Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Ah, so many neat plants, so little time. I’ve been saving up a few of my current favorites to share with you, starting with the two above: variegated sweet iris (Iris pallida ‘Variegata'; also sold as ‘Aureovariegata’) on the left and ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the right. (Yes, yes, I know the rules say that you shouldn’t plant variegated plants right next to each other, but I do think these two work.)
Variegated sweet iris has been in full bloom for about a week now, with relatively ordinary blue-purple blooms that offer one special feature: a great grape-popsicle scent. It’s very pretty in flower, but it’s even better as a foliage accent through the growing season, with a wide creamy yellow stripe on each grayish green leaf. Its bold striping brings it perilously close to being gaudy, but somehow, it never seems to cross the line (or at least, it hasn’t yet for me). This one reaches about 16 inches tall in leaf and 24 to 30 inches tall in bloom.
There’s also another form of variegated sweet iris: I. pallida ‘Argentea Variegata’, shown above and at right. This one tends to stay much shorter here: to about 1 foot in leaf and maybe 18 inches in bloom. Instead of the creamy yellow, it has an icy white stripe on each leaf. I like this one too, but not as much as ‘Variegata'; the overall appearance of ‘Argentea Variegata’ just seems somewhat cold and stiff, while ‘Variegata’ is much more cheerful and lively.
It’s usually not hard to find either of these locally, I think, but if you want to mail-order them, Greenwood Daylily Gardens is one source that carries both, though their order form doesn’t seem to be active at the moment. (Note that they list ‘Aureovariegata’ as ‘Zebra’ and ‘Variegata’ as ‘White Zebra’.) These two irises grow well for me in full sun to half-day sun (either morning or afternoon) in average, well-drained soil.
Now, it’s a bit unfair to show and tell you how wonderful ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey is, because it’s apparently very difficult to find. But if you enjoy variegated foliage, you’ll know it’s worth every bit of effort you spent finding it once you grow it for yourself. Unlike other comfreys, this one stays where you put it. I truly wish it would spread a bit! The large grayish green leaves are broadly bordered with a nice lemony yellow that softens toward more of a butter yellow toward bloom time. Mine’s been in bloom for about a week now. In another week, I’ll cut the whole thing to the ground, then let it resprout for a good mound of fresh foliage that looks good through the summer.
‘Axminster Gold’ reaches about 30 inches tall in bloom for me, and fills a spot about 30 inches across. Full sun with moist soil is fine, but afternoon shade would probably be an excellent idea in sites that dry out occasionally, because the leaves can be prone to scorching otherwise. Compost-enriched soil that stays somewhat moist (but not soggy) seems to be ideal. If you want to try ‘Axminster Gold’, Seneca Hill Perennials lists it but says that they’re sold out until next spring, so maybe you’d want to try to get on their waiting list, if they have one. I see the Variegated Foliage Nursery has it on their web site as well.
And one more plant that I think is neat, even though it’s not variegated (oh, if only it were…): Lamium orvala. I have very little shade here at Hayefield, but this gem gets my prime shady spot, with a few hours of morning sun and bright shade for the rest of the day. It grows fine for me in average, somewhat moist but well-drained soil, though it also seems to tolerate some dryness as well as occasional sogginess. Its prime feature is the clusters of relatively large, rosy pink flowers, which appear through most of May here, but its dense, upright, 1-foot-tall clumps of neatly tiered green leaves also look good through the whole growing season. This lamium has stayed in distinct, non-running clumps for me. I find a seedling or two once in a while, but not nearly as often as I could wish.
Well, darn, I just tried to track down a source for this one, and it’s harder to find than I thought. Seneca Hill Perennials offers it, but like the comfrey, it’s sold out until spring of 2009. Oh, yay, I see that Arrowhead Alpines apparently has it available too! I used to also have a white-flowered form known as ‘Silva’, but finding a US source for that seems to be a lost cause. Sure wish I’d kept a better eye on it when I moved, so I still had it. But really, it wasn’t nearly as lovely as this pink one.