from deep inside the structure of the plant, a bit like Forsythia, Kolkwitzia, Deutzia or Weigela.  And with such shrubs, there’s no hope of trying to control their height.  You can thin them, tidy them, totally renew them by cutting back super-hard, but you can’t manage their height.  All new growth will simply bolt up to the previous full height of the plant, unbranched.  The compensating advantage to shrubs of this growth pattern is that once they’ve reached their full height, they don’t keep getting taller. Their growth is cyclical, rather than cumulative, and old leaders/canes are simply sacrificed as new ones take their place. The taller plants of this form, including our Luculia, tend towards bare-leggedness, so are best planted behind other stuff that covers them to about half their full height.

Classic Luculia growth pattern – thinner at the base. Thanks to Wendy Palmer of @weltonhousegarden for the pic

Having known, loved and coveted Luculia gratissima for nearly forty years, I’ve never grown one.  Sadly, it’s very frost tender, and being winter performing, there’s no getting around this.  In a climate like mine you can attempt to grow moderately frost-tender summer performers, as there’s a chance for them to recover before their big moment.  There’s no such hope for frost tender winter-performers.  So I can’t, and may never be able to, grow this.  I have to content myself with visiting yours, in June, some day.

Can you grow Luculia? Where are you? We’d love to get a sense of their garden distribution across Australia

With thanks to Wendy Palmer, of the constantly surprising and delightful Welton House, Marlborough, NZ for both the prompt and a few of the pics.  Follow Wendy and her garden designer brother Ross Palmer on insta @weltonhousegarden and @clarkkentia respectively.

Discussion

  1. I bought one this week! And planted it in our inner Melbourne garden yesterday. Fingers crossed. How do the possums feel about Luculia I wonder?! It’s a 6 ft whippy specimen which I hope will bush up and shoot up. Bravo Roraima for stocking them.

    1. Yay Sophie! And yay Roraima, as you say. What a great source of off-beat plants. (Stop press: I just checked with Roraima, and you bought their last one! But they’re happy to take orders for future stock for anyone else searching)

  2. My mother in law has one in her Melbourne garden, I was there last week and found it very hard to tear myself away from it, I wanted to inhale it’s scent all day. It’s funny how we always want want we cannot grow, I live in a very frosty part of Victoria too, and was lamenting that I could never have one of my own…..

    1. I have a deep longing for one. No – for several, that would echo around my garden, filling it with scent at this flower-forsaken time in my climate. Alas, a longing is all it will ever be

  3. I have just arrived home from visiting a gardening friend with a broken wrist
    We wandered her garden from Luculia to Luculia. She has three in three colours. One is possibly a seedling pale pinky white . Her white one not in flower yet but she had a vase of the pink in her lovely warm kitchen emitting it’s pungent fragrance
    We don’t get frosts being reasonably close to the coast here in Margaret River. There is a very old tree sized specimen in town which we all admire each winter so gardeners here are aware of this beauty and trying to acquire it.

    1. What a great thing to have in town. Maybe we should organise this…to plant up our towns with a huge range of wonderful and hard-to-get things so that home gardeners start to demand them! In a not dissimilar way, we have a brilliant Hydrangea aspera down a neglected lane in our town. I visit it regularly in autumn, and wonder how many passers-by are stopped in their tracks by its heavy blooming

  4. I’ve been eyeing off Luculias for ages and keen to try in a cool shady spot in my Brisbane garden; reading up I have hope it would do well. But no luck sourcing. Gorgeous plant.

    1. Yeah, tricky to source

    2. Bunnings Cannon Hill (southside of Brisbane) yesterday had several, lovely healthy looking specimens.

  5. The smell reminds me of my Grandmother’s garden in Melbourne. So my first thought reading this was “”oh if it’s growing in Michael’s perhaps it’s not as frost tender as I thought, I live to grow one”, then I kept reading 😂

    1. Apologies for giving temporary false hope…

  6. I planted one about 7 years ago in my Melbourne garden and it’s been very successful. It’s next to a fence that possums like to run along the top of and they seem to leave it alone. The flowers are very welcome at that point in the year when the rest of the garden is at its low point.

  7. As a PS I’ve just visited Hobart’s magnificent Botanic Gardens which were full of the scent of Luculia on a winter’s morning. At least a dozen specimens – not L. gratissima but L. pinceana. Clearly they love it.

  8. I lost an old specimen a few years back in my Hobart garden but managed to source a new one and am thrilled that it is healthier and hardier than it’s predecesor. It flowers alongside a bushy copse of some kind of plectranthus I grew from a cutting and so I have a magnificent early winter blaze of pink and purple flowers in this corner of the garden (under a Rowan tree so a bit of frost protection. Very cheery in June as the weather gets bleak. Sensational.

    1. Are you frost-free there Catherine?

  9. I saw some lovely specimen of this plant in the Hobart botanical gardens, flowering in May this year. I’ve just checked my photo and it was the Luculia pinceana. (Surely they would get frosts there??). Back in Brisbane, I was admiring a couple of fine specimens of Luculia grandissima in Bunnings yesterday! I had thought they preferred cooler climates so came here in my search for information on where they would grow.

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