Tag Archives: summer perennials

Win some, lose some

Alchemilla mollis in my garden

I photographed my patch of Alchemilla mollis for my friend, Chris. He, too, had admired the acid yellow froth in English gardens and wanted the same effect in his own home garden but found his efforts were not rewarded. This is as good as I can get it here.

Alchemilla mollis at Blooms of Bressingham in the UK

I do not understand why it never seems as lush. It originates from southern Europe so is presumably not dependent on winter chill. though maybe there are chillier areas in southern Europe because it certainly seems to perform better in cooler places with lower light levels. I even wondered briefly if what we grow in New Zealand as A. mollis is in fact its smaller cousin, Alchemilla erythropoda. But apparently the latter is much, much smaller so I guess not. It is A.mollis, but not as northern gardeners grow it.

Do not laugh at this poor little specimen of a veronicastrum. A lot of effort has gone in to getting it to this stage. The bamboo stakes were part of rabbit protection when it was even smaller.

I have written before about our single, solitary specimen of the blue veronicastrum, V. virginicum, which we have nursed through from seed to its second summer. It is even setting flower buds. It is just that the plant is only 20cm tall when it should be hitting two metres in bloom. It is clearly not a rapid grower and I wonder if northern gardeners buy established plants to start with. It is a common, hardy, American plant and nowhere in the international literature do I see mention of it being difficult to establish.

This was more the effect I was hoping for – at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

This stronger blue veronicastrum, which will be a named form, was used by Piet Oudolf in Trentham Gardens near Stoke-on-Trent in the UK

We sourced two different packets of seed which disconcerted Mark when he came to sow them because they were so fine he got out his magnifying glass to check that he wasn’t just sowing dust. Despite being a professional at dealing with seed and going to the trouble of stratifying them in the fridge, he only ended up with this one, solitary plant. Time will tell whether it gets more strength and grows large enough for us to divide it. In the meantime, Mark is trying it from cutting as well. It is a plant we would like to use in our summer gardens but I would have expected it to be a little more enthusiastic in its second summer. In fact, I thought it would be a lot more robust and vigorous.

Astrantias are another mainstay of English summer gardens that we have tried and failed with. They flower and then just fade away. Heucheras are another plant that we have given up on. Once planted out in the garden, the lush nursery specimens just quietly sat and languished, failing to thrive. There is no substitute for trialling plants before investing too much money, time and energy on using them on a larger scale.

Scadoxus multiflorus ssp katherinae naturalising in our woodland

But I mustn’t moan. We do have our successes. I am pretty sure some successful growers of the aforementioned perennials would look with awe and envy at our summer display of Scadoxus  katherinae. We will have only started with a few bulbs, possibly just the one at the very beginning, and we certainly didn’t plant this large swathe in the woodland. They have just gently seeded down and spread a little more year by year without ever causing a problem. They have very large bulbs (of a similar size to a belladonna) which sit close to the surface and stay evergreen with that large, lush foliage for much of the year.

Gloriosa superba prefers full sun and has also gently spread itself around

Ditto the Gloriosa superba, at times a little more problematic with their natural seeding. They are one of the types of tuber that finds their own depth in the soil and they bury themselves really deeply. This can make them difficult to get out if they are in the wrong place. But when they bloom with that lovely reflexed shape, it is like having fiery coronets in the garden.

Jacaranda! In Tikorangi! We are not exactly within its normal climatic range of conditions

The jacaranda tree is having a good flowering this year, albeit not as spectacular as in drier, hotter climates. I love jacarandas so to have one that blooms in our conditions is a great pleasure. Blue flowered trees are not common when you think about it and the carpet of fallen blooms beneath is also a delight.

Pretty much the only flower I cut to bring indoors and one stem fills a vase and scents a room. We have hundreds in the garden.

And we are into the season of the auratum lilies. I pick some to bring indoors to scent the house and truly, they are gorgeous. We have hundreds of these in the garden AND NO LILY BEETLE IN NZ! For this we are truly grateful and thank our tough border control. Their peak blooming over the next weeks will more than compensate for the absent astrantias, hopeless heuchera, anticlimactic alchemilla and the very disappointing veronicastrum.

