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A coastal garden pulls on its itsy bitsy teeny weeny orange, pink, yellow polka-dot bikini!


A coastal garden pulls on its itsy bitsy teeny weeny orange, pink, yellow polka-dot bikini!

By Anno Torr

As winter wanes and our thoughts turn to spring and puddles of warming golden sunshine, a coastal garden pulls on its itsy bitsy teeny weenie orange-pink-yellow polka dot bikini! Against a lapis lazuli sky, the colours are clear and oh so cheerful!


Much of the charm of this light creeper it in giving it a loose rein; by all means, watch for seedlings as it has a generous nature. But, letting stems choose their own path up shrubs and trees, over stumps and along fences, will reward you almost year-round with delightful little faces that blend with companions you may never have considered. Here, a posy of colours spread gleefully across a boundary fence in the garden of landscaper Jenny Dean.


Plants need frequent watering when planting out, so watch out for spring rains and use them to help establish this creeper. Its regional distribution is KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, along forest margins and occasionally in open, drier areas. A species with moderate water needs, it should survive happily on seasonal showers, but leaves can wilt and turn yellow on a hot-wind day when soils are dry, but a good drink will quickly revive them. Inland all but a light frost will likely kill the plant, but their numerous seeds scattered around germinate in the spring rains and rapid growth will, once again, provide you with a curtain of happy colour. Thunbergia alata requires little management through the year, and the twining stems make it easy to trim back if needed. Old plants take well to a light spring prune to encourage strong, healthy shoots, but many small birds and insects fold their nests behind this dense foliage curtain through winter, so don’t be too quick to trim it back. Plants growing in the shade have lighter canopies than their sunnier counterparts, often with fewer flowers too, so, if you’re aiming for this smartie box display, find a sunny position with space to spread out.


Use the Black-eyed Susan where you need quick, light cover and early flowering, all great attributes in a plant suitable for urban gardens:

  • over pergolas /arbours /arches,

  • old stumps, or to climb up dead trees,

  • along fences

  • walls – but give it something to cling onto

  • Let plants sprawl over and down a high wall – and up a high wall for that matter

  • Perfect for areas with morning sun and afternoon shade.

  • Try this light creeper in containers and hanging baskets.


Wildlife attractions: Flowers are pollinated by bees as they bustle about, twisting and turning to get their fill of nectar, attracted by the ultraviolet light the flowers reflect that help to direct the insects unerringly to the centre. It is the host plant for the beautiful Eyed Pansy butterfly, Junonia ovithya, so don’t let anyone put you off with complaints about caterpillars loving the leaves, for that is one of its main attractions, not so?

The Black-eyed Susan is a well-loved plant worldwide, and horticulturists have encouraged this with many colour-variants. We’re rather slow in SA in bestowing names to colour varieties; in the US, gardeners have delightful names from which to choose:


  • ‘African Sunset’ – includes shades from cream to brick red

  • ‘Arizona Dark Red’ – has intense deep orange-red flowers

  • ‘Blushing Susie’ – is a mix in shades of apricot and rose and dark centres

  • ‘Bright Eyes’ – has all white flowers

  • ‘Canary Eyes’ – offers yellow flowers with a dark centre

  • Lemon A-Peel – has bright yellow flowers with a very dark centre

  • Orange A-Peel – has bright orange flowers

  • ‘Orange Wonder’ – all bright orange without the dark centre

  • ‘Pure White’ – all white flowers

  • ‘Raspberry Smoothie’ – has pale lilac-pink flowers and more grey-green foliage

  • ‘Spanish Eyes’ – is a mixture of flower colours in more muted shades of apricot, terracotta, salmon, rose and ivory, all with a dark centre

  • ‘Superstar Orange’ – has extra- large, bright orange flowers

  • ‘Susie’ mix – includes orange, yellow and white flowers with or without contrasting dark eyes.


I usually plant original South African species in my garden as they provide the better quality wildlife food and seed, and keep the gene pool strong, but, a few bright cultivars to cover pergolas or a veranda pillar or to spill from pots, add charm and a fun element to the garden.


Surprisingly given these hues on show, the first Thunbergia alata plant described as far back as 1825 was cream-coloured. Beautiful, I have no doubt, but it is the bright circles of orange and yellow that have found favour with gardeners’ worldwide, that make us smile and call us out to play!

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