Silene coronaria

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria white form with lavender, pale pink achillea and foliage of Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff"

My Tough Plants #2: Rose Campion

Rose Campion… Sounds like a good name for a romantic heroine. But no, it’s one of the common names of a plant, another tough, almost-weedy one that does well in my garden.

Lychnis coronaria Rose campion with Linaria purpurea Purple toadflaxThis common name, although charming, doesn’t really suit the white-flowered form (see the featured image at the top). Maybe that’s better represented by “Bridget-in-her-bravery,” although that’s quite a mouthful. I tend to call it Lychnis coronaria, or simply lychnis. That’s not quite right either, since (according to Wikipedia), the official Latin name is now Silene coronaria. Wikipedia also cites other common names: mullein-pink, Bloody William, and lamp-flower.

This is another relatively short-lived perennial that seeds heavily. Fully grown, it’s between one and three feet tall (30-100 cm). The growth habit is basal clumps of grey-green leaves with a sort of suede texture, similar to lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) but not as fuzzy. In spring they send up flowering stalks and bloom mainly in June and July. The flowers come in two main colours — bright magenta-red and pure, bright white. I’ve read there are pink forms and a white-with-pink-eye combination, but I’ve not seen either of those.

Deadheaded flowers of Lychnis coronaria Rose campion

This is the result of an hour’s worth of deadheading. That’s a 750 gram yogurt container.

As with purple toadflax, to get the best from this plant, you have to deadhead. And unfortunately, deadheading rose campion means snipping off each flower individually, using scissors or small clippers. Each plant produces dozens of flowers, so weekly deadheading sessions are needed. That keeps them blooming into late summer and prevents copious seeding.

Close-up of deadheaded flowers of Rose campion Lychnis coronaria

Spent flowers (and potential seed pods)

The spent flowers go through a limp stage and then quickly become knot-like seed pods. Left to their own devices, the pods ripen over several weeks. When mature, they open up at the top, like tiny urns poised to spill hundreds of seeds.

I generally deadhead flower-by-flower into August. By then, the plants are slowing down. They produce fewer buds and the bloom stalks start to look thin. At this stage it’s best to cut them down at the base, leaving the basal clump of leaves to finish out the season.  In spots with a bit of moisture and/or shade, it’s possible to cut the stems by half in August for a fresh batch of late flowers in September. Because of the rather tedious deadheading requirement, I recommend keeping the number of plants relatively small (no more than 10) and situating them where you can get up close to trim off the flowers as they fade.

Here, rose campion looks fairly good all winter, although older plants may have quantities of dead leaves that resemble chamois leather. At my place there’s no shortage of rose campion, so I don’t hesitate to yank out any that are past their best. It copes well with the occasional snowfall and winter temperatures of -5 to -10 C (10-20 F).

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown (to me) Euphorbia

Lychnis coronaria performs best in sunny spots, but is quite tolerant of light or partial shade. It doesn’t mind dry conditions, sandy soil, and competing tree roots. The white flowers are rather insistently bright, so a large number of plants in one spot can be too much of a good thing. The combination of white flowers and greyish foliage is elegant, especially with the sharp chartreuse, such as that of euphorbias.  The magenta form looks best with other strong colours, rather than pale pastels. The two colour forms look fine planted together.

Rose campion Lychnis coronaria, magenta and white formsRose campion is of no interest to deer and needs minimal watering. I suspect it prefers well-drained soils, although I’ve seen references to it growing well in clay soils. You can find them here (see the comments) along with more info about rose campion.

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dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.