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.