Tag Archives: Verbascum creticum

Biennials, are they worth the effort, he asked.

Verbascum creticum, a biennial with presence in our rock garden

Each Sunday morning at 7.45am, I have a chat with Tony Murrell on Radio Live’s Home and Garden Show. We cover a wide range of gardening matters and during the week before we have a discussion by phone or email to agree an upcoming topic. As an aside, the recent release of very encouraging listener figures for this time slot has sharpened our focus somewhat. There is a scary number of folk out there who listen at that hour.

Today we talked about gardening in the very dry conditions that much of the country is currently experienced, which was my suggestion. Tony’s suggestion of ‘biennial plants – are they worth the effort?’ was put off until next Sunday. But since he suggested it, I have been thinking of biennials which I had never considered as a plant group before.

Ranunculus cortusifolius in biennial for us

Yes! Biennials are worth their place in the garden. I am struggling to imagine our garden without the biennials. Mind you, we don’t put any effort at all into most of them. They are plants that we let seed down, pulling out those which are in the wrong place and letting the other volunteers remain to continue their life cycle.

Annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle in under a year from germination to setting seed and dying. Biennials have a two year life cycle. Most of them will establish themselves in the first year but not bloom until the second. Because of that year spent establishing themselves, many of them can be quite large growers – thugs, even, as Mark calls them. To let these types of biennials seed down, you do need quite a bit of space.

Common they may be, thuggish even, but foxgloves have presence

Some of our key plants are biennial. I am thinking of the large flowered, yellow Verbascum creticum, the biggest geranium of them all, G. madarense, Angelica gigas and … foxgloves. Foxgloves really do fit the thug category but we are fond of them, even the common pinky purple one that is regarded as a weed in this country. We have been working to get the white ones naturalised around the place. “Are you going for the Hidcote look,” Mark asked, for that is the first place where I saw extensive and eyecatching use of pure white foxgloves. I also like the pastel shades, especially pastel apricots, so I have been summarily despatching the deeper pink forms anywhere near the pale ones to stop the bees from cross pollinating the colours, lest they all return to the dominant dark pink over time.

Sadly, most of these meconopsis have died out in this border now

Not all biennials are self-sustaining and strong growing. The highly desirable meconopsis, Himalayan blue poppies, which are extremely difficult in our climate, tend to be biennial – even those that are touted as perennials in more favourable climes. And it has never seeded down for us. To keep it going here, we have to gather seed and raise it in trays to plant out once it is growing. Ranunculus cortusifolius is also biennial in our conditions but it seeds down and keeps going as long as it has its own area where it can be left to do this.

Parsley is biennial, fennel usually so, and what would life be like with parsley in the garden? Once you have it, you just have to make sure that you leave at least one plant a year to seed down in order to keep a permanent supply.

Biennials, like annuals, only represent effort if you are having to raise them from seed or buy them to plant out each year. If you allow them to seed down and find their own niches in the garden, they can be very rewarding, requiring minimal effort. Wanting such plants to seed down is yet another argument for not being too quick to get out the glyphosate and control any germinating plants by spraying them out as soon as they appear, on the assumption that they must be weeds.

Speaking of verbascums, can any UK readers enlighten me on what happened to the blue as blue verbascum named ‘Blue Lagoon’ that debuted at Chelsea in 2012? We have never seen any mention of it since, let alone seen it incorporated into any of the gardens we have visited so wonder if it was a fizzer in the end.

Blue meconopsis take a lot of effort to keep going here. But for this sort of display, the effort is worth it


A blue as blue verbascum. Apparently.

Oh wow. That is a true blue verbascum. (Photo: Thompson and Morgan)

Oh wow. That is a true blue verbascum. (Photo: Thompson and Morgan)

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.)

Take one good, large flowered verbascum (this one is V. creticum though Blue Lagoon is a different species))...

Take one good, large flowered verbascum (this one is V. creticum though Blue Lagoon is a different species))…

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 in the pure biue of the meconopsis....

… but in the pure biue of the meconopsis….

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.