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 cemeteries.
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 a while 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 bill.
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 www.galyeannursery.com. 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 groundcover.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg