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BRAVO BIENNIALS : Planted Now, These Showy Flowers Will Sprint Into Spring Bloom

November 17, 1985|MARY ELLEN GUFFEY | Mary Ellen Guffey is a Los Angeles writer and photographer.

They're called biennials, but in our climate they perform like annuals and may persist like perenni als. Regardless of classification, fall-planted biennials bring rich rewards the following spring and summer, and some blooms will hold throughout most of winter.

Gardening books report that biennials require two years to reach maturity, producing leaves the first year and blooms the second. Fortunately, that investment in time, space and effort is unnecessary here. Our mild winters accelerate the timetable of many biennials, speeding them into bloom ahead of schedule.

Fall is the best time to plant almost anything in Southern California, particularly biennials. With temper- atures cooling and with the prospect of rain showers, seedlings set out at this time respond willingly, almost taking care of themselves. It's best to plant seedlings from flats or pony packs rather than buying larger plants in four-inch or one-gallon pots. It's also cheaper. Seedling roots grow deeply and spread widely, building a broad root system upon which the plant can flourish. Plants started from seedlings nearly always produce more blooms of superior quality and over a longer period of time than plants transferred from larger containers. One weekend gardener in North Hollywood testifies that she has had little success with plants set out from four-inch pots but that seedlings nearly always thrive.

The biennials shown here can be planted by themselves or blended with other fall-planted flowers.

Certainly the boldest of the biennials is the elegant foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) . Not to be employed where subtlety is desired, foxglove tends to dominate a garden, its racemes often growing to a height of five feet. Yet its nodding, softly speckled blooms are most appealing, both for their fanciful appearance and for the ease with which they commonly can be grown.

The strain generally available as seedlings in nursery centers is Foxy, a hybrid that in only one season produces spires densely packed with bell-like blooms in cream, yellow, mauve, pink and rose-red shades. In the Malibu garden pictured here, four dozen seedlings were planted in late October. The first flowers appeared with ranunculus blooms in March; other racemes continued to shoot up during the next four months, making foxgloves a long-lasting addition to the spring and summer flower garden. In favored locations, they may even bloom a second year. However, the coarse, tobacco-like leaves become rather ragged as the season progresses, and some gardeners prefer to remove spent plants.

The first raceme of each plant is tall and sturdy and does not require staking unless it is watered from overhead. When this initial raceme fades and is removed, secondary blooms form on weak stems. These flowers are attractive but difficult to keep upright.

Foxglove is a wildflower in England and has long been associated with little folk or fairies. Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word fox , thought to be a corruption of folks , and gleow , a musical instrument composed of bells arranged on an arch. Another explanation suggests that the tubular blooms resemble fingers in a glove. The Latin genus name Digitalis refers, of course, to the word finger .

For more than 700 years, foxglove leaves have been used for medication. When properly processed and administered, they have some beneficial properties, but eating the leaves can be dangerous, and for that reason some gardeners avoid planting foxglove.

Other traditional biennials that tend to bloom earlier than normal in our climate are the quaint Canterbury bells ( Campanula medium 'Calycanthema'). Started from seedlings planted at this time, Canterbury bells will send up three-foot racemes loosely arranged with inflated bells by next May or June. This often-overlooked bloom--in pure shades of blue, lavender, pink, rose and white--can create the effect of a cottage garden when planted with Shasta daisies, pinks, felicia, white or yellow marguerites, or pastel petunias. Among English gardeners, they're sometimes called Coventry bells. They were mentioned in the literature as early as the 15th Century; John Gerard, an English herbalist and surgeon, wrote that the interiors of the bell blooms had "much downie haire, such as in the eares of a dogge or such like beaste."

The white roots of Canterbury bells are edible and are said to resemble rampion (Campanula rapunculus) , which is sometimes cultivated as a vegetable. In this Malibu garden, the ground squirrels immediately discovered the planting of Canterbury bells; they devoured the succulent taproot first and returned the next day to pull the tasty leaves into their tunnels for a European-style salad after the main course. Despite ingenious and heroic anti-squirrel measures, all three dozen Canterbury bell plants were lost. Therefore, we don't recommend campanula in gardens frequented by ground squirrels or other root-eating animals.

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