Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Up to this point, I’ve been choosing the Three Neat Plants based on whatever looked good at the time I was writing the posts. But now that the growing season is over, I’ll be picking randomly from my very long list of candidates. So now, on to this installment of Three Neat Plants, presented in no particular order.
Call them bluebeards, blue mist shrubs, or simply Caryopteris – by whatever name, these verbena relatives have been great performers here at Hayefield. I’m not totally enamored of the regular C. x clandonensis; it’s nice when it’s in bloom in late summer and early fall but rather ordinary in leaf color and texture. It makes a good filler, though, so I don’t mind its rather abundant self-sown seedlings. I used to be very fond of the yellow-leaved selection ‘Worcester Gold’, because it offered more foliage interest before bloom, even though it tended to turn yellowish green by bloom time. Then there came the brighter and longer-lasting yellow of Sunshine Blue (C. incana ‘Jason’), and the even larger-leaved ‘Hint of Gold’. These