SHOE FLIES AND CHINESE LANTERNS
The catalogs are
a little slimmer this year, but they are still full
of the hope and glory of spring and summer. Flowers,
vegetables, fruits and herbs burst forth from the pages,
each better than last year, allegedly foolproof and
free-flowering, requiring little or no maintenance and
a great return on investment. It all goes to show that
gardeners are more optimistic than Detroit Lions or
Chicago Cubs fans. They are more optimistic than Californians
who live on fault lines and Buffalonians who think they
can get one more year out of the old snowblower. They
are, in short, the most optimistic people in the world.
I am pleased to be one of them.
This year, when gardeners
look at plant and seed catalogs, I think they will be
inclined to go for the safe and familiar. After all,
even optimists need a sense of security. It will probably
be a banner year for roses of all kinds, with reds selling
well. The ongoing vogue for cottage flowers will probably
continue to be strong. In fact, the wildest thing many
people will invest in come spring will be a few of the
more bizarre coleus cultivars.
With that in mind, I
have decided that this year I need to make a conscious
effort to select at least a few plants that are new
to me or new to cultivation. Fortunately the catalog
vendors will never completely abandon the new and different.
They are optimists too, knowing that last year’s unknown
plant may be next year’s big seller. As the late Diana
Vreeland might have said, angelonia may become the new
If you are a southerner,
or even page through Southern Living magazine from time
to time, you may have heard of something called “Shoe-Fly
Plant”. This annual, correctly known as Nicandra physalodes,
is a native of Peru, and also goes by “Apple of Peru”.
This year Select Seeds has a cultivar called ‘Splash
of Cream’, that has variegated foliage, and bright blue
flowers, the latter somewhat reminiscent of small morning
glories. The flowers of Nicandra close up as the day
progresses, so it is helpful to position the plants
in a place where you will see them in the morning. Apple
of Peru is a fairly tall (3-5-feet) sun lover, and so
vigorous in the South that it has often escaped gardens,
gotten accustomed to life on the street, and lowered
itself to weed status. If ‘Splash of Cream’ is like
other variegated plants, I suspect it will be a little
less hardy than its plain-leafed cousins. Such a trait
might make it a bit more neighborly in the average garden.
It would be easier to
hold back the Mississippi at flood stage than to curb
the current Coreopsis vogue. From the looks of the catalogs,
some breeder in Germany is attempting to take over the
horticultural world by inundating it with Coreopsis
hybrids. Unable to swim against that tide, I have decided
to install Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Dwarf Radiata’ in one
of my beds. This species, commonly known as Calliopsis
‘Tiger Stripe’, looks a bit like a small, unrefined
Gaillardia daisy, with petals that are golden yellow
on the ends and burgundy red towards the dark red center
of the flower. Though new to me, it is an antique variety,
first described in 1823. Like many Coreopsis, it is
a front to mid-border plant, rising to one-foot in height.
The foliage is grass-like, and the flowers appear repeatedly
through the growing season.
Most people have more
shade than they think they want, except when summer
temperatures reach 90° and above. Among the unusual
new shade plants is Roscoea purpurea, a Himalayan native.
Roscoea grows from a rhizome and has lance-shaped leaves.
The flowers look, according to the catalog, like “small
mauve orchids”, and are produced “prolifically” on 16-18-inch
stems. The catalog vendor advises heavy mulching in
the fall to protect the rhizomes.
My only concern about Roscoea
is that with the exception of a few acres in New Hampshire
and a few more in the Pacific Northwest, no growing
zone in the United States has a climate that resembles
that of the Himalayas. This is what makes it so difficult
for ordinary gardeners to grow the legendary blue poppy
(Meconopsis betonicifolia). Perhaps Roscoea is more
is also known as Christmas Bells or Chinese Lanterns.
Though this plant has balloon-like orange flowers, it
is not to be confused with the more common Chinese lanterns
(Physalis alkekengi). The main difference between the
blossoms of the two plants is that while the common
variety has closed flowers, Sandersonia flowers are
open on the ends, and look more like small orange chefs’
toques than lanterns. Given the color and shape, “Halloween
Bells” might be a better nickname. Sandersonia is grown
from a tuber and must be lifted in the winter. Still,
the plant makes a bright statement, offering a two-foot
tall respite from the ubiquitous garden pastels. The
leaves resemble those of Asiatic lilies, and, depending
on where you put it, the plant may need staking.
For a little something
different next spring and summer, be a real optimist
and pick a few plants that are new to you. You can obtain
Nicandra physalodes ‘Splash of Cream’ seeds or plants
and Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Dwarf Radiata’ seeds from Select
Seeds, 180 Stickney Hill Road, Union, CT 06076, tel.
(860) 684-9310, online at www.selectseeds.com.
Order Roscoea purpurea rhizomes and Sandersonia aurantia
tubers from Dutch Gardens, P.O. Box 2037, Lakewood,
NJ 08701, tel. (800) 818-3861, online at www.dutchgardens.com.