Perfect Partners: Tradescantia ‘Purple Sabre’ & Begonia ‘Martin Johnson’



You would not believe the ideas I have for this blog. They are stored up in my head and occasionally committed to paper. They come to me in the shower, on the train, in the garden and as I go to sleep at night. My ideas range in magnitude from humble to magnificent. If realised, The Frustrated Gardener would be the finest gardening blog in all the land, maybe even the greatest in the universe. I would be rich and famous, Monty Don would invite me to Longmeadow for the weekend and Alan Titchmarsh would do ‘carry to car’ for me at plant fairs. He’d even drive me there and back. I would have a garden the size of Wisley and all the gardeners I needed to keep it looking immaculate. I would garden masterfully by day and write brilliantly by night, never tiring of either.  Unfortunately, the gulf that lies between my ambition and my capacity to deliver it is a wide one, so my fellow bloggers can sleep easy tonight, and probably for the foreseeable future. Yet I believe it’s better to have unfulfilled ambition than no ambition at all. I shall just keep on tapping away, generating ideas and perhaps one day I shall get ‘there’, wherever that might be.

During the months ahead I hope to experiment with a couple of new post series; one called ‘On the Bookshelf’, which will explore a single shelf in my library at a time, highlighting some of my favourite reads and references, and another called ‘Perfect Partners’, celebrating successful relationships between two or more plants. I begin that series today with Tradescantia ‘Purple Sabre’ and Begonia ‘Martin Johnson’, two alluring plants that came together quite by chance on a narrow shelf in my garden room.

I first met Tradescantia ‘Purple Sabre’ on holiday in Montenegro where I admired it tumbling out of a mellow stone trough into pot of bright red, ivy-leaf geraniums. The effect was striking. The foliage of this fine tradescantia is iridescent in bright sunshine, the leaf surface shimmering like a slick of dusky eyeshadow. Occasionally a stem presents a small, pinkish-purple flower, but this is gilding the lily. I thought no more about our meeting until a rare visit to Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall reunited us. I purchased a single plant. One is all you need, since the stems of ‘Purple Sabre’ are both liable to snap off and to root quickly when inserted into a pot of free-draining compost. The plant you see in this photograph is just a year old, and has given rise to numerous others already.

Begonia ‘Martin Johnson’ came to me as a tiny plug plant from Dibleys Nurseries. I was ordering other things and decided to top up my order with a couple of large-leaved, Rex-type begonias. ‘Martin Johnson’ sat petulantly in its pot for a year, producing just a single, lousy leaf. I wrote the begonia off as one of my more disappointing purchases. Then, all of a sudden, one huge, maple-shaped leaf appeared, followed by another, and then another. That feeble little plug has now made a nice plant, although it should become much larger in the fullness of time.

What I like about the combination of these two plants is that they are entirely different from one another, and yet complementary. The tradescantia is sleek, elegant and expensive-looking, like a Valentino gown, whilst the begonia is all jazz hands, blaring Christian Lacroix lavishness. Even the way the begonia positions its leaves shouts ‘look at me – I’m fab-u-lous dahling!’. The two plants are unified in this composition by a generous flourish of Streptocarpus saxorum, a plant which flowers for almost twelve months of the year but occasionally takes a short break. Like many perfect partners, ‘Purple Sabre’ and ‘Martin Johnson’ benefit from a little space, rather than needing to live cheek-by-jowl. As far as care is concerned both enjoy similar conditions: bright shade and perhaps a little sun to bring out their dusky, metallic colours, moist but well-drained compost and protection from frost. Each will grow quite happily outside during the summer months. And again, like many a good pairing they are better together than separate, so much so that they’re consigned to that narrow shelf in my garden room for eternity …. or until I fulfil all my ambitions, whichever takes longer. TFG.