Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg

Vinca minor is, as my father used to say, neat but
not gaudy. Sometimes known as periwinkle or myrtle, this creeping perennial
appears everywhere. Like a good soldier, vinca hits the ground running, and
does its task efficiently, even under adverse conditions. Parts of the suburbs
are virtually upholstered with it, but you can even find this undemanding
evergreen stalwart keeping vigil among neglected monuments in long-abandoned

In fact, vinca is so totally reliable that it is
usually damned with faint praise. People take its handsome, 1-inch oval leaves
and purplish-blue flowers for granted. This may be partly because it blooms in
the spring, and showier blossoms such as tulips, daffodils and giant blowsy
hyacinths steal its thunder. In the great horticultural beauty pageant, vinca
might win “Miss Congeniality,” but is neither statuesque nor voluptuous enough
to walk away with the crown.

Novice gardeners trying to find something to grow in
the shade are often directed to seek out vinca in that lonely section at the
rear of the garden center where groundcovers dwell. If they are not careful,
they stop before they get there and end up buying a flat or two of annual vinca
(Catharanthus rosea, also known as Madagascar rosy periwinkle). Annual vinca is
lovely, with dark green shiny leaves and diminutive flowers ranging from white
to rose to purple. It is an excellent bedding plant in its own right, but,
unlike Vinca minor, it grows best in full sun. Annual vinca may not perish
under the great oak in the front yard, but it will probably languish in
flowerless distress.

Our ancestors, who decorated their yards and cemetery
plots with vinca grown from cuttings, had fewer sources of beauty and probably
appreciated the plant more. Now, when we have all become jaded by such everyday
marvels as green catsup and blue potatoes, it is easy to overlook vinca.

But this does not have to be so. With only a bit more
effort than it takes to get to the back of the garden center, you can obtain a
double handful of attractive and unusual varieties of vinca. If you like the
traditional periwinkle-colored vinca blossoms, try the ‘Bowles Blue’,
‘Ralph Shugert’ or ‘Sterling Silver’ varieties. The two
latter types also sport variegated foliage to help light up dark places. Every
once in awhile I notice a plot where someone has planted either Vinca minor
‘Atropurpurea’ or ‘Double Purple’. Both of these have
wine-colored blossoms, and ‘Double Purple’ has, as the name suggests,
an extra set of petals for good measure.

It is always pleasant to have something white in
shady corners. Two varieties, Vinca minor ‘Alba’ and ‘Miss
Jekyll’, a dwarf cultivar named after the great English gardener, fill the

Hybridizers have also experimented with different
shades of variegated foliage. ‘Valley Glow’ has white flowers, yellow
stems, and leaves with gold variegation. ‘Golden’ has the same
felicitous combination. If you prefer traditional blue blossoms with your
variegated gold and green foliage, then ‘Blue & Gold’ will
delight you.

As everyone knows, vinca spreads where it is happy.
If you already have a stand of the garden variety vinca somewhere on your
property, you can spread it around by digging up rooted clumps and replanting
them in the desired area. Water well for a few weeks, and the new vinca patch
will begin to take off, even if it dwells in perpetual twilight under an
enormous blue spruce, as some of my vinca once did.

Fall is as good a time as any to plant ground covers.
In the Northeast it is wise to do it in September or early October, well before
the first frost date. In fact, transform yourself into an accomplished
multi-tasker and plant the vinca while you are putting in spring bulbs. That
way you will not have to suffer the agony of naked fading bulb foliage next May
and June. The vinca will be ready and willing to fix the problem for you.

Local garden centers usually carry ordinary vinca
plus the occasional ‘Bowles Blue’ and sometimes one of the common
variegated varieties. The major catalogs have similar offerings. If you are
looking for the more unusual variegated varieties, or those with white or dark
purple flowers, go to Oregon Trail Groundcovers, P.O. Box 601, 9080 S. Good
Lane, Canby, Oregon, 97013; tel. 503/263-4688; FAX 503/266-9832; also online at Oregon
Trail will sell you rooted plants in lots of either 50 or 100. If you
don’t need that many, find a friend or neighbor who will split the order
with you. That way you can share the distinction of being the first in your
neighborhood to set the neighbors’ tongues wagging about your gorgeous new

Yellow Rose