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.
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.
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.