Chinese lantern flower

chinese lanterns in the gardenThe 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 coleus.

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 adaptable.

Sandersonia aurantia 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 Order Roscoea purpurea rhizomes and Sandersonia aurantia tubers from Dutch Gardens, P.O. Box 2037, Lakewood, NJ 08701, tel. (800) 818-3861, online at

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