Learning about lobelia

A perennial lobelia from North America - but which one?

A perennial lobelia from North America - but which one?

Lobelias, I thought. I will do lobelias this week. Now you may quite possibly have led a full and happy life without putting any thought to lobelias. My interest had been desultory at best, but as soon as I started to delve a little, I uncovered a whole lot more.

Lobelias go well beyond that little, mounding blue annual that is a summer stalwart. Yes it comes in white and purple as well but it is usually blue. That handy little plant is Lobelia erinus, hailing from southern Africa. If you garden with bedding plants, you start afresh each year with organised plantings. Or if you are more cottage garden oriented, you just let one plant go to seed and it will naturalise and reappear around the place the following spring in an obliging but gentle sort of way. It is just a handy filler – nothing too exciting about that.

It was quite exciting, in a botanical sort of way, when we were given Lobelia gibberoa. This one hailed from mountain gorilla territory in central and eastern Africa. Indeed, if you get your eye in for footage of those gorillas in the mist, you may see them browsing amongst things that look a little like palm trees or even our tree ferns. Lobelia like we had never seen it before. It rockets upwards at about two metres a year, forming rosettes of big tropical leaves on top. Apparently it stops when it gets to about 5 metres high. Ours rocketed up but we rather lost interest when we realised it was not going to impress us with a magnificent display of bright blue flowers on its huge flower spike. The flowers were negligible and inconspicuous but the plant was a magnet for white fly and red spider so we didn’t worry when it succumbed to a cold, wet winter.

Sometimes you will see Lobelia aberdarica offered for sale. It is another lobelia mega herb, a little more cold hardy, though from a similar geographical area and it too has huge leaves growing in rosettes. However, it clumps closer to the ground rather than on top of its trunk though it seems to share the same huge flower spike with underwhelming flowers.

The North American perennial lobelias are very easy to lift and divide

The North American perennial lobelias are very easy to lift and divide

No, it was the unequalled display of the perennial, clumping lobelias from North America which made me sit up and take notice. We have had these for years here. They form neat little rosettes at ground level and put up metre high flower spikes which, in the past, have all then proceeded to fall over. I think what made the difference this season is that I had divided most of the plants, splitting up the crowns and spreading them around. And in these rejuvenated beds and borders, there were sufficient other plants to hold the flower spikes up. In this process, I had still managed to keep the colours separate. We have pale blue and mid blue, rich purple, cerise pink, white and even red. This year we had lots of blues and they have been a real feature.

As summer perennials, these are excellent garden plants for sun to semi shade. They’re easy. If you have a pure red one, it is likely that it will prefer damper conditions, even water’s edge. It is a different species, though still from USA.

I thought I would try and decode the species. Ha! There are somewhere up to 400 different ones. It is a huge family and many of what we have appear to be hybrids between different species. So we won’t confuse matters.

What became really interesting was the long history of lobelias in traditional herbal medicine. We come to this topic from a botanical angle which makes it really scary (identification is often wrong). But those American lobelias promise a cure for pretty much everything, though they can also be highly toxic. Lobelia inflata, also known as Indian tobacco, does not carry the alternative common name of puke weed or the equally charming vomitwort for nothing. But from snake bites to pleurisy to bronchial difficulties, it can be just the ticket. Best guess is that it is what Billy Connelly was given in the shaman’s tent on a recent Route 66 TV programme.

Be careful, should you happen to be suffering from syphilis, that it is Lobelia siphilitica that you harvest for a natural cure. I didn’t delve far into the history of syphilis in the indigenous American people around 400 years ago, but it is believed that this disease was introduced to Europe by sailors with Christopher Columbus.

The problem is that siphilitica and inflata are different species but look very similar and I have no idea whether our plants here are one, the other or a hybrid of the two. Nor am I confident that any research has been done to ascertain whether they are interchangeable in herbal medicine.

For sheer optimism, I loved the website dispensing advice on using lobelia as a herbal treatment. “Always consult your Health Professional to advise you on dosages and any possible medical interactions” it said. Yeah right. I am sure I am surrounded by health professionals who are far better than I am on botany, understand chemistry and have a deep knowledge of traditional medicines. I will just keep using these charming perennials as garden plants.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.