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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 54, Number 4
Fall 2000

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Vireyas in the Sub-tropics of Australia
Neil Puddey
Woolgoolga N.S.W. Australia

Gardening in the sub-tropics on the East Coast of Australia is perhaps a little like gardening in parts of Hawaii. The warm, humid and well watered summers produce growth that quickly turns an ordered sunny garden into an overgrown shady rainforest. Kathryn and I garden approximately two acres in a valley two kilometres from the ocean under these conditions, and we are constantly on the lookout for plants that prefer filtered light/ semi shade conditions. So began the affair with vireyas.

Vireyas soon came to dominate our garden. We planted them all around the lawn borders and on the edge of our jungle-like garden beds, where overhanging trees give some protection. During our garden openings, with the Australian Open Garden Scheme, vireyas became the draw card and cause for most of the oh-ing and ah-ing! On these days, Kathryn would provide the morning tea and I the vireya talks/demonstrations, Kathryn's morning teas proving to be more popular than my talks.

As a high school agriculture teacher and frustrated horticulturist, I guess it was only a matter of time before I would start propagating plants from our garden and begin putting into practice what I had preached for many years. So began my serious affair with vireyas.

I took part-time leave from teaching and established a wholesale vireya business. For those contemplating such a move, you do need an understanding family. My wife and teenage kids have suffered at times to indulge me this passion. A $20,000 drop in income per year over four years, the taking out of a loan, my disappearance into the shade house or hot house for most of my weekends, and visits away to other nurseries have at times made me a little unpopular. One occasion that I will not be allowed to forget: I was away marking senior examination papers and Kathryn was left in charge of the nursery. A gale force southerly wind blew for three days, which meant that before Kathryn left for work each day there were about 2,000 vireyas to be stood, so they could be irrigated. If that was not trial enough, at the same time about twenty of the neighbour's Brahmin cattle broke through our fencing and were grazing in the garden.

After four years of obsessive vireya behaviour, I came to my senses. I went back to full-time teaching and income. I improved the nursery practices and tried to become efficient in time use and marketing. This has continued to the point where I can now manage my small business successfully, hold onto my teaching position, and enjoy family life.

I hope that some of my suggestions for commercialising and managing vireyas will be of interest. I do wish to acknowledge Graham and Wendy Snell for much of the knowledge I now have on growing vireyas, though many of the techniques that I will discuss are a result of my own experimentation.

Propagating Vireyas
Cuttings are prepared in a standard procedure which include:

Trays are used (not tubes), these trays holding on average sixteen cuttings. It was found that the developing root systems in the trays radiate out into the mix and were ready to go further, rather than winding tightly together in a coil as happens in a 2-inch tube.

The propagation mix used is similar to my growing out medium. It consists of 50% composted pine bark and 50% perlite. This open mix may result in less potting up shock as the roots move readily into the familiar medium. Having an open mix close to stem as opposed to peat moss may reduce the danger of Phytophthora root rot problems later on. Cuttings are kept under mist but without bottom heat. Warm bottoms will speed the process of root formation by four to eight weeks but does add to operating costs. This is an economic decision.

Potting up
Taking the rooted cuttings on to 6-inch pots takes place at about twenty weeks. The growing out medium consists of approximately 50% composted pine bark and 50% aged raw pine bark. It was found that sand would hold too much moisture leading to root problems. The larger ½-inch to 1-inch pieces of bark in the mix create openings that the vireya roots seek out. On examination, you find masses of healthy feeder roots congregating around these openings. It has been suggested that the raw bark may also aid in fungal disease prevention.

Fertilising
Fertilising vireyas for me has been a saga in itself. At first a slow release pellet was tried but these were expensive, would fall out of the pot when the wind invariably knocked them over, and in our warm wet summer would release nutrient too fast, causing leaf tip burn.

Next came the period of foliar feeding where spray mixes were produced with extra potassium for flowering, iron to prevent chlorosis, calcium for healthy roots, magnesium to cure the mysterious red blotches seen on some varieties etc. The brews were becoming quite scientific but time consuming to prepare and apply and imbalances were becoming evident.

It was shelving science and moving towards a more natural approach that saved time, money and produced healthier plants. The use of Organic Life, an organic, poultry manure based fertiliser, has allowed improved efficiency. This pH neutral fertiliser seems to provide for all the vireyas' needs. Apart from the nutrient retrieved from the composted pine bark, this is their only source of nutrition. There seems to be enough nitrogen to offset the drawdown associated with the raw bark, and the pellets, on wetting, stick together and to the bark, reducing fertiliser loss each time the pot falls over. This fertiliser is applied at the scientific rate of ¼ of a handful per 6-inch pot as they appear to need it.

