Chilean Potato Tree – Solanum

This is the family name of a number of quick-growing climbers, some of which are not hardy in our climate. Most of them are semi-evergreen and they climb by twining their leaf stalk round a support. Solanum crispum is the best-known cultivar, and it is a useful climber for a place where the soil is chalky for, like the clematis, it prefers these conditions. Known as the Chilean potato tree, it has long, basically oval-shaped leaves and blue-purple flowers with prominent yellow centres. It will grow up to 6m (20 ft). S. jasminoides, also semi-evergreen, has flowers of a much paler blue with grey undertones. It is not as hardy as S. crispum and should only be planted under the protection of a south- or west-facing wall. In cold winters it will quiddy lose all its leaves though it may recover to grow again in late spring.

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General care: Solanums must be grown in a sunny position, and it is preferable to protect them from frost. Care must be taken that they do not dry out in summer, although they prefer a well-drained soil. Propagation: Solanums are best increased by stem cuttings. Put these in the ground under a doche in July or root them in pots under glass for planting out the following spring.

Pests and diseases: Aphids may attack these plants, giving the leaves a sticky appearance. Spray with malathion or menazon. In very damp conditions grey mould may cause the shoots to die back: this is probably botrytis – control with a fungicide.

The two most useful shrubby kinds, both deciduous, are Solanum jasminoides and S. crispum. The first is a true climber supporting itself by twining around branches, posts, trellis work, wires etc. In the common form the flowers, produced in late summer and autumn, are a rather slaty blue, but it is usually the pure white variety album that is planted and this is very attractive. Both blue and white forms are distinctly tender and require a warm sunny place where winter frosts are not likely to be severe, though even if stems are damaged new growth is usually produced in spring from lower down.

The other popular kind, Solanum crispum, is usually grown as a climber but is really a sprawling shrub and if used to cover a wall or fence its long flexible stems need to be tied to some kind of support. The flowers, also produced in late summer and autumn, are larger than those of S. jasminoides and a good violet blue with a raised yellow centre. This species is a little hardier but still in need of a warm, sunny, sheltered place. It can be hard pruned in spring if desired and frost-damaged growth should certainly be removed then.

 

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