CHRISTMAS PLANTS

There are plants that are associated with Christmas, there are plants that have “Christmas” in their name too but have absolutely nothing to do with this festive season.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) is associated with amorous engagements purely since it was recognised as symbol of fertility and vitality. In reality toxic although not lethal. Mistletoe isn’t grown, it hosts off other flora sometimes killing the parent plant. So, actually a parasite and poisonous.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) or Spurge to you or me. Not very festive sounding. It is considered a house plant but under the right conditions can be transplanted after the new year and when conditions are warmer. These aren’t very easy to keep though. The conditions are important. The plant needs to be warm enough but not too hot. Some sunlight but not too much. It needs water but not excessive and the soil must be free draining. It will flower again if these conditions are adhered to.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) associated with Christmas largely because of its berries are borne at this time. A much needed food source for birds over the colder months. This plant can take the form of a tree, shrub, or climber by its species. It can be argued that cotoneaster offers an equally stark contrast in the winter months yet it is not associated with this period. There are references to the leaves resembling thorns although this has no relativity to the plant.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is long associated and references made in carols. A very invasive plant. I’m not a fan of Ivy. I take the view that it does impede growth. It takes moisture from other plants and competes for space. Once in situ the growth is very prolific and can cause problems on brickwork or stone. Like other plants not the direct cause of its demise but a contributing factor. With brickwork, will not cause the deterioration but certainly does not help in preventing decay.

Christmas Box (Sarcococca) is perhaps referred to as a winter flowering shrub. It provides sweet fragrant white flora throughout the winter months. An evergreen it provides attractive foliage at other times of the year. It will bear berries after flowering so an important food source. But not directly linked to Christmas.

Lentern Rose / Christmas rose (Hellebrous niger) no link to Christmas or Roses. It is not related in anyway to Rosa. Perhaps because it provides winter interest. An effective perennial in a shaded area needing little maintenance providing colour and interest where there few other plants in bloom.

There are plants that are celebrated at Christmas purely because they flower at this time. Christmas Cactuses being one. Having said this, other cultures bring a wealth of richness with other forms of acknowledgement. Olives for peace, Opium poppy pods for prosperity and bulrushes for prosperity and good fortune which are equally important.

ROGUE PLANTS

There are certain plants that rarely work well where you put them. In fact the growth can be rather prolific where you least expect them.

Lily of the valley (Nolinoideae) is one although it is good ground cover wherever it emerges. It never really grows in its intended spot. Or seldomly. A woodland perennial it will tolerate shade and is prolific in these areas. Few nutrients and attention. It is drought tolerant to an extent but it would prefer some moisture.

Crocus (Iridaceae), a spring flowering bulb will also pop up where you least expect. Crocuses are very resilient. The plant does grow in a woodland environment but it’s not tolerant of total shade and needs some sunlight. It is spring flowering and low maintenance save periodically dividing not only to propagate but regenerate the plant.

Primula (Primulaceae) is a primrose that doesn’t mind some shade although not full. The soil too needs to be on the fertile side and will not grow in particularly poor soil or do well. The soil needs to be light though needs to have some substance. It mustn’t get waterlogged either, hold enough moisture but be free draining. These conditions aren’t particularly straightforward.

Polyanthus (Primulaceae) also a primrose is very similar and flowers in spring. It can left in the ground or moved / distributed when its divided. The biggest difference is it has more flowers on each stems so the cluster appears bigger. It prefers a more dappled woodland environment. It’s been mooted that a primrose crossed with a cowslip and as a result has become a hybrid

Crocosmia / Monbretia – Valentine flower (Iridaceae) can be planted in one space. A perennial too. It will die back and re surface the following year, a summer flowering perennial. It can be orange, yellow or red. Monbretia is just another more traditional name. More associated with red for some reason. Perhaps the parent before cultivars and hybrids. These clusters can be divided and propagated effectively. Very easy, just cut back dead growth and it will return. It needs a degree of sun though and relatively dry soil, not waterlogged, compact or heavy.

Oat grass (Poaceae) A grass that is said not be invasive. The seeds from the plumes do germinate. An ornamental grass where you usually would cut it to the ground. Divide it to keep the shape, size and vigour of growth.

Everything that disperses its seeds, pollinated by birds / wind / insects can be invasive. It’s perennials on the whole since they have time to establish themselves, source the energy and develop underground. A bigger specimen will never come true, a little “rogue” seedling can be pulled out within seconds.

Perennials (Red, Yellow and Orange)

Colours that do often go well together are these hot combinations

Kniphofia (Red Hot Pokers) a structural addition to any mixed perennial bed. These, adding height, don’t need staking although they do prefer a sunny spot. These perennials are quite tolerant of dry conditions. They will need water but don’t sit well in wet soil so a well drained consistency is needed. Periodically, this perennial needs dividing to keep the vigour and flowering ability. The size also needs control. They can become invasive and do take up room.

