Bold Performers
Landscape|September/October 2017

Their striking appearance may belie a tender nature, but a long, colourful display earns Hebe speciosa hybrids a sheltered place in the garden

Geoff Stebbings

AMONG THE GLOSSY leaves of a dense shrub, spears of vivid red flower heads stand proud, gently bobbing in the breeze. Fulsome and whiskery, these are the spectacular blooms of Hebe speciosa, which put on a show that lasts well into the autumn months.

Its bold appearance is deceptive. This evergreen shrub is a tender plant that thrives in mild weather and sheltered spots. It is particularly suited to warm coastal gardens, as its waxy foliage withstands both wind and salt spray. However, given the right growing conditions, this big, showy beauty is worthy of a place in any garden.

There are altogether 100 species of hebe, of which H. speciosa is not only the most dramatic but also the largest. It canreach 5ft (1.5m) high, growing vigorously, with its lush, shiny leaves reaching 4in (10cm) in length. Rounded at the tip, they are almost egg-shaped. Pairs of opposite leaves are set in four rows, forming a cross viewed from the tip. It is a handsome shrub, with a rounded habit and foliage reaching down to the base.

The large clusters of H. speciosa’s magenta flowers are up to 4in (10cm) long at the shoot tips. These spikes of flowers, more accurately called racemes, grow in the leaf axils at the upper end of the stems, on new growth. The individual flowers are small, with four petals forming a tube at the base. They open upwards from the base of the spike, often changing colour as they age, usually becoming paler. This has the lovely result that a raceme of flowers may display a two-colour effect. The flowers are attractive to insects, especially butterflies. Pollinated by insects rather than bees, they have no need of scent.

It was the large glossy leaves and showy flowers that made H. speciosa the focus of gardeners in the middle to the end of the 19th century. Many hybrids were raised at this time. These remained popular in the 20th century, but then fell from favour, replaced by hardier plants. However, even if only regarded as summer residents, H. speciosa hybrids are worth trying.

A long journey

A native of the mild North Island of New Zealand, Hebe speciosa was discovered in 1833 at Hokianga. This is a region at the north tip of the island, where frosts are rare and the average winter temperature is 7°C. It does occur wild further south, in cooler climates, but always near the coast, where frosts are absent.

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