PLANT OF THE WEEK #90: Plectranthus ecklonii

How would you respond if told there was a new deep purple/blue salvia on the market, that absolutely laughed at root-ridden soil and flowered brilliantly in quite deep shade?  First, I’d be skeptical. Then, once my skepticism was addressed, I’d be thrilled.

Plectranthus ecklonii at Cranlana

But there is such a plant, and it’s largely ignored except in the oldest of gardens.  Admittedly it’s not a salvia, but you’d assume it was until told otherwise. I grew to know and love Plectranthus ecklonii at Rippon Lea, while there as an apprentice in the mid-80’s.  Even then, before I knew how few late-flowering, shade-loving plants there are, I loved the way the driveway at Rippers (as we knew it) was super-enriched in mid to late autumn by a hovering cloud of purple flowers at about chest height.  The conditions it coped with were discouraging to say the least, being deeply shaded by overhead oaks, and absolutely ridden with competitive roots.  Granted, oaks are amongst the more sociably of trees when it comes to underplanting, and the area did get some irrigation, but it’s still a very tricky context for good planting. 

Plectranthus ecklonii is a soft-wooded shrub, very like the shrubby/sub-shrubby salvias in its inherent sappiness of growth, but, despite that, is incredibly long-lived.  The only place that it really loses points is in its demand for a heavy pruning following flowering, some time in winter, to keep its growth attractively dense, and the flowering at about 1.5m.  The pruning results in awkward, twiggy stumps and semi-leaflessness for a couple of months, but it’s a small price to pay for such a generous display, just when everything else is giving the impression that the seasonal party has been pooped.

When it comes to purples, I’m of the opinion that the richer they are, the better.  And as for a white form of a normally purple flower, I usually wonder why you’d bother.  But yesterday, wandering round the grand old garden of Cranlana, my vision was grabbed by a glowing, crystalline white under deep shade in the distance.  I didn’t wonder what it could be.  It couldn’t be anything but a white form of Plectranthus ecklonii.  But I did wonder at its visual power, even from a great distance.

White Plectranthus ecklonii glowing in deep shade at Cranlana

Unfortunately, like most soft-wooded shrubs of this kind (including all those fabulous mexican salvias), Plectranthus ecklonii is very frost tender, and I don’t have a hope of growing it here in Woodend.  But in my next life, which I’ve devoted entirely to frost-free gardening, it’s going to loom large.

Plectranthus ecklonii thriving under, and beautifully complementing, a golden ash at Cranlana

Do you grow Plectranthus ecklonii? Where? Very keen to get a clearer idea of its frost tolerance, and how (maybe) this could be managed

Discussion

  1. We had Plectranthus ecklonii growing in our last home in Warranwood Victoria (between Warrandyte and Ringwood for those that aren’t familiar). It was spectacular under Alder trees every autumn. I first heard about it in the 80’s on the radio gardening show. It was said they light dry shade and they certainly do.

    1. I imagine that Warranwood would get a few frosts, yeah? But no doubt that tree cover (evergreen alders?) would have protected them to a large extent

  2. Cont….. but I have only just recently discovered it also comes in white , I love the photo you showed Michael from Cranlana it looks beautiful. A must for me , now I need to find some shade.

  3. YES! I do love this Plectranthus and intend to plant more in our shady areas of our garden! Love your blog and forum Michael! Not sure if the ones I have are the exact same variety without looking for their tags in my garden file. I love that they are evergreen and seem to be very tough considering I have some purple ones still in pots which should have been in the garden a couple of years ago! They are terribly root bound yet they are still alive and flowering! I have a gorgeous raspberry pink one in a cement pot under our back verandah…. it’s looking gorgeous right now. I just bought one to see if the pink was as hardy as the purple….. it’s doing ok where it is but not sure if it’s quite as hardy as the purple one I had there.

    1. PS I meant to say that we are on Kangaroo Island in a temperate coastal climate with very few frosts…. just a couple a year maybe!

    2. Raspberry pink? How fabulous. The only pink one I’ve seen is insipid baby pink. Can you send me a pic, on michael@thegardenist.com.au? Would love to see it

    3. Michael, I’ve just emailed you photos. I found the tag and it’s called Plectranthus “Cape Angels” and is described as “Dark Pink”. Interestingly the tag says to plant in a warm sunny spot! Mine only gets some late afternoon sun as it goes down and is flowering well. I always thought it was a shade plant!

  4. I grow this plant in Perth in improved sand and it is very tough. It’s been a horrible summer for gardening with many days over 40 which caused the foliage to scorch. It would have been OK I think if I watered daily – but that’s too hard to justify in our drying climate. I grow it in dappled shade, dense shade and morning sun and afternoon shade and it prefers dappled shade or morning sun only. It grows OK in deep shade but does not flower as well I find. It is a wonderful plant, seldom seen in nurseries, and grows really easily from cuttings.

    1. That’s good to know, Deryn. I may well have over-rated the degree of its shade tolerance.

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