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Honey bush, the sharp-looking shrub

PLOTTING

August 23, 2008|Nan Sterman | Special to The Times

ITS BOLD, frond-like leaves are an icy green, and its 18-inch spires of burgundy flowers lure swarms of hummingbirds in search of sweet nectar. The honey bush, a soft-stemmed perennial shrub from South Africa, makes a striking centerpiece for a low-water California garden.

Those huge, serrated-edged leaves are the first things that draw garden lovers to the honey bush. Multiple stems rise from a central point. Allow them all to develop, and you'll have an 8- to 10-foot-wide shrub of 6-foot tall stems. For a more architectural shape, cut all but three of the strongest stems to the ground; they will grow more upright. Wide or tall, the shrub will bloom from late winter into spring.

Honey bush (Melianthus major) prefers well-draining soil, in full sun or light shade. Like all plants, it requires frequent watering the first year in the ground. After that, it is drought-tolerant in California's coastal gardens, though it will tolerate more frequent watering.

In hotter inland gardens, honey bush takes a bit more water. Even so, you can grow it with lower-water perennials, trees and shrubs from South Africa, Australia and other regions with a similar Mediterranean climate. Try honey bush with aloe, bougainvillea, kangaroo paw, agave, spreading Arctotis, melaleuca, native fescue or perennial spurge.

Although the honey bush doesn't need much fertilizer, it thrives with a 2- or 3-inch layer of composted mulch covering its entire root zone. Watch for whiteflies that sometimes colonize the undersides of the leaves, and be aware that the plant's sweet nectar can drip onto leaves and attract a fungus called black sooty mold. In both cases, simply wash the leaves or cut off those most severely affected.

Though the leaves look beautiful, when rubbed they release a musty smell that many people find unpleasant. Your best bet is to place the plant where it will be seen but not touched.

Also consider the honey bush in a large container, glazed or unglazed. Although some plants do best in mixed containers, the honey bush is best grown and appreciated by itself. Use well-draining potting mix, set in full sun and enjoy.

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