Diascias are so called because the have two 'spurs' (in Greek - di - ascia,) at the back of their flowers.
In the early part of the last century most British gardening encyclopedias listed just one diascia - Diascia barberae - derived from seed collected by Col J.H.Bowker and sent by a Mrs Barber to Kew in 1870. Annual and perennial diascias had, of course, already been discovered and classified by several botanists visiting South Africa much earlier. The perennial species were soon discovered to be half hardy in most of Europe and drew little horticultural attention. A reviewer for Curtis' Botanical Magazine in 1871 mentioned them, but seemed to have a mixed opinion of them describing Diascia barberae as a member of the 'pretty Cape genus Diascia' but going on to comment that 'most of them (diascias) are inconspicuous - flowered plants and little worthy of cultivation for their beauty'. Make of this what you will!
And so they fell into obscurity for nearly a century, damned by faint praise. It was not until John Kelly was given a plant called Diascia cordata by Edrom Nurseries in 1971 that anything notable happened to diascias again. In a letter to the editor of The Garden Magazine (June 1994 p283) he tells how he later found a plant of Diascia barberae at Robinson's Hardy Plants and took pollen from his Diascia cordata and applied it to one flower of Diascia barberae. Of the nine seeds he obtained, just one was worthy of attention. He named it Diascia 'Ruby Field' (not for the colour of the flowers, but for a lady who devoted her life to the long-term care of deprived children) His 'Stanton Alpine Nursery' propagated it and it was introduced to the modern gardening public after winning an RHS Award. Despite the popularity of this new, hardy hybrid, little more happened with diascias for yet another decade. And there is still a question over whether the plants Mr Kelly used had been correctly labeled. For a lot of reasons we remain unsure about the origin of D. 'Ruby Field', and would be most interested to hear from anyone who can verify or otherwise prove the identity of the plants used to create D. 'Ruby Field'.
The boom in the diascia trade began only recently. In the 1970's two British botanists, Olive Hilliard and Bill Burtt set themselves the task of revising the diascia group, and as part of that process collected plant material in South Africa and brought it back to Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.
Logan Botanic Gardens near Stranraer, SW Scotland
They "re-defined two sections of Diascia (Schrophulariacae-Hemimerideae) attaching importance to the position of the two translucent yellow 'windows' that appear in the throat of the flowers. (Journal of South African Botany 50(3) 269-340 (1984)). This comprehensive study has been invaluable to our work with diascias, and to date remains the only authoritative work to accurately describe and illustrate the species we collect and preserve. Until their study, botanists had been pre-occupied with other parts of the anatomy of the species, particularly the spurs. Their study shed new light on the genus, but for diascia fanciers their study meant that for the first time a number of new species were introduced to the UK. The plant material they collected was sent to Logan Botanic Garden in South West Scotland where the horticulturalists decided that these plants were garden-worthy and decided to showcase them.
It was upon seeing these stunning displays that plantsman Hector Harrison fell in love with them. Not long after my brother William went to Logan and saw the same display of D. rigescens and brought some back for me as a gift.
Hector, meanwhile, had obtained a small collection of species and without knowing much about John Kelly's earlier work, set about crossing them to see what happened.
He was surprised and pleased with the results and set about finding more species to work with. Two of his first significant successes were D. 'Salmon Supreme' and the other D. 'Lilac Belle'. Both are in wide distribution today and both produced what seemed to be new colours for diascias, a salmon pink and pale mauve. They were welcomed by nurseries wherever he took them, and are still in wide distribution today.
Whilst Hector had been busy with his initial breeding programme, my brother and I had gained national collection status and I obtained a catalogue from a nursery that mentioned Hector Harrison and his diascia crosses. I tracked him down through a number of contacts and made contact with him, and he has generously shared information with us ever since.
Latest update 05 March 2001
Christine Boulby Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved