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Perennial Primer

April 14, 1985

Anemones to Veronicas: A Bouquet of Beautiful Blooms Anemones top our list of the most common perennial plants. Though they begin our list (which is almost alphabetical), they bloom last, lingering longer into the fall than other flowers, usually beginning in late August as everything else is fading. The most commonly available Japanese anemone ( Anemone japonica ) is the single white-flowered species, an absolute picture of grace, with flowers perched atop thin, branching stems that are three, four or even five feet tall. The low clump of leaves becomes rambunctious in time, spreading to form large colonies that could be called invasive--except that this plant will grow in considerable shade where there is not much to conquer. Wonderful around camellias, it will not hinder their growth in the least. There are also named kinds that have pink flowers, and kinds that have double flowers. These fancier sorts are usually less rampant and of shorter stature. After flowering occurs, cut off all leaves and flowers, and the clumps will appear tidier when they re-sprout in February. Divide if necessary.

Gayfeather ( Liatris spicata ) and Physostegia virginiana are two other reliable late-bloomers that may begin in August but hang on into October. Both send up spikes of pinkish-purple (or white) flowers, the former about three feet tall, the latter only one to two feet tall. Both should be cut to the ground after flowering. The liatris may not re-emerge until the middle of the following summer, so mark its place to avoid digging it up by mistake. Liatris needs good drainage; physostegia needs next to nothing.

Michaelmas daisies are supposed to bloom in the fall, but here they usually flower in summer. These are not chrysanthemums but asters, crosses of two native American species, and they become graceful, bushy plants about three feet tall and at least as wide. After flowering occurs, cut the stems to the ground and divide every two years. Italian asters ( Aster amellus ) are somewhat like Michaelmas daisies. The flowers, a lovely, soft lilac with a yellow center, are larger and the plants smaller (a foot tall, with flowers), but the effect and culture are similar.

Stokes aster ( Stokesia laevis ), in blue or white for summer, is quite different, with 18-inch-tall stems that arise from tight, evergreen clumps of leaves--always there, always neat. Clumps increase slowly and may be divided in the fall.

The various Shasta daisies, some with single, some with double flowers, grow about two feet tall or less. Last year at Sassafras Nursery in Topanga, however, we were delighted to see the old-fashioned, five-foot-tall singles that bring an amiable air of nonchalance to a garden bed. If you haven't tried the shorter Shasta daisies with zinnias, you're missing a sure bet. However, that snowy white is welcome almost anywhere. These plants can be tough as nails (witness the many plantings that survive around older homes, but on what?). Nevertheless, Shasta daisies can succumb quickly to several diseases, so divide every two years, in fall or early winter, and keep a few spares elsewhere in the garden.

Campanulas cannot be left out of any perennial planting scheme, but be prepared to suffer losses. We'll mention only the ones that send up spires of bellflowers, although the low-growing kinds are easier to deal with. Only one is sure-fire-- Campanula rapunculoides , the aptly named rover bellflower that roams everywhere throughout the garden. Although it is easy to pull out, it will be back, and often, where its particular shade of pale purple is not wanted. Low clumps of foliage spread rapidly in good soil, sending up three-foot spikes of flowers in spring and early summer. Next easiest is C. glomerata with l8-inch spikes of narrow blue bellflowers. Campanula persicifolia , the peach-leafed bluebell, is illustrated. Delicate summer spires of lavender-blue or white flowers reach heights of two to three feet from low clumps of foliage. If you want to cheat a little, grow the annual Canterbury bells. The flowers are bell-shaped--blue, violet, pink or white. Or try the biennial kind that has flowers like a cup-and-saucer set. Campanulas need rich soil.

Geums take a while to get going, and once going they need to be divided every other year and replanted in renewed soil or they will begin to fade, but this fiddling is worth it. Flowers are orange or yellow--or a deep scarlet in the case of one named Mrs. Bradshaw. Like bright butterflies, flowers alight on graceful, branching stems that stand two to three feet tall. Well beneath is a year-round, one-foot-tall clump of dark green leaves that spreads slowly.

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