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Gardening / Home Improvement | IN THE GARDEN

A Flower for All Seasons

July 19, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

"What can I plant that flowers all the time?" is a question that nursery people hear all the time.

Though constant blooming may seem a bit much to ask of a plant, there actually are a handful of plants that do it.

They bloom in spring along with everything else, and they're still going strong in summer, after so many spring flowers have fainted in the heat.

They may be the only thing still flowering in the fall garden, and in winter, when so much is quiescent, they're still grinding out the blooms, seemingly unaware of seasons.

I'm thinking of such tough perennials as society garlic and sea statice and soft, shrubby, subtropical plants like pentas ("star clusters") and heliotrope. There are even a few substantial shrubs like anisodontea, and at least one vine, the white-flowered potato vine.

These bloom all the time, with hardly a hiccup. Some think this kind of flower might as well be extruded from plastic, but they have their uses. Planted here and there in even the most sophisticated gardens, they make sure that there is always a spot of color.

There are just enough of these ever-blooming plants to make an entire garden, though you might find such a landscape a little boring, and you'd probably have to replace the whole garden every few years.

You see, there's a price to be paid for plants that bloom all the time. Many tend to drop out after a few years. I suspect they simply grow themselves to death.

It may take three to five years, but eventually most of these plants become woody, worn out or overgrown, and no longer flower like they used to. They may even die. In any event, most will need replacing in time.

"So what if you have to replace them?" asked Judy Wigand, who has a well-known and well-grown garden in San Marcos that contains more than a few of these ever-bloomers. "It's a small price to pay for flowers every month of the year."

Her small nursery, Judy's Perennials, is where one of my favorites, Heliotropium arborescens, originally came from.

I'm not talking about the cultivars of this heliotrope with names like 'Black Beauty,' which are easy to find at nurseries. They also flower all the time and are pretty in their own right, but they are "half the plant," as one gardener put it.

The plain arborescens not only blooms all the time, but is smothered in light lilac flower clusters that appear to be two-toned because they open as a darker shade, then fade to the palest hue.

The cultivars grow slowly to about two feet, but plain arborescens grows fast to three or four feet tall and six to eight feet across. It can be a spectacle, as it has been in my garden this spring.

I got my plant as a cutting from Beau Grow's flowery garden in San Clemente (she got hers from Judy's Perennials) and, although you're supposed to take cuttings from shoots without flowers, Beau and I couldn't find any, so even the cutting was in flower.

That was about three years ago, and this heliotrope has been in flower ever since. From cutting to full-grown, it has barely paused to catch its breath, though most of these plants have peak seasons when they are most covered with flowers.

Even when I pruned it back by half to slow it down, it managed to flower within days and was back to normal in a few weeks.

Wigand said you prune it back once a year to keep it relatively dense and tidy, which is true for a number of these plants.

Most need some kind of tidying up or restraining, but "it's perplexing to know when to cut back any of these," said Wigand, "because they are always covered with flowers."

Some of these ever-blooming plants need major cutting back every now and then, but many do just fine with only a little dead-heading and tidying up.

Heliotropium arborescens is not easy to find at nurseries, but San Marcos Growers is one wholesale source your nursery can order from, and Judy's Perennials always has a few.

I suspect that it does best near the coast, where its light lavender flower clusters glow in the misty seaside light. There it likes full sun, but it prefers partial shade inland.

Did I mention that the flowers attract butterflies and are fragrant?

There's another heliotrope that flowers all the time, often named 'Alba,' with white flowers that smell strongly of vanilla. I planted one near the front gate, where its sultry scent greets visitors.

It's more vine-like and scrambling, with far fewer flowers, but it grows well on both sides of town. Unfortunately, it too can be hard to find.

Some of the other ever-blooming flowers are quite easy to find at nurseries, even commonplace. Because they bloom all the time, they're naturally popular plants.

On the shrubby side (though none of these is your typically stiff shrub), there is the common shrimp plant, Justicia brandegeana, which never stops making those fascinating flowers. If you want something less common, look for the variety 'Chartreuse,' with its greenish flowers that go with any color scheme.

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