Sometimes a garden just needs a bit of intensity. For
several years my front borders have been full of soothing
pastels, with peaches and pale yellows predominating,
accented with lots of white. The result is pleasing,
but nothing reinvigorates like a little change, so last
year I decided to add some gold nasturtiums to the mix.
They proved to be a wonderful addition, vibrant and
trouble free, making a statement without dominating
the scene. I decided that I needed a little more of
the same this year, and set about to find a winning
perennial to further liven things up.
Hot colors continue to be very fashionable, so there
are lots of choices. Still, I wasn’t ready to overpower
my beautiful peachy‘Abraham Darby’ roses with
exuberant orange cannas, or sizzling Mexican sunflowers,
or great big orange dahlias. Then I thought about the
lovely golden yellow flowers and impressive green leaves
of one of the varieties of crocosmia, which may be better
known to some longtime gardeners as montbretia.
Crocosmia is not one of those new trademarked or patented
plants that was hybridized last year by some multinational
enterprise that also distills whiskey and fabricates
disposable diapers. It is a South African native with
the weight of history on its side. The genus name comes
from the same Greek word, “krokos” that was
adapted to describe the familiar spring-flowering crocus
plant. “Krokos” means “saffron”and
“osme” is another Greek word meaning “smell”
or “scent”. I have never tried it, but some
authorities say that dried crocosmia blossoms produce
a saffron-like scent when soaked in water. The plant’s
common name, montbretia, is in honor of a French naturalist,
de Montbret, who accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian
campaign and lost his life in the process.
There are ten crocosmia species, but the most readily
available garden varieties are descended from only a
few of them. Hybridizing began in France during the
last decades of the nineteenth century, and continued
into England, with various estate gardeners creating
hundreds of cultivars from the turn of the century to
the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Unfortuately given
the ephemeral nature of gardens and plants, many of
those hybrids have been lost to cultivation. Still,
the National Collection of Crocosmia in England contains
about 250 varieties.
There isn’t a lot of crocosmia in the gardens
near mine, and that’s a shame because it has so
many strong points. I like plants with big strong leaves,
and crocosmia sports the same kind of elongated sword-shaped
foliage as its cousins in the iris family. While the
leaves will remind you of iris, crocosmia flowers, which
open up in mid-summer, are similar in appearance to
freesia. Star-shaped blossoms sprout at the ends of
slender branching stems that rise up about three-feet
from the earth.
If you have been lucky enough to see a crocosmia growing
somewhere, it was probably a brilliant red-flowered
cultivar called ‘Lucifer’. It is by far the
most popular crocosima for two reasons. One is its eye-catching
color; the other is the fact that it is reliably hardy
through USDA Zone 5, outperforming its fellow crocosmias,
which can only make it as far north as northern New
Jersey and other parts of USDA Zone 6. ‘Lucifer’
was hybridized by the famous English plantsman, Alan
Bloom, whose company, Blooms of Bressingham, has produced
wonderful hybrids of all kinds of flowering plants.
It does not really merit its satanic name. The bright
color makes an exclamation point in the landscape, but
the delicacy of the flowers means that the plant does
not overpower other species of similar size, even if
you plant’Lucifer’ en masse.
In my front border, red is not an option—at least
not yet. I went looking for yellow-flowered varieties
and found Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora ‘Norwich Canary’.
This cultivar has relatively large bright blossoms on
stems tall enough to work well in the middle of a border.
The crocosmiiflora hybrids tend to be vigorous if they
like the conditions, so I hope that the plants will
pay for themselves by increasing handsomely as the gardening
seasons go by. That way I can eventually divide my yellow
crocosmia and give them to friends, possibly starting
a modest trend in the neighborhood.
There are other yellow forms as well. ‘John Boots’
sports more mellow, golden yellow blossoms, and ‘George
Davison’ has more delicate flowers. For something
really flashy, try ‘Emily McKenzie’, another
large-flowered variety with orange blossoms shading
lighter at the center and banded in reddish brown.
One reason why crocosmias are not better known, is
that the corms from which they grow have traditionally
been available from bulb dealers. Since crocosmia flower
in the summer, well after the spring bulbs bloom and
well before people think about ordering bulbs to plant
in the fall, they may get overlooked. Now that there
is a renewed interest in summer-flowering bulbs, perhaps
crocosmia will catch on. Beat the rush of fashionable
gardeners, and get your crocosmia now from local vendors
or from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, 7463 Heath Trail,
Gloucester, VA 23061; (804) 693-3966 or online at www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com.