August 2002

Desfontainia spinosa


Introduced by Bob Mitchell
Photographs by Dennis Dick

Desfontainia is a monotypic genus, named for the French botanist and professor at Jardin des Plantes in Paris, René Louiche Desfontaines (1752-1833).

A native of the Andes, principally Peru and Chile, but also recorded north to Costa Rica, Desfontainia spinosa is generally placed in the family Loganiaceae. Recent taxonomic work suggests it be placed in a family of its own - Desfontainiaceae, separated from Loganiaceae by having a berry-like fruit.

Desfontainia spinosa is an evergreen shrub which, in sheltered situations on the east coast of Scotland, will reach a height of about 2 metres (6'). It has holly-like leaves and therefore is commonly referred to as Chilean Holly. The flowers are tubular up to 5cm (2") long and are scarlet with five, shallow, yellow-lobed flowers. Sometimes the yellow colour is quite prominent.

Desfontainia spinosa was first introduced by William Lobb about 1843/44, the same time as he collected Araucaria araucana, the Monkey Puzzle, and made it more widely grown. Lobb's introduction is featured in Curtis's Botanical Magazine 4781 (1854) and it received an Award of Merit in 1931.

William Lobb collected widely in Chile and western North America in the 1840's and 1850's, primarily for the famous Veitch nursery.

The next collector to make an impact on Andean plant introductions was Harold Comber whose father was Head Gardener at Nymans. Harold Comber advanced his training at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and, in 1925, was invited by Henry McLaren (later Lord Aberconway) of Bodnant, to collect in Chile and Argentina.

From that expedition, Harold Comber introduced a form with vermillion coloured flowers and, Desfontainia spinosa 'Harold Comber', justly received an Award of Merit in 1955.

Both Lobb and Comber introduced a large number of Chilean plants to British gardens which are very popular today. Berberis darwinii and Buddleja globosa, for example.

In Chile, Desfontainia spinosa grows in lightly-shaded forest areas over a wide range of latitude including Chilean Patagonia where it is reported as growing in association with Drimys winteri and Nothofagus betuloides. The flowers are pollinated by Firecrown Honeybirds. Recent reports of tree felling may indicate it no longer exists in this locality.

Euphorbia Fireglow

Where to find it in the Garden

Desfontainia spinosa is growing between the Succulent/Alpine, and Orchid/Display houses where they get a modicum of shelter.

How to Grow the Plant

In St Andrews they are planted in full sun, in a neutral, well drained, humus-rich soil. The two plants date from about 1970 and have flowered profusely annually from an early age. Flowering time is from July into autumn and as such fills an important period when the shrub borders are not too floriferous.

Desfontainia spinosa
should be grown more widely for it appears to be hardier than some of the text books would indicate, although wall shelter is recommended.

Cuttings taken from current, well ripened shoots in July or August should root overwinter in a closed frame, but do respond to bottom heat in a glasshouse propagator for quicker rooting.