Article 24 06 March 2007
Sunbird bush Metarungia longistrobus
The sunbirds and white-eyes in my garden and neighbourhood have discovered this plant for a good few years now and they have given it their stab of approval. This is one of the plants that will take off in the horticultural trade once nurserymen "discover" it. The orange flowers are ideally suited for pollination by birds and when the seed capsules explode and scatter the little disc-shaped seeds around they germinate all over the garden. This plant has over the years hidden under a number of Latin names, the most recent one and the one I learnt when I was first introduced to it was Macrorungia longistrobus.
This is another of those plants that came to me via a number of people. It started with Jo Onderstall in Nelspruit who gave it to Dave Johnson in Pietermaritzburg and eventually Dave gave it to me here in Durban. Another batch of the closely related M. galpinii came to me via Auriol Batten in East London. Both the species are very similar in appearance and need to be seen next to each other to tell them apart.
The flowers are produced in candle-shaped inflorescences at the ends of branches in the late summer and autumn. The flowers are similar to the shrimp bush/flower - Beleperone guttata or now known as Justicia brandegeana and golden candles bush - Pachystachys lutea both these species belong in the same family of plants, the Acanthaceae. The foliage has a blue grey colour to it and the more sun they are exposed to will turn the leaves more grey. The plant can get up to a good 2 metres in height and will spread to about the same width. I found a good wild colony of this plant in the Pretoriuskop region of the Kruger National Park growing in the riverine fringe of a river in fairly deep shade. I virtually ignored the plant because it wasn't in flower and it certainly didn't exactly leap out of the bush and say “I have horticultural potential please grow me”!!
This is a typical example of cultivation making a plant take on an entirely different growth habit because it is not struggling for survival. Thus a light pruning in the winter will encourage the plant to branch and thus produce more flower spikes because the spikes are produced at the branch ends and make for a more pleasing looking plant.
Sunbird bushes can be grown from cuttings or from seed either way producing good results.
For those of you in the eastern western Cape and the frost free areas of the country this is a good plant that will grow well in gardens. I say frost free but this species is grown in the KZN midlands where frost does occur during the winter months. Keep the plants in more sheltered parts of your gardens and you should be able to escape the frost.