by Alec McCarter November 2005
It seems that each garden that my wife and I have had changes colour a few times through the season. In the spring it is multicoloured as yellow daffodils and yellow, blue, mauve, purple and white crocuses predominate for a time. Then the blues of Ipheion, Chionodoxa and Muscarii take over. Pinks of Prunus, R. williamsianum, tree peony, and whites of Magnolia and Cornus come next. White Hoherias bloom through July into August and now in August is the time for the garden to be mostly red or orange. The most prominent of these is produced by Montbretia (or is it Crocosmia) masonorum.
The several plants that we have are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because of the colour, either a deep red (‘Lucifer’) or orange, is the beautiful spray of bloom, very attractive to Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds. These in turn, attract my cat, Sabena, who with miraculous speed and agility can pluck these darting, or hovering gems from the air. Proudly, she brings them into the house and lays them on the carpet for me to see. Of the four that she has captured this summer, three were uninjured. I was able to pick them up in my hand, so tiny, so light, to admire their magnificent feathers, prismatic green and rufous. The birds lay perfectly still in my hand and then I noticed a wink of an eye – once, twice, surely the bird was alive? The breathing resumed, rapid but shallow. The bird would right itself if rolled on its side, then hold up its head and long beak, then with a whirr of its tiny wings – it would take off into the sky and fly away.
Cat was satisfied with its prowess – I was satisfied to see the gorgeous creature close-up and especially satisfied that I had rescued it and helped it to live. The cat is only being a cat – the bird, only a bird (what a bird!) – but both brought excitement and wonder to me – reasons for growing Montbretia (aka Crocosmia) in addition to its inherent beauty.
There is a downside to this plant; if left until the clumps mature, it is almost impossible to destroy. Pulling on the sword-like leaves just tears them off with the corms still remaining in the ground. I tried once to dig out a clump that had grown in the same place for five years or more and had spread so far that it was seriously overgrowing and crowding some of the yakushimanum rhododendrons. As I dug to remove the corms, there appeared to be layer upon layer of them going down quite deeply into the soil and some had spread into the root-balls of the rhododendrons – one quandary led to another.
A different problem is that the weight of all the leaves and flowers in a large clump may cause the plant to collapse outward – I believe the term, if it were grain that we were talking about, would be that the plant had “lodged”. The cure is to tie up the clump using a rope strung around the outside and held in place by a strong stake. It is a problem, but the plant flowers profusely only if crowded. They also flourish only if the soil is moist – but not wet.
These observations being set aside, Montbretias are a wonderfully colourful addition to the garden. After they bloom, you can cut them to the ground. The heavy foliage makes good compost – but make sure that no corms are inadvertently included for they will take advantage of the opportunity to spread and you may later find them where they are not wanted. By the way they make good cut-flowers – and even after the brilliant petals have fallen, the stalk and its spreading truss is a wonderful adjunct to a vase of flowers.
Published in the Finnerty Gardens newsletter, January 2005