I remember well receiving a packet of Orlaya grandiflora seeds from that fabulous gardener from the NSW Southern Highlands, Col Blanch, about 20 years ago. I was between houses, or some such thing, and it wasn’t sown until it was no longer viable. I didn’t have a clue what Orlaya was, but he talked it up, and that was enough to make me want to grow it. Only a very tiny part of me (though sufficiently shame-inducing to make me keen to confess) was left wondering ‘if it’s that good, how come I haven’t heard of it before?’
Over the next 15 years I was occasionally reminded of the missed opportunity, so when a friend grew it, and offered me seed, I jumped at it. I probably should count how many times I’ve said this in other Plants of the Week, but I don’t now know what I’d do without it.
It was introduced to the garden by careful sowing into cells in autumn, and transferring to the garden in spring. But ever since then it has maintained itself via self-sowing, reaching its peak of bloom about now – late November and December. It’s an annual umbellifer, looking a bit like a Queen Anne’s Lace, but much, much shorter, reaching about 60cm where the soil is rubbish (or it has sown into pure gravel), and up to 80 cm in very favoured spots. It’s also much showier, as the flowers themselves have substantial asymmetrical ‘petals’ of an extraordinarily pure white. Indeed, they might be in danger of being too white, if not for the fact that the white is shattered or scattered so that you see green through them. And the asymmetry of each flower, arranged as it is in an highly organised, radial form within each umbel, with the largest flag-like ‘petals’ around the outside edge, provides a more convincing sense of lace than the better known true Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi majus).
What’s more, the foliage is as fine and see-through as dill, so plants in flower can hover over later flowering annuals or perennials without shading them out. That’s a great advantage in an early-flowering annual. And as long as they’re just dotted about, as is usually the case with stuff that’s self-sown, they don’t leave a noticeable gap when it’s time to pull them out.
The seeds of Orlaya are curiously large, and covered in spiny hairs that leave me wondering whether to wear gloves while I handle them – that being the only element of aggression in their otherwise gentle, benign make-up.
In the UK, any annual that can be sown in autumn for spring flowering is known as a hardy annual (as hardiness there, and in nearly all Northern hemisphere literature, refers only to frost hardiness), and many of these are grown over that period simply because they can be, not because they need to be. Some, such as the aforementioned Ammi majus, many poppies, sweet peas and our Orlaya are just as happy to be sown in spring from mid-late summer flowering (though I should add that sweet peas can become susceptible to a fungus when temperatures get high, which is not the same of a preference for cool temperatures).
The effect of Orlaya right now (December) is of a spangling of white amongst the floral rough-and-tumble of my early summer garden. They add so much, without taking anything away, or creating any kind of management challenge. How I wish there were more plants about which that could be said!