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GARDENING: Belles of the ball

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From speckled or freckled to patched or splashed, multi-coloured flowers create floral pageantry that can lift a tired border and which have delighted artists and poets through the centuries

Nature has painted flowers with dots and dashes, stripes and splashes, speckles and freckles. These are fun flowers, these extroverts of the plant world, addings a touch of lightness and whimsy to our gardens as they dance and frolic along paths and peer cheekily from borders and containers.

To gaze into the faces of these flowers is to be transported into a world of fantasy – a world of giants and Lilliputians – flowers as outrageous as those in the rose garden in Alice in Wonderland, and as colourful as the flowers in The Wizard of Oz.

With a little imagination, we can imagine some mischievous pixie, paintbrush in hand, adding whiskers to violas, spots to tiger lilies and rouge to roses. Just as the jesters of medieval courts donned masks and wore vibrant, patterned clothes of many colours to entertain and amuse, these exhibitionists with their fanciful flower faces have delighted and amused gardeners, artists and poets through the centuries.

Roses and pansies

The cottage gardens of old overflowed with quaint flowers, and the 19th century poet, John Clare, wrote of the old roses and pansies that grew there: “Such as each cottage garden yields; fine cabbage roses, painted like her face; the shining pansy, trimm’d with golden lace.”

One of the oldest roses, Rosa mundi, has white petals striped and blotched with purple and red. A chameleon among roses, Rosa mutabilis is a perfect subject for a harlequin garden.

Butterfly-like flowers appear on the bush, first as orange buds, then opening into honey-yellow and apricot, before deepening to crimson-pink as they fade. 

Modern breeding of harlequin roses can be seen in the striped and flecked blooms of Candy Stripe, Chäim Soutine, Claude Monet, Crazy Spire, Happy Birthday, JH Pierneef, Maverick, Pinocchio, Rainbow Nation and The Painter.

The breeding of modern pansies from the diminutive viola has given us delightful flowers, many with whiskered faces. These were never better described than by famous gardener, Vita Sackville-West of Sissinghurst: “Purples were there and subtler colours than purple, bronze and greenish-yellow and claret and rose-red, all in their queer cat-faces of crumpled velvet.”

Spots and dots

Sparaxis tricolour, a popular spring bulb, is known as the harlequin flower. Picture: New Plant Nursery

Bulbs have their fair share of spots. The harlequin flower, sparaxis, charms everyone with star-shaped flowers and richly shaded markings. Some species of lachenalia not only have spotted flowers, but also spots on their leaves.

What could be more delightful than the delicate snowflake (leucojum), where each petal of each tiny white bell has a green spot at its tip? The brush strokes on oriental lilies, the bold dots on tiger lilies, and the leopard-like spots on tigridias, provide both colour and markings to brighten any garden and attract any visiting bees.

Freckled and speckled

Charming or cheeky, freckles on plants can be an attractive feature, from the shy violet to the heirloom scented sweet pea Wiltshire Ripple, to the flamboyant canna.

Plectranthus ciliatus, also known as the speckled spur flower, is just one of the many species of plectranthus that on close examination reveals delicate spotting. Petunia Night Sky has dark purple with white markings and P. Baby Doll is pink speckled.

Alaska nasturtiums have speckled leaves and apricot flowers. Look deeply into the finger-like flowers of the foxglove and admire their speckled beauty. The Chinese foxglove (Rehmannia elata), that once grew near city walls in the forbidden cities of China, has rose-purple, bell-like flowers, also with spotting in the throat.

The pathway of spots at on the petals of the foxgloves guides bees to the nectar inside. Picture: Lukas Otto

Tigers and zebras

Sometimes, as in the case of tulip mania, the craze that swept through 18th century Europe, striping on the flowers was caused by a virus. These curious flowers captured the imagination of florists, merchants and painters, fetching astronomical prices until the market collapsed and many fortunes were lost. 

Alstroemerias come in a rainbow of colours, some with delicate pencil-like markings, others with bold tiger stripes. Gazania Tiger Stripes has yellow and orange striped blooms; Viola Tiger Eye has yellow blooms with black veins.

Gazanias sporting tiger stripes brighten the border. Picture: Kay Montgomery

Named after Iris, goddess of the rainbow, many iris blooms have delicate or bold markings. Zebra iris (Iris pallida) is an old garden plant with striped foliage and lavender-blue flowers. Harlequin foliage can also be found in coleus and in the polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya).

Pulmonaria is a woodland plant with white spotted leaves and pink/blue flowers; Trachelospermum jasminoides Chameleon is a shrub-like groundcover for semi-shade with green, white and pink leaves.

Aloe zebrina refers to the markings of the leaves; Aloe maculata (syn. Aloe saponaria) is known as the soap or zebra aloe. Calathea zebrina’s common name is the zebra plant, named for its striped leaves. As you walk in your garden, look closely at the flowers around you, and see how wonderful is each – in its shape, colour and exquisite markings.

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