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Gifts of fun flora

28 November 2014


I LOOK out on to the Mediterranean gravel-border, and the silvery planting still manages to lift the spirits. I find myself recalling a sunny, hot July day earlier this year, when we shared the garden with friends and their young children. Where now there is bare stone had been a pretty scrambling plant with yellow flowers, typical of the family that includes melons and edible cucumbers.

I encouraged the youngsters to look for fruit among the tangle of stems. And, sure enough, they found the small "cucumbers". "Touch one," I said. A brave soul nudged one of the hot ripe fruit, and, pop, it expelled its seeds in a spray of mucilaginous liquid over all and sundry. Hysteria ensued.

Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber, is a common sight along roadsides in Greece. The fruit are inedible unless you want that violent expulsion re-enacted by your stomach. They are a powerful emetic. This is a plant that you will need to grow from seed - but what a fun stocking-filler for a budding gardener.

Another gift that may engage an aspirant horticulturist is a packet of chilli-pepper seeds. The heat of a chilli is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Supermarket offerings are typically under 10k SHU. "Padron" peppers are traditionally used as Spanish tapas; they are about 12k SHU, but, occasionally, you will come across a rogue that is much hotter, giving them the nickname "Russian Roulette" pepper.

"Numex Twilight" is, for me, the prettiest chilli pepper: the many tiny fruit make a kaleidoscope, ripening through purple, yellow, and orange, to red, and it raises the heat stakes to about 30k SHU. Perhaps to be avoided, if not for its more demanding cultivation needs then for its eye-watering SHU - in excess of one million - is the infamous "Dorset Naga".

A more sophisticated present, with attached horticultural trivia for the Christmas season, is the Chinotto, or Myrtle-leaf sour orange, going by the Latin name Citrus x aurantium "Chinotto". This is one of the most cold-tolerant oranges; so it can stay outdoors all year in a city courtyard, or on a sheltered balcony. The leaves are reminiscent of myrtle, and give the plant a neat appearance that is perfect for formal pots. The flowers give off an intoxicating scent. The sour oranges can be sliced and added to cocktails, or made into marmalade. They are an ingredient in the Italian aperitif Campari.

They will need a cool, bright room as winter lodgings if the recipient lives in the shires. Citrus plants are more weekly binge-drinkers than fans of "little and often", and need watering until it pours out of the bottom. They also enjoy regular feeding with a summer and winter citrus fertiliser, and require the greenest fingers out of my three suggestions.

www.plant-world-seeds.com  (for squirting cucumbers)

www.seaspringseeds.co.uk  (for chillies)

www.plants4presents.co.uk  (for citrus)

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