It is rare for us to get excited about plants we see overseas which are not available here. In fact, between us we can only recall three. There were the double hellebores in the mid nineties which Mark saw when he was taken to meet the English breeder. Similar ones are now readily available here but they represented a major breakthrough at the time in the heady world of hellebores.
Then there was the red Edgeworthia papyrifera we saw in northern Italy. We have the yellow form in this country (often called the yellow daphne though it is a different genus) but as far as we know, the red form has still not been imported.
Now there is the blue verbascum which was featured at Chelsea Flower Show last week. Not that we were there. I merely found the write-up on line and saw it – a knock-out blue verbascum. Well, verbascums plural, on the Hilliers’ Nursery stand.
Not all verbascums are equal. The family is large and some can be a bit weedy, let alone insignificant and untidy. Some can be downright difficult. We have never succeeded growing the popular English hybrid ‘Helen Johnson’, with its dusky, apricot pink colouring. We were disappointed to lose a big white flowered verbascum we bought from Peter Cave before he closed down his Cambridge nursery. It had large, felted grey leaves and would have been a lovely addition to our garden. (Has anybody got seed of it? Do tell.)
In fact our dedication to the family has much to do with the splendid Verbascum creticum. It hails from the areas of Crete and Malta and is biennial in our conditions. This means it germinates and forms a rosette of leaves in its first year and flowers, seeds and usually dies in its second year. We leave one or two strong plants in situ to go to seed and just weed out the surplus seedlings or those growing where we don’t want them. It is wonderfully easy care and in springtime we get handsome flowering spires up to a metre high which then open large, clear yellow individual blooms all the way down the stem. In the rockery, it gives us vertical accents (like exclamation marks) and the flowering lasts for many weeks.
What wouldn’t we give for blue vertical accents? Not just any old blue or lilac purple tones pretending to be blue. No, this new Verbascum Blue Lagoon is described as being the pure electric blue seen in meconopsis (Himalayan poppies). It is a rare and distinctive shade and meconopsis are notoriously difficult to keep going in our climate. In the photos, one could be forgiven for thinking one is looking at delphiniums – another plant that is not so easy to keep going without constant care and intervention.
We, of course, are visualising Blue Lagoon as a pure blue equivalent of our tried and true yellow Verbascum creticum. If it is that good, it should be a sensational addition to a garden. And the initial information says it is perennial (though possibly a shortlived perennial), not just biennial.
But don’t hold your breath. It won’t be here yet and it is a moot point as to whether it ever will be. We have one of the tightest border controls in the world – and rightly so. I do not dispute for one moment that we need to be very careful to mimimise the risks of introducing some of the dreadful pests and diseases which afflict other parts of the world. It is just that some of the policy got lost in translation by the bureaucratic administration process. In this day and age, you would never be able to import kiwifruit (actinidia) and it would cost a swag of money and take a long time to get approval for an apple tree if we had none here. In fact, for a country which has built its agricultural and horticultural industries on imported species, nothing new of note has come across our borders for over a decade. You can only bring in plants if the species is known to be here already. I don’t know whether the species that has thrown up the blue verbascum (from Armenia and Turkey, originally) is on the magic list. It may take a very determined individual to import it.
Nor is it as simple as importing the seed. This blue colour came as a one-off result and the plants for sale have been built up by tissue culture from that one blue seedling. Let them go to seed and they will probably revert to the common colours with only occasional exceptions. You need to raise a lot of seed to find the occasional blue ones and it will take years of selection and subsequent generations to stabilise the blue colouring – if it is possible at all. However, the original work has been done by a well established British seed company, Thompson and Morgan, so odds on they are working to stabilise the colour in a seed strain.
In the meantime, we just cast covetous eyes at the photographs.
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.