GARDEN FOR MARCH 29, 2008
An “EPIMEDIUM”? They are short, usually 4 inches to 2 feet, most below 16 inches, that like shady spots. I have tried them in different places and on the west side of a shrub under the edges of the branches, they seem to do best. They like moist but not wet feet. This means they will be covered by leaves in the spring. As they are fairly early starters one needs to get them uncovered with care as the new stems break easily so I generally “rake” them by hand. The flowers have been called “fairy wings” which will give you an idea of a dainty bloom. Some species have a spur like a columbine. Other common names are “bishops’ hat” or “barrenwort”. They bloom about the same time as the jonquils, forming clumps that prevent weeds. Their leaves may have red edges so when new, green in summer and changing back to red in the fall. Sometimes they are hard to find, but over the years I have a yellow and a pink one.
How about BEARS BRITCHES (Acanthus mollis)? I saw one in Betty Olson’s yard several years ago and of course needed one. They will be about 3 feet tall with big, dark green, long (3 feet) leaves that are cut and feel spiny. The flowers are 2 inches long, white, coming out of purple bracts. The spikes may be 4 feet tall. Sometimes the stems are purple. Mine has not bloomed yet. Usually they are listed for zone 6 or 7 (from Africa) but Betty has had hers for a number of years.
DELPHINIUMS are a beautiful challenge in Lincoln, Nebraska, with tall 5 to 7 feet spikes in full sun but protected from winds as much as possible. There are new hybrids that only get 2 ½ to 3 feet tall. All are listed as hardy in zones 3-7. Some people are allergic to the sap so until you know for sure you should wear gloves when handling them. Eating any part may make you quite ill. Some of the most beautiful ones I have seen used evergreens for a background. With that tall a spike one needs to install a stake when first setting out the plants. I have cages of cement reinforcing wire for each plant which will support the branches unless it hails. Some of my worst disasters have been going out into the yard after a hail storm, or a particularly hard rain, to find my spikes broken. You can start your own from seed but they won’t bloom the first year. I also find they are not a long lived perennial. Three years is the most I have ever gotten, so each spring I try to set out one or two new plants. If you deadhead your first blooms you may get a second set of smaller blooms that actually fit into a bouquet better than the tall ones. Too much water and root rot appears. Slugs consider them good food. There are a number of colors and shades of colors, but I have never seen a yellow one. In my opinion, the blues are the most spectacular. A big plant like they are requires fertilizer several times during a summer. Do not use one that is predominately nitrogen. Compost works well because when it breaks down it also releases the micronutrients.
LARKSPUR is an annual DELPHINIUM that blooms rather early and then dies back. I pull them up which shakes the seeds off. The new plants are up in the fall and then wait for spring covered with snow. Where I pull up the LARKSPUR, I rake the soil and plant zinnia seed. By this time the soil is very warm and they are up in days. In a few weeks the bed is full bloom again. After frost I pull them up and the LARKSPUR are there or soon will be. They are not actually a DELPHINIUM (Consolida ambigua) but many people call the “annual DELPHINIUM”. It was once known as “DELPHINIUM ajacis”. LARKSPUR will grow to be about 4 feet tall and do not like to be transplanted which may account for not finding seedlings in the nursery or garden center.
A bulb you might try is the PINEAPPLE LILY (Eucomis bicolor). It is only hardy to zone 8 but there are different ways you can keep it alive. I usually treat it like an AMARYLLIS, digging it up, cutting off the top, and then storing in the basement until spring. The disadvantage of this is the root loss which slows it down in the spring and it never gets as tall as it might. Some people keep theirs in pots outside in the summer. Then bring it in, let the leaves turn brown, cut it off, and later keeping pot and all in a cool place (40 to 50 degrees F.) with no water. Hope Robb pots hers and treats it as a house plant by bringing it in. They do look like a PINEAPPLE when blooming with a stalk about 18 to 24 inches high of waxy green blooms all around the stems with the typical pineapple tuft of leaves at the top. They are natives of Africa in the HYACINTH family. This year some of the growers have bulbs with purple leaves (Eucomis comosa) with blooms appearing lavender and yellow. As usual with a new plant they cost much more than the ones I have. If I ever breakdown and get one, I think I will try it as a year round houseplant.
For shady areas there are a number of new colors and color combinations of HEUCHERA species with streaks, speckles, and spots. Last spring’s “freeze session” killed several of the ones I already had as they were up and growing when it hit. Ones with almost white leaves as well as the golden ones. The older dark purple ones ignored the freeze.