Where are they now? (Those serviceable plants we all used to grow.)

October 21, 2014 § 3 Comments

One of the ten candidates for the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Centenary” last year was Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’. Although it didn’t win (the prize went instead to Geranium ‘Rozanne’), I was delighted to see the perennial wallflower on the list, as it has nearly dropped out of sight in recent years.

Geranium 'Rozanne'

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ © Jane Powers

Plants go in and out of fashion, and the slightly dumpy and ungainly character of ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ does not fit in with today’s trend for tall and airy, meadowesque perennials. Nonetheless, it is a plant that should be in your garden, if you can give it a bit of sun. It makes a shrubby mound about two or three feet tall and wide, with glaucous, evergreen foliage. Its racemes of cross-shaped, purple flowers are borne spasmodically during much of the year, with the main flush between February and July. Cut back all the spent stems in July, and it will start banging out flowers again after a month or two. Bees and butterflies love it, and slugs don’t bother much with it. A hard winter might kill it, but it is easy to take insurance cuttings any time in spring or summer. It is one of those plants that are known as “good doers”. They’re not fancy or rare, but they are robust and reliable, and do their job uncomplainingly.

I’d like to recommend five other dependable doers that we don’t see enough of these days. You won’t necessarily find all of them in garden centres, but they turn up at plant sales, or in older gardens. Most gardeners are generous types, and will usually hand over cuttings or small basal shoots with a bit of root attached. These last items, incidentally, are known as “Irishman’s cuttings”.

Bergenia 'Wintermärchen' and friends © Jane Powers

Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and friends
© Jane Powers

Bergenia is another plant that used to be better known and better loved. Twenty years ago it was in every Irish garden, but now, according to one nursery-owner, “we couldn’t even give it away.” The big, leathery, evergreen foliage confers on it the common name of “elephant’s ears”. The pachydermic leaves make it quite a coarse plant, but it is just the thing if you are looking for groundcover for a difficult place. It is equally happy in sun or shade, and in good or poor soil. There are about a hundred varieties, but only an expert is able to tell the difference between many of them. The sprays of flowers, which range from nearly white to deepest pink, are hoisted up on thick stems in mid spring. Bergenia pays its way in winter when some varieties (those with B. purpurascens in their parentage) become suffused with a chocolatey-maroon hue. When dusted with white frost particles they look delicious. My favourite cultivar for the chilly months is ‘Wintermärchen’, sometimes sold as Winter Fairy Tales. It has slightly smaller leaves than some, and excellent colour in both leaf and flower. The whitest blooms belong to ‘Beethoven’, while the variety ‘Silberlicht’, which plantswoman Beth Chatto grows in her famous gravel garden in Essex, is almost as pale.

London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) is a member of the same family as bergenia, and is another faithful character in what I think of as the “nice old lady plants” department. It has smallish rosettes of spoon-shaped evergreen leaves, each delicately zig-zagged around the margins, as if it has been cut out with a tiny pinking shears. The lacy, starry, shell-pink flowers are borne throughout the summer on foot-high, wiry stems. It was traditionally used in rockeries, or for edging paths, and is happy in just about any kind of soil.

Another trusty, old-fashioned plant is Libertia grandiflora, with dark-green, strappy foliage and tall stems of small, cup-shaped, white flowers in early summer. It is a little winter-tender in cold areas, but sturdy enough in most gardens. If you are a poultry keeper, then you’ll be pleased to know that this is one of the few perennials that is goose-proof. Geese are among the worst plant pests known to man.

Sisyrinchium striatum

Sisyrinchium striatum © Jane Powers

Also in the strappy leaves department is the summer-blooming Sisyrinchium striatum, which has upright fans of grey-green foliage and batons of small yellow flowers. It is an easy-going addition to gravel gardens, seeding itself about each year. After flowering, the foliage may become blackened and unsightly. Don’t be afraid to pull out the entire plant when this happens, as its replacements will be already be developing at its feet. The cultivar ‘Aunt May’ has variegated leaves and cream-coloured flowers.

Vinca major © Jane Powers

Vinca major
© Jane Powers

My final, nearly forgotten and nearly bomb-proof plant is the periwinkle. There are seven species of Vinca, with several dozen cultivars shared among them. Almost all form evergreen spreading mats by way of long, stringy stems bearing pairs of ovate leaves and pretty blue, mauve or white stars. I like the plain green-leaved V. minor and V. major, but for those who like stripy plants there are scads of variegated kinds. As with the other plants I’ve mentioned here, it doesn’t mind poor soil or a negligent gardener.

What are other sterling doers and golden oldies can we add to the list above? Please weigh in below.

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§ 3 Responses to Where are they now? (Those serviceable plants we all used to grow.)

  • Some interesting choices there and some good, solid plants! I love bergenia and they are so useful and, if you treat them decently, they can be beautiful. I am not surprised that they don’t sell well though because they do have an old-fashioned feel to them. London Pride is another favourite of mine and again, so easy and useful. Sisyrinchium striatum is less of a favourite though because it can self seed just that bit too much and I once made the mistake of letting it get into a bed of iris and I had a real headache telling them apart for weeding! To add to the list I would include Japanese anemones which I know some people think are weeds but they are trouble free and eager to please and remind me of cottage gardens

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  • Stephen Butler says:

    How about Francoa? Great mound of leaves all winter, good saxifageish flowers in summer, hardly ever needs attention, and easy to prop too. Fully agree with Libertia being goose proof, though I will argue with the specific name – reckon all currently grown as grandiflora are chilensis – long story, more to be told later! And all Libertias are good tough doers. What about Fuchsia Mrs Popple? Used to be everywhere, tough, easy, so easy to prop, never a problem and flowers all summer and especially autumn. I am currently going through Irish Heritage Plants, seeing which of the 6000 listed are still in trade, it will add to your ‘where are they now’ for sure. Stephen Butler

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  • Christopher Cotton says:

    I found, in reading your description of “Bowles’ Mauve”, that it decribed to some degree my own mother — and yours too I think (if she had been a plant, I guess, and with some exception to the question of rarity):

    “It is one of those plants that are known as “good doers”. They’re not fancy or rare, but they are robust and reliable, and do their job uncomplainingly.”

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