14 October, 2015

Melianthus major - Honey Flower for the Birds!

By Diana Studer 
- gardening for biodiversity 
 in Cape Town, South Africa

Almost a year in our new False Bay home and I start a fresh Dozen for Diana. The carob tree was the first Discovered Treasure. In November I choose pelargoniums for my new Dozen.

Thru the livingroom window we look across the checkerboard of Rose Courtyard backed by next door's garage wall. A small stage set and the actress who opens the performance is Melianthus major.

Melianthus major


As a gardener I am uncomfortable with a garden overflowing with plants I didn't choose. Even a small garden needs some variety in texture from fussy little leaves. In my garden l choose the first plant for dramatic leaves in glaucous blue grey. With teeth not just along the leaf margins, but also along the compound leaf stalk. Teeth and yet visitors reach out to stroke it, so soft! It has a weird smell described as peanut butter. Bad name as the plant is poisonous! Kruidjie-roer-my-nie. Don’t-touch-me-plant.

Leaves of Touch Me Not

In the chaos of renovating and settling in I forgot to take pictures of the flower buds - but these are in our Porterville garden in August 2011.

Melianthus major buds in August

The flowers are prima donna material. Tall and stately it is burgundy overlaid with chocolate brown, with hints of vibrant green, and golden stamens. Chocolate dipped strawberries anyone?

Flowers of Melianthus major

Black nectar drips from the flowers. We garden for biodiversity and the flowers are for the sunbirds. In False Bay I've only seen the white eyes who like figs and berries and tiny bugs. One day the sunbirds will discover the plant and a delighted bird will proclaim THIS is all MINE! Melianthus means honey flower (meli = honey, and anthus = flower. Agapanthus = for love of a flower).

Melianthus major nectar

Remembering the sunbirds we supported in Porterville. It grows fast, huge and rampant in the winter rain. A triffid out to devour unwary gardeners. There are 6 species.

Malachite sunbird in Porterville

A day when I discovered our Porterville plant supporting an entire army of Rothschild bugs.

Milkweed bug on Kruidjie-roer-my-nie

For a third act the flowers turn to elaborately sculpted green seeds (Porterville in November 2012)

Melianthus major seeds in November

On the Sevilla Rock Art Trail we walked in cool gloom through a Melianthus comosus forest tucked in a rocky cleft near the river. Melianthus major grows along stream banks and is happy in kind gardens with some water. Or it will rest quietly thru a hot dry summer waiting for autumn rain.

Melianthus comosus forest
on Sevilla Rock Art Trail near Clanwilliam in August 2014

When I see Melianthus major nurtured, and tucked up for the winter by northern gardeners, I learn, both to look at it with even more appreciative eyes, and to cut it back hard. For here, neither frost nor drought holds it back. Once it lolls off the stage, I will cut the stalks to the ground, one by one. Between the seasonal change and the future birds Melianthus makes a perfect thru the window plant. Planted in December 2014.

Newly planted in December 2014

If I had an internal courtyard I would go minimalist and share the space between Melianthus and An Other. Since we need to break the expanse of wall she must perform with a large inherited pale pink Pelargonium (giving me branches as support in a vase) and Brachylaena discolor and Diospyros whyteana trees.

Do you have a cherished Dozen plant for October?
(Or looking ahead to November, second Wednesday the 11th)
Donna from GardensEyeView in upstate New York has chosen Rudbeckia, whose dark heart echoes my Melianthus.
Beth from PlantPostings in Wisconsin picks Jack in the Pulpit, some with subtle burgundy stripes. 
Gardening blog memes calendar
For Pam at Digging's Foliage Follow-up
and for Tina and My Gardener Says ... Wildlife Wednesday

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Pictures by Diana and Jurg Studer
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30 comments:

  1. So nice to see this wonderful Melianthus major in your garden. I really was amazed and surprised when I saw it flowering for the first time, yes, in New Zealand. At home again in our Dutch polder landschape I searched and found. I had it for years in my garden and it did very well until the plant was demolished by a heavy and unexpected frost.
    Enjoy your life on False Bay!
    Janneke

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  2. I love the honey dripping flower and its gorgeous dark color.....definitely a prima donna and perfect for me. I am glad to see you are back with your dozen for Diana. I will have a post on the 19th and will add the link.

