Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)
There is something special about old-fashioned plants, the ones we sometimes label as “heirloom.” They are the first ones spoken for at plant swaps and the ones that ring the cash registers at those special plant sales. They are found at many garden centers in the spring or fall depending on season but not in quantities you can rely on. In other words, you better be the first one there when they hit the shelves.
One such plant is the summer snowflake. This persevering little trooper of the lily family, known botanically as Leucojum aestivum, doesn’t really receive the accolades it deserves. First, consider that it is a rock-solid perennial, cold hardy from Zones 4 through 9. This means that just about the entire United States can grow it. The bulbs multiply freely, giving you many more to add to your garden. In fact, they appreciate being divided about every three to five years and planted in the fall.
They are native to the Mediterranean region – North Africa – and have been in cultivation since the 1500s. You see them flourishing in old cemeteries, and almost like an archaeological beacon, they will point out where old farmhouses once stood.
The little bell-shaped flowers have a slight fragrance and are comprised of three sepals and petals (tepals) that look quite similar, each bearing a green, jewel-like dot at the tip. Each stalk or scape usually bears two to six flowers.
If you are blessed with an abundance of rocks, you will have quite a companion for growing in the adjacent streams of soil, or you can plant it in beds with jonquils and spring-blooming shrubs.
Larkspur (Consolida ajacis)
Once May arrives, the rural roads in the South are like a giant painting of cottage gardens, thanks to the larkspur, Consolida ajacis. The spiky 2-4-foot blossoms come in shades of blue, pink, white and even two-toned. Though they are considered annuals in the South, their reseeding capability makes them one of the most persevering plants in the garden – returning for years. You’ll find them in the cracks of the sidewalks and in places you never dreamed. This means you will want to do a little larkspur management.
This is a rare plant in the garden center and to have those incredible blossoms in May is an issue of timing. Larkspurs should be seed-sown in the fall. Lightly sow the seeds on top of loosened, well-drained soil and tamp with a garden hoe. The seeds will germinate with the cool rains of fall, forming small plants. Seedlings can be transplanted in late winter if handled with care.
Plant yours in bold drifts with Knock Out roses (Rosa ‘Radrazz’), Coreopsis and our next old-fashioned plant, the ox-eye daisy.
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Rose campion (Silene coronaria)
There is just something about fresh, springtime white. Daisies are the flowers young ladies seem to find most enchanting. Perhaps it is because they are among the most favored wedding flowers. Known botanically as Leucanthemum vulgare, it is native to Eurasia and is tough as nails.
It is so tough it can be grown along the roadside or in medians. While it is not a repeat bloomer, you are just about guaranteed that it will be back next year. You can also count on your patch being a little larger than before. This is where it sometimes gets a bad rap, as it spreads by underground rhizomes and can reseed as well.
The ox-eye is like a Shasta with a wildflower appearance. Many consider it a “Shasta extender.” In other words, it blooms first, ending just as the Shasta begins. This could cause your neighbors to think you have a super-green thumb with daisies blooming for so long.
The ox-eye seems to be a perfect match for Early Sunrise coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Early Sunrise’), ‘Homestead Purple’ Verbena, yarrow (Achillea spp.) and the glorious larkspurs mentioned above and our partner below, rose campion.
Rose campion is native to northern Africa and southern Europe, but seems most at home in our cottage gardens. The felt-like leaves were once used for lamp wicks. The old botanical name we grew up with was Lychnis from the Greek word for lamps. The new name, however, is Silene coronaria. It is considered a biennial or short-lived perennial, yet it always seems to reseed, meaning those wonderful iridescent, rose-colored blooms and showy silver foliage is always present in the garden.
The flower show starts in May with flowers opening one at a time, lasting only a day. But the bloom period lasts into summer. Keep the mulch to a minimum, which allows the most opportunity for reseeding.
The plants will reach about 3 feet tall; allow for one of the most incredible drifts of color in any garden. In addition to the partners mentioned above, consider it an absolutely heavenly companion with other gray-leafed plants, such as Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’.
Left: Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) Right: Peacock phlox
Phlox is treasured by gardeners across the country. But it is also one of dozens of plants that are passed over because they are typically not in bloom come shopping time.
The phlox I am referring to is called summer phlox, or garden phlox, Phlox paniculata. It is native to the U.S. – over a large area – and you more than likely will buy one of more than 100 varieties available.
Most get fairly tall, 3-4 feet, and would look great planted at the rear of a perennial garden. Taller selections may require some support to keep their large blooms from falling over. There are great new compact selections such as the Peacock series.
To really create a dazzling display, give yourself plenty of room. Make your beds large enough to plant in informal drifts. Combine with other summer perennials such as Coreopsis, daisies, Rudbeckia and various salvias. By combining with other perennials, you may not have to give the taller varieties support – or if you do, it will be hidden.
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)
When August arrives, any blooms are welcome, and the obedient plant, one of the most persevering native perennials provides a bounty. Physostegia virginiana is native to 39 states and Canada.
Feeding bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s perfect for the backyard wildlife habitat. The spiky texture is incredible with its pink to purple blooms rising 2-4 feet. The tubular flowers align vertically in columns along the stem. The lower flowers open first with the bloom proceeding upward over time. The obedient plant is in the mint family and is aggressive. The plant name actually comes from the way the flowers, when bent, will maintain the position, obediently, for quite some time. But that is where any obedience ends.
One of my favorite combinations is to partner it with the old-fashioned yellow-flowered tansy (Tanecetum vulgare). The yellow flowers, borne on 3-4-feet tall plants, form an idyllic, late-summer complementary color scheme. An informal drift of flowers would look quite at home against a white picket fence, completing a cottage garden setting.
Country Girl Chrysanthemum
Country Girl chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum x rubellum)
The Clara Curtis or Country Girl chrysanthemum is not only an heirloom, but it is still in major production. Unrivaled fall displays of large rose pink flowers on plants that return year after year is the reason. Known botanically as Chrysanthemum x rubellum, it is one mum that will indeed be a long-term perennial.
Whether you call it ‘Clara Curtis’ or ‘Country Girl’, do your part to ensure that your children can grow up with this flower. Plant them in full sun to produce the most floriferous, compact plants. A little afternoon shade is tolerated. The soil must be fertile, organic, rich, moist, but very well drained. Drainage may indeed be the key to winter survival.
One of the prettiest displays I have seen of ‘Clara Curtis’ was growing with tall, purple Gomphrena. The pink flowers also combine wonderfully with purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Grow with burgundy-leafed coleus selections. The fall bloom cycle also works well in the perennial garden with the Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’.
We live in an age of great new plant development, but there will always be room for these old-fashioned plants that have stood the test of time.
A version of this article appeared in Georgia Gardening Volume 12, Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Norman Winter.