Flowering
Vireyas in Australia are still a relatively unknown garden plant and nursery sales tend to reflect this. From my experience, if the plants have trusses of flower, they sell, nursery retailers finding it hard to resist their beautiful blooms. Without flowers, the vireya plant goes unnoticed and sales are slow. The biggest challenge for the wholesaler is to have 6-inch and 8-inch plants in flower on demand, as the eternal question from the retailer will be, "Are they in flower?" To maximise flowering, two factors seem all important: light and genes.

Vireyas are at their best with high light, as Wendy Snell, wife of the Australian vireya hybridiser, put it: "If I need my sunglasses the light is good." Thirty percent shade cloth provides for ample light, yet also gives some protection. In mid summer, some sun damage, in the form of pale leaves, is evident but there are lots of flowers. Vireya receiving poor light are generally reluctant bloomers.

Regarding vireya genetics, there is a great deal of variation in flowering habit among the hybrids. Some are almost continuously in bloom while others flower only once a year. In trying to commercialise and satisfy the nursery trade, selection is important. From the 150 hybrids that have been tested about twenty are very floriferous, flowering at an early age and then repeat flowering often. In selecting these very commercial hybrids growth habit and flower quality have also been considered, but repeat flowering is the number one criterion.

To survive as a wholesaler and use my limited time well, it is these twenty plus vireyas that are propagated in numbers. Having plants for years in the nursery waiting for flower is not an economic proposition. "The cow that fails to calve is culled from the herd."

Some of the best hybrids in terms of flowering habit from my experience would include: 'Haloed Gold', 'Anatta Gold', 'Calavar', 'Kisses', 'Jean Baptiste', 'Highland Arabesque', 'Charming Valentino', 'Simbu Sunset', 'Sunset Fantasy', 'Toff'*, 'Bold Janus', 'Little Pinkie', 'Cristo Rey', 'Festive Bells', 'Strawberry Parfait'*, 'Rosie Posie'*, 'Fireplum', 'Highland White Jade', 'Inferno'* and 'Clare Rouse'.

Pest and Disease
One of the greatest problems in commercialising vireyas in Australia would seem to be overcoming the problem of Phytophthora root rot. This widely spread fungus is the cause of many vireya failures and I have had my share. The key to avoiding this disease is to provide excellent drainage in both pot and garden culture. An open free draining mix for the pot, minus the drip tray, and planting on, not in, the ground will keep this problem to a minimum. Vigilance with this is most important when potting on root bound plants; a wet mix surrounding tightly matted roots seems to be a recipe for disaster.

A second problem for me is the short tailed mealy bug. This pest is difficult to manage and my efforts with some state-of-the-art insecticides have proven fruitless. In an attempt to reduce chemical usage and save time, I obtained a batch of a biological control agent for mealy bug called Cryptolaemus, an Australian native ladybird beetle.

What a circus my introduction to biological control turned out to be. Four hundred live ladybird beetles arrived in the post. I was excited and impatient to release them into my shade house to devour the invading mealy bug curse. To my shock and horror, the beetles took flight and headed straight on out through the 30-percent cloth and off to freedom. As each beetle is worth 25 cents, I was watching dollars fly through the roof.

With several canisters left, each containing forty beetles, my release tactic was changed. Lids were taken off under the canopy of densely foliaged plants where flying was restricted and they had to crawl past their favoured food. The next day only three beetles could be found, but in three weeks time there were hundreds of larvae cleaning up the problem. This year Cryptolaemus were released to top up the now resident population but with greater caution. A mosquito net was hung, some infested plants were grouped under this, and beetles were released within this enclosure.

Using this method to control a pest has several down sides. Firstly, to keep the control, you must have a population of the pest. Secondly, retail nurseries are not too excited when they find plants that have slipped through, with pest and predator attached. Thirdly, there is a lag time between release and control, so reasonable levels of the pest may need to be suffered for a period. Also, control of other pest problems using chemicals will become difficult as the chemical may kill the predatory beetles.

Landscaping with Vireyas
Using vireyas in the garden as a landscape plant has been very rewarding. To create the best effects we use vireyas in several ways:

Vireyas as a group, so diverse in their growth habit, flowering time and colour, leaf size and ability to release perfume, have great potential as a landscape plant.

Concluding
I could write many stories of my mismanagement and my successes. My passion for these plants has not diminished even though they did not turn out to be the plant of the nineties, commercially, as some predicted. Vireyas are becoming more popular as gardeners and nursery people learn of their beauty and potential as a landscape plant. Maybe they will be the plant of the new millennium?

The most rewarding experience for me in working with vireyas has been showing interested people through our garden, explaining their virtues, cultural requirements, and pointing out how they bring colour and perfume to our garden and then hearing later of their success with vireyas and the problem they are now having - finding space for another.

* Name is not registered.

Neil Puddey based his article on his talk at the Vireya Seminar in March sponsored by the Hawaii Chapter.


Volume 54, Number 4
Fall 2000

DLA Ejournal Home | JARS Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JARS and other ejournals