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  3. This is a new plant for me, and it's a lovely thing. I love that it is such tall flowerheads, but also that it has that amazing black nectar. Definitely prima donna material.

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  4. Such beautiful blooms and that sunbird is magnificent! I'm not familiar with your plants or the bird, but the milkweed bug is certainly similar, though not the same as ones native here in Texas. Thanks so much for joining in!!

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    1. sunbirds fill the same niche as hummingbirds - but are larger, don't hover and require sturdy flowers to perch on. They do manage to hover for pineapple sage!

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  5. I'm not a sunbird, but that closeup photo of the nectar even looks inviting to me! I am familiar with this plant and even considered getting it at one stage, but wasn't sure whether it would fit into the picture. But seeing it in the wild, as a forest, was quite amazing.

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    1. yes, the forest took me by surprise!

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  6. In my last garden it did the Triffid thing but I've been unable to get one to take hold here. That peanut butter smell never tempted me to take a taste, though I was unaware that it is poisonous. Your close-up shot is fab!

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    1. apparently Melianthus honey would also not be edible, but I don't see bees there.

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  7. We had a Melianthus major for quite a number of years until we had a very cold winter when it died, I must buy another! The flowers don't form here, I don't think we're hot enough in the summer, but it is wonderful as a foliage plant.

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  8. Those burgundy flowers are gorgeous. I hope the sunbirds will discover them soon.

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  9. Excellent choice of plant, it looks wonderful against that plain wall, and I bet it casts magical shadows too.

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  10. Yum. The honeyflower sounds delicious. Lucky birds.

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  11. To me Melianthus major is so exotic. I would grow it just to attract that beautiful sunbird. Glad you are doing the 'dozen' again -- I'll join the fun. P. x

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  12. Are the pods on the carob tree what they make the carob chocolate from?

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    1. that's right.
      No pods on ours (it's a funky male) - but apparently the pods are 'famine' food.

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  13. It's all peanut butter and chocolate....lol. I remember when Melianthus first showed up here, the leaves were ragged on the specimen plant because everyone was rubbing it for the scent. And is that carob the chocolate replacement that my Mom used to sub for us allergic kids....sigh...nope it really doesn't taste like chocolate Mom..

    Jen

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    1. It's not chocolate - but I like to add a hearty portion when I make each batch of muesli.
      Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and carob.

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  14. I now have 2 Melianthus major in my garden - one planted late last fall and the other in early spring this year. Neither has turned into the monster plant others here have warned me of - in fact, the latter plant is still quite tiny (albeit not dead). I suppose things may change dramatically if El Nino arrives this winter as expected and the plants finally get well watered.

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    1. resting in summer, and so long as you get your winter rain, prepared to be surprised!

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  15. What a stunning plant! I hope it attracts some sunbirds for you - they are such gorgeous birds!

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    1. I did see two birds pause briefly on the flowers today. But they were gone before we could get pictures.

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  16. Do you know what really caught my eye? (Yes I have strange inclinations) ......your terracotta soil.....dry maybe but so rich looking......

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    1. when I look at that red earth I see journeys on dirt roads across South Africa.

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  17. So nice to mark settling into your new garden with a new "Dozen for Diana." This is a great first choice -- so dramatic! -Jean

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  18. Diana, this is so beautiful, but it has character as well as good looks! It is a stunning accent against the bare wall. I also appreciate its benefit to wildlife, as is proved by your photo of the equally astonishing malachite bird.

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  19. I've always thought Melianthus to be quite pretty, but your top picture has me actually wishing I could grow one. It's gorgeous against that gray wall and in bloom. And have you really been in your new home a year already?

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    1. We moved at the end of November but didn't start serious gardening till May. Still 2 sections to be planted.

      Have you tried Melianthus? Maybe dappled shade in Texas, and accepting that it rests in summer?

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