If you want to create a background, or camouflage a spot, or just have an outstanding bloom to catch the eye and point out the shorter ones, a tall spiky plant will do the job.

          One of my favorites is the old fashioned “Hollyhock” that can reach 5 to 9 feet high.  Flowers start at the bottom and move up from summer to fall in nearly any color. You can have singles or doubles, annuals, biennials or perennials, but most are biennials. They also seed themselves so in a good, sunny area you can have them year after year if you don’t deadhead all the expired blooms but let the seeds mature. They have sturdy stems but they will bend away from a shade source so you may need to stake them. My biggest compliant is that in some years rust can get pretty horrible. There are sprays to prevent this but you need to start early and repeat several times.

          Another favorite I consider to be rather temperamental is the “Delphinium”. Nebraska is not their favorite place as it gets too hot in mid-summer.  The ones we have now are mostly hybrids from 2 to 7 feet tall.  The shorter ones of course are easier to take care of.  Wind or hail can snap them off so I usually put a cage around the plant.  They like full sun in moist, slightly alkaline soil full of compost.  Some years I have had some beauties and others complete failures.  They are not a long lived plant in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I have had them do better in front of an evergreen which slows down the wind.  Since they are so gorgeous in bloom, I will keep trying but only a few at a time.

          “Obedient Plant” (Physostegia virginiana) is a shorter one (2 to 4 feet) that does as well in a shady area as in full sun. They come in lavender, white, or pink from July for several weeks. This plant is the direct opposite to the care for Delphinium. It takes next to no work. I let the flowers go to seed and when ripe I pull up the plants and shake them to have a good crop the next year.  The roots are very invasive so this “sorta” keeps them under control.  At one time the Nebraska Department of Roads had them planted along the highway but mowed them down before the seeds were ripe so our purple sided roads between Lincoln and Omaha disappeared in a few years.  There are four rows of blooms around each stem.

          A vigorous spike I try to keep in a captive area is “Verbascum”, better known as Mullein.  It gets about 4 to 5 feet tall, with furry leaves and a tall yellow bloom stalk. It is also a biennial though some plants live 2 years.  It looks good as the background in a bouquet.  I think I have “Verbascum olympicum”. The plant hybridizers have developed a daintier strain in purple, red, or white that I have had.  It doesn’t seem to live over 1 to 2 years.  Mullein is listed in the “Weeds of Nebraska” book as flannel leafed. People with asthma smoked the leaves or roots for relief, and also made a tea from the leaves as a sedative.  It is a native of Europe and grows all over Nebraska.

          I consider myself a failure with “Foxglove” (Digitalis sp.). At most I have kept them alive for 2 years but I have seen some beauties (usually only 1 or 2) in other years. Digitalis purpurea is the plant from which the heart medicine “digitalis” is made. They like moist, well drained, acidic soil in light shade. BJ planted some a year ago that looked pretty good. For several years I had a shorter, daintier blooming one that survived.

          “Red Hot Poker” (Kniphofia sp.) is certainly a spike but Nebraska ones I have seen usually don’t get over 2 feet tall. My encyclopedia says they come from moist grassy areas in Africa and may reach 5 feet tall. The ones in my front yard have only reached two feet but they are dramatic in yellow, orange, red, or a mixture of the colors. They have coarse grass like leaves.  Most species are listed for zone 6 or higher but if you hunt and don’t demand a certain combination you can find them for zone 5.  They did little but sit for me the first year (growing roots) but now there are four clumps. Growers recommend sandy soil to prevent root rot.  The flower spike is about 18 inches high with tubular flowers around the entire stem.  The ones I have are yellow at the bottom and a bright red at the top (makes you notice them). I hope to get more if I can find hardy (zone 5) ones. There are 3 in my new Bluestone catalog that just arrived!

          Another plant that can be called a spike is “Baptisia” which may get 4 feet tall.  I would see more of them if they grew faster but they come very short (8 inches) and it took three years before they bloomed! Now I have 2 clumps about 3 feet across as they sent roots out along the edge. Mine are deep blue with black, long seed pods that last all winter in a dried bouquet. There is a yellow one in one of my catalogues as well as a bi-color developed by the Chicago Botanic Gardens. They like full sun, damp soil but are drought tolerant.

Copyright 2012