Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Some months, trying to keep up with two blogs is almost more than I can handle. September was so busy over at Gardening Gone Wild, with judging the GGW Picture This Photo Contest and coordinating the Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop, that I was tempted to rename this blog Gardener Gone AWOL. But now I’m back, and it’s way past time for a new installment of Three Neat Plants. This month, I’m starting small, with a great little bush basil named ‘Pistou’.
I’ve grown many kinds of basil over the years, not so much for cooking as for the foliage interest of the purple and variegated kinds. But last year, I fell for the high cute factor of plain green ‘Pistou’ in its Park Seed catalog photo, and I gave it a try. It did okay in the cottage garden at work but wasn’t wow, so I didn’t order the seed again. But I found some left from last year when I was sowing this spring, so I figured I’d give it one more try, and I’m very glad I did. It performed beautifully in my little kitchen garden at home and grew just as neatly as promised.
Unlike other bush basil strains, which tend to produce variable leaf sizes, the ‘Pistou’ plants were remarkably uniform. Set about 6 inches apart, the plants quickly formed little topiary-like spheres, then gradually grew together into an edging hedge that looked for all the world like an ultra-mini boxwood – but with a much better scent!
I’m not much of a judge of the exact flavor as compared to other basils, but I thought it was appropriately basil-like, and there were certainly plenty of tiny, tender shoot tips to pick for salads.
‘Pistou’ has definitely earned a place on my must-grow list for next year, and I look forward to trying it as an edging along my front path, or in another spot where I’d be more likely to brush the leaves as I walk past. I think it would be fun as a no-prune temporary topiary in a pot, too. If you want to try ‘Pistou for yourself, you can get the seed through Park Seed. The Cook’s Garden offers both seed and plants.
Another cool plant that qualifies as both an herb and an ornamental is an absolutely gorgeous angelica named ‘Ebony’. I found this one in the Plant World Seeds catalog (one of my most favorite sources for neat plants) two winters ago and sowed the seeds outdoors in pots in February of 2008. The seedlings emerged in April and were dark-leaved through their first growing season. This spring, the new foliage truly was nearly black, in rosettes that were about 2 feet across.
The flower stalks shot up in early summer, with outstanding plump buds.
The flowering stalks, shown here in late June, were somewhat sparse but still striking.
By late July, the plants were beginning to bloom, and they continued through about the third week of August.
The foliage on the plants at work (shown above) was mostly green by bloom time, and the still-dark stems topped out at about 3 feet. My plants at home were shorter, reaching barely 2 feet in bloom, and they started flowering about 10 days later. All of the plants were from the same seed batch, so the difference was likely due to the growing conditions. The plants at work, for instance, were pretty much in full sun and very rich soil, while those here got about 4 hours of direct sun a day and grew in average soil.
All of them had flowers that were light pink (as above, just opened in late July), aging to darker pink (shown below in late August, with couve tronchuda).
The botanical name of ‘Ebony’ usually doesn’t appear with a specific epithet (simply as Angelica), but based on the form of the umbels, I’m guessing it’s a strain of A. sylvestris, which would make the hardiness range somewhere around Zones 5 to 9. You can get seed directly from Plant World Seeds. If you run a web search on Angelica Ebony looking for other sources, I suggest using the highest setting on your “adult” filter to avoid some highly irrelevant search results.
The last cool plant for this installment – Caryopteris divaricata – is certainly big enough to qualify as a shrub, but it’s actually an herbaceous perennial, shooting up from ground level in spring to reach about 6 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet across by the time it starts blooming in early to mid-August. (There are three plants in the clump shown below.)
Honestly, the plant isn’t very interesting until flowering time, but it’s worth waiting for because of the fantastic display at a time that many other perennials are either fading out or getting ready for later bloom.
Even though it’s a big plant, try to site it somewhere that you can get fairly close, because that’s the best way to appreciate the intricate flowers. (I should warn you at this point that some gardeners object to the odor of this plant’s foliage, but I really don’t recall it having any scent at all.)
Caryopteris divaricata is the source of the more widely grown variegated selection ‘Snow Fairy’. This cultivar tends to be a more compact 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, and it has the same blue flowers, though they too are proportionally smaller and not nearly as showy. In fact, it can be hard to tell that the plant is even flowering unless you’re right next to it. (The obvious blue in the image below is from Browalla americana, not the caryopteris.)
If I could grow only the straight species or the cultivar, I’d probably choose ‘Snow Fairy because its foliage contributes to the garden throughout the growing season. But if you have the space, it’s definitely worth trying the species too. Both are deer-resistant and should be hardy in Zones 6 (maybe even 5) to 9. The species self-sows a bit; no seedlings from ‘Snow Fairy’ so far.
Both plants prefer full sun but seem to tolerate a few hours of shade too; average, well-drained soil is fine. It can be hard to find non-variegated plants of Caryopteris divaricata, but I see that Deer-Resistant Landscape Nursery lists the species, and Plant Delights offers a green-leaved selection called ‘Blue Butterflies’.
On a final note, I wanted to thank all of you who voted Hayefield as Best Pennsylvania Blog in the 2009 Blotanical Awards. But I’d also like to recognize the other four PA finalists, including the inimitable Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by my friend and former co-worker who goes by the on-line moniker of Our Friend Ben, as well as three other blogs that were new to me: Burbs and the Bees, based in Pittsburgh; Veggie Gardening Tips from central PA; and My Little Patch of Green. Congratulations to all of my fellow Pennsylvanians, to our Gardening Gone Wild team for winning Best Landscaping Blog, and to all of the other finalists and winners.