Perennials delight and surprise for many years
It’s the irises and columbines behind them that remind me of the joys of perennials. The iris has been in the garden for nearly a decade and has been moved at least three times. You can do this with perennials, and when you do it at the right time, it’s easy and painless (for both planter and transplanted) and in almost every case you end up with more plants than you started with.
Irises also remind me of the many secrets of perennials. ‘Eternity’ is one of the cultivars referred to as ‘Renegade’ or Double Pants. When I bought the initial three rootstocks (now 18 years old, along with others in friends’ gardens) it was because of the pure white color, the long-standing reputation and the fact that this was one of the few German (bearded) iris that would bloom again later in the season. But my experience was different. In the decade that I have grown this variety, it has only flowered once. Once only.
The columbines behind the iris are another story. My records tell me that I have planted about 25 species over the years. I was fascinated by one species called Aquilegia chrysantha. It is native to the West and Southwest but is claimed to be strong here. Despite numerous replantings, I’ve never been able to move them into winter, but I suspect they have left some genetic traces among the Columbine population.
As you may have noticed, columbines (Aquilegia) are interesting and often cross-pollinate. As a result, I stopped buying named varieties and let these plants have their fun. Hummingbirds appear to be primary pollinators because their long tongues can dig deep into flower spurs to extract nectar. The pollen reaches the heads of hummingbirds and is transferred from one flower to another, creating a natural but hybrid hybrid.
As a result, my gardens are now filled with columns of all colors, spur types, and heights — from 1 foot to 3 feet high — and just a stunning display of color. In early spring it’s easy to go through the garden and thin out or move seedlings, but unless a seedling is flowering you never know what you’re going to get – but you always know there will be more next year.
Sometimes a one-color situation will occur. This year I have an isolated variety of tall, red cherries with medium spikes that I call cherry stilts. Another taller variety in a different area of the garden is dark chestnut in color with long spikes. It looks very vigorous and is a stunning plant about 48 inches tall. I call this purple rain. There is still a third variety I am following that is only 12 to 18 inches tall with a small double white flower about three-quarters of an inch long. But a second cluster about 20 feet away from the original appeared this year with the same size of double flower, but bright lime green instead of white. I call this Tinker Bell.
The native Aquilegia canadensis plants are showing up now, but I’ve never planted them. I suspect an animal moved some seeds because I know they grow in a garden a few houses down the street. But over the years it seems that even A. canadensis has had some interesting convergences as plants now appear in several locations ranging in height from 12 inches to 40 inches and some have exceptionally large flowers while others are small.
In 2012 I purchased a single plant of Uvularia grandiflora from a nursery in West Virginia. This is a pleasant mid-spring perennial with beckoning yellow flowers and has been shown to be an important nectar source for bees and other early pollinators. A few years later, I bought another one from a now-defunct nursery called Lazy Z’z Gardens. They are classified as the same species but grow more compact. However, a third plant was established on its own from seed, and I now have three distinct plants with similar leaves and habits except that one is only 8 inches tall, one is 15 inches high, and the third is about 2 feet high. Sections of each one (remember, sections are free and a nice bonus with most perennials) to scale.
Then there is the Trollius group, Heuchera group, Tiarellas, Helleborus, Peonies, Delphiniums, Hostas, Baptisias, Primulas, Epimediums, Lillium, Ligularias, Echinaceas, Geraniums, Astilbes, Iris, Crocosmia, Begonias (yes, perennials), Kniphofia, Philippine, Incense Maryam, Rodgersia, Dionaka, Campanula, Polygonatum, Papaver, Hibiscus, Spigelia and many others. There are also unique plants that number in the hundreds, such as Farfugium japonicum which is one of this year’s new plants and my first Trilliums for the woodland garden.
But for the beginners among us, I know this can seem daunting and confusing. Rejoice, it can be simple. As simple or as complex and extensive as you want your collection and garden to be. So, for starters, let’s look at one genus, phlox, and look at the diversity.
Yes, there are annual phlox, and that alone can be confusing. However, there are also a number of perennial phloxes, and part of the appeal of perennials is how diverse the plants are within just one genus. In our gardens (and garden centers) you can find Phlox subulata, Phlox paniculata, Phlox maculata, Phlox carolinia, Phlox stoloninfera and the new Phlox hybrid in the “Fashionally” group that can bloom twice – sometimes.
Phlox paniculata is our tall garden phlox. It is the type that is used in gardens and for cutting gardens, as it has long stems, lush green leaves, and flowers with a wonderful scent. It is available in white, pink, red, near blue and some bi-colours. It is susceptible to mildew, but there are mildew-resistant varieties that can be controlled. In contrast, there is P. subulata or creeping phlox. Well, it seems the older varieties are creeping in, or there has been mixing between the species, but breeders have made the newer varieties more compact. It’s a great plant for stone walls, usually evergreen with needle-like leaves on wiry stems. In the world of opposites, P. subulata is the opposite of P. paniculata and yet is still a phlox.
Phlox stolonifera is similar in habit to P. subulata, but unlike P. stolonifera, the subulata species needs more sun. They can look very similar so be careful which species you pick up.
Phlox maculata is often confused with P. paniculata, but there are important differences. P. maculata is usually found in moist meadows, lowland forests, or along river banks. The flowers are always purple to lavender, the leaves are more pointed than P. paniculata, and it will grow in sun to part shade. It is a native wildflower of the Northeast and is not as susceptible to downy mildew as tall garden phlox. It also makes a nice cut flower with a light but pleasant scent.
Just a very small look at a few perennials. You can probably find 50 to 100 species at local garden centers. However, if you really want to start a variety and have your perennials bloom from February (Cyclamen coum) to November (Chrysanthemum Korean Apricot), you will need to look for mail-order nurseries or drop me a line and I will compile a suggested list.
Are you looking for good books about perennials? Try any of Alan Armitage’s books, but for the best perennial remedy, go to the fourth edition of his book Herbaceous Perennials. It is the current bible of perennials.
And now a confession. The gardener who has been helping me for the past 10 years tells me I should use some annuals. My response is always, “What’s an annual?” Last summer I was at a garden center and saw a 2-gallon pot of salvia that amazed me. It was in the permanent section, and I had to have it. I bought three. I returned it to the garden and installed it in the new north extension of the island bed. He performed with incredible color and verve all summer long and was very impressive. I have grown other salvias in the garden and none have swept me away like this one.
At the end of last winter, when we started evaluating and cleaning, it looked like these three plants were completely dead. I pulled up the label and then went back to the Proven Wins website to look up manufacturer details and felt unspeakably embarrassed. But the key to hardiness was pretty clear – perennial but not hardy except in Zones 9-11. My fault. Yes, perennial, not hardy, herbaceous perennial. But in my defense, it was in the permanent section. Keep growing.