Helenium (sneezeweed) offer interest to beneficial insects. This perennial is fully hardy and tolerates quite severe conditions. Although they look rather like a sunflowers they are not. This perennial prefers an acidic soil and flowers during the summer. These daisy like flowers will offer an enrichment of oranges, reds and yellows. It is clump forming so it can be divided. These are usually tall and suit most borders but H. ‘Mardi Gras’ needs to be at the front, it is smaller.

Monarda (Bergamot) the foliage is scented and beneficial insects love this. The soil needs to have substance but not water retentive, good drainage is needed. Its performance is dependent on full sun. M. ‘Cambridge scarlett’ however, will do well in shade. It will flower throughout summer into early autumn.

Hemerocallis spp (DayLillies) the flower that only lasts a day. However, the flowers come in such profusion, this perennial offers different flowering varieties with some quite early H. lilioasphodelus to late H ‘Frans Hals’. The cultivars have improved and now day lilies are more robust to adverse conditions and available in many more colours (hot) and (cold). A summer flowering perennial, its period is quite lengthy and doesn’t really require any attention, cutting back spent stems and maybe division in spring. This will produce more plants but their energy will be restored too.

Rudbeckia (Black eyed Susan) is a perfect addition to the perennial bed although these do prefer sun. Some partial shade is O.K. but not full, they will not do well in a chilly corner. You can divide although the seeds will come true too. It will flower throughout summer to maybe September in the right conditions. These perennials are hardy but if dividing do so this before winter (so they can acclimitise themeselves) or in spring after the cold snap. It is beneficial to do before but not essential.

An interesting discovery only recently unearthed is the Isoplexis plant. It is in fact a foxglove, but a tropical one. The canary island foxglove will provide you with a flowering period when most have ended. Late summer to early autumn. It is also effective in attracting beneficial insects. Strangely, for a tropical plant it is quite hardy tolerating temperatures – 5. It will need some protection certainly from cold winds though. It will give both attractive flowers and foliage. Full sun or maybe partial sun at the least.

A very hardy specimen which without fail will perform is Crocosmia / Mobretia as it is otherwise known as. There is common variety which does the job but there many cultivars now which have particular charcateristics. C. X Crocosmiiflora ‘George Davidson’ which has yellow flowers. C. ‘Emberglow’ which has a combined orange and yellow. C. ‘Lucifer’ is the most popular. The colours of red and orange will provide effective drifts in most perennial borders. It is a very hardy plant. It will survive in all conditions, all soils. It’s a “corm” so the cluster of tightly packed bulbs can easily be divided. Over the dormant period you might cut the spent growth off but otherwise self sufficient, you will probably find yourself reducing the cluster and pulling it out.

Perennials (Blue, Purple and Pinks)

When deciding on herbaceous perennials in a border, it is worth mentioning to decide how it will be seen. At a 360 degree or head on or at an angle. A characteristic of herbaceous schemes is varying heights so you don’t want something upright and staked masking something mat forming. Herbaceous perennial is a term for plants that die back in dormant months, and usually cut at base level. The goodness returns to their storage organ, the following year they return.

Upright (require staking – not essential / advisable. The plant won’t be damaged by being top heavy or by high winds).

Delphiniums like sun but do require a little shade. The perennial can suffer if overfaced with very dry conditions. It will flower late spring to summer and it needs deadheading to prolong flowering. Every couple of years, divide the plant to retain its vigour. Delphinium elatum ‘sweethearts’ good for beneficial insects, pink throughout summer. If you cut back immediately after flowering, you may get another swathe.

Hollyhocks have a single stem with flowers hanging from it. After the flowers are spent, the plant needs to be cut to the base. It is good houskeeping, will reduce disease but the perennial benefits too. Strictly speaking a biennial but in the right conditions it can return. It’s suited to a sunny aspect, well drained soil. These plants need support.

Penstemon ‘Blue Spring’ is a good all rounder but may still need a little more protection. It will do well in full sun and in a sheltered aspect. It is easy to grow but to ensure the soil isn’t saturated and not too poor.

Cosmos provide flowers from summer to early autumn available in pinks, reds. By dead heading you will prolong the flowering until the first frost. The plant doesn’t require any particular care and they’re tolerant of poor soil. If you don’t dead head though they will stop flowering. Cosmos atrosanguineus ‘Chocamocha’ is an exception to staking. more compact in its habit.

Phlox paniculata ‘bright eyes’ comes in pink but a variety of other colours, sweetly scented throughout summer, it attracts beneficial insects and free standing.

Echinacea provides flowers throughout the summer, requires no staking. Although upright, these perennials are robust and self sufficient. It is fragrant and attracts beneficial insects.

Salvia nemorosa is a hardy choice, providing aromatic foliage from late spring right through summer. A very straightforward perennial. Shave the top growth in spring and the plant willl come back with luscious growth.

Mat / clump forming (compact habit or sometimes spreading).

Nepeta is a low maintenance perennial. All it needs cutting back at the end of the year. It needs sun and a chalky soil, so full of substance. Common name ‘catmint’ since cats like rolling on it. It will attract beneficial insects, providing you with colour from late spring throughout summer. Again, dead heading this plant will encourage more flowers. It has a spreading habit so this needs to be at the front of a border.

Geranium or ‘true’ Geraniums are perennials. There is a bit of discussion on this. Those with ringed leaves, heavy aroma and furry leaves could be described as a ‘Pelargonium’. This is something else. It is very straightfoward to look after just not in wet soil. It will tolerate shade but performs better in full sun. It is drought tolerant and will survive in adverse conditions. It roots system will spread underground.

Sedums are a succulent but used in perennial borders. A compact cluster of stalks. It doesn’t require any support and provides pink flowers. A very hardy perennial that gets cut at the base in dormancy. It can be divided to multiply and benefits the storage organ.

Dianthus (Pinks) or carnations as the cut flowers are referred to. Clump forming of pink, red, white, purple. A grass like foliage, it will provide scented flowers through late spring and summer. The plant is drought tolerant but the more irrigation it gets in full sun, the better it will do. At the front, low growing.

Vinca (Major and Minor) generally speaking the difference is the size of foliage and flowers. Periwinkle is ground cover, mat forming and provides purple and white flowers spring into summer. What it does not tolerate are very dry conditions, not drought tolerant. Ideally to be in partial shade in well drained soil and some moisture is a bonus.

Osteospermum jucundum var compactum will flower mid summer to autumn, a spreading habit these perennials will fill in gaps where weeding would otherwise be necessary. A low growing habit, they like sun and water. They sometimes don’t survive a cold snap which is why they are considered a bedding / annual but with the right conditions they will come back.

Perennials for Beneficial Insects

Using just perennials can achieve a bio diverse border for wildlife at their peak of activity. These cottage style combinations of varying heights can offer a much needed source for pollinating insects. You may, however, want to interspace some staple shrubs otherwise in the dormant period it will appear a redundant bed. Evergreens like Euonymous, Hebe (most are hardy) Mahonia, Spotted Laurel and Cornus are all hardy and will provide interest all year round. 

These perennials aren’t necessarily meant to go together, it may create a collision of colour. Some are red, some yellow, purple and blue but they assist in providing a sample of what’s available.

Monarda (Red / Purple / White – Bee balm or Bergamot) M. diddyma, the red one is most common although there are pink varieties like ‘Pink lace’. It is in fact the leaves that are scented but they provide attractive flowers in late summer. A plant not great in dry conditions so the soil needs to be moisture retentive. It’s a hardy perennial, in the dormant period its underground in any case but no further cover needed..

Agastache hyssop (Anise) offers aromatic leaves and useful flora as a food source. It flowers in mid summer and available in whites and purples. Anise does need full sun and well drained soil. A. ‘Blue fortune’ – purple, A. ‘Alabaster’ – white. The plant is not fond of an exposed site so a sheltered spot is preferred. Also, as it lays dormant it may need additional protection so mulch added to its crown. Having said this, once in situ almost no maintenance.

Rudbeckia aka “Black-eyed Susan” is a late summer / early autumn perennial that offers a plethora of colour right up until mid November at times. The height of these differ between cultivars so be mindful not to overshadow a neighbouring plant. R. fulgida var. Sullivantii ‘Goldstrum’ is knee high say wheras R. hirta dwarf ‘Toto’ is much smaller with large flower heads. They are not drought tolerant either so ensure soil is not sandy. It likes a humus rich medium,  it does needs sun but benefits from some shade after its had its light.

Penstemons flower in early summer and offer much needed nectar. It can be incorporated near or in rockeries. The perennial can tolerate poor conditions and dry spells. There are pinks, whites, purples and reds. Their lifespan is not indefinite, they will come back from the crown each year but periodically need replacing, They do have a tendency to become woody so do prune quite harshly back. It’s good practice to propagate the seeds from the parent plant to keep the vigorous growth.

Echinacea pupurea (a coneflower), the most common prefers a fertile environment so not a survivor of poor conditions. It prefers a more sunny aspect so although it needs moisture, it will not tolerate sitting in water. It prefers a drier medium but not extreme either. It will flower early to late summer, usually pink but can be orange. E. ‘Kismet intense orange’ or ‘Orange passion’.

Echinops are often overlooked where size is an issue since they become rather imposing. These too attract hoverflies and butterflies. The soil is not too important, since they are fairly resilient. The plant will cope in most conditions and flowers in late summer.

Hollyhocks offer a food source for a number of beneficial insects and are relatively easy to grow. Simply by their height they need to be staked but otherwise generally straightforward. Hollyhocks do need sun and will not tolerate shade. A sunny border is ideal but sometimes grow where you would least expect them. Cut to the base after flowering. When they are young they need some protection from slugs and alike.

Delphiniums (Larkspur) are one of the 1st perennials to emerge and seemingly frost tolerant. It flowers in summer but for a perennial a little short lived. Like Hollyhocks, the length of the stem may warrant staking as if exposed will be damaged with strong winds. A good medium is needed and a sunny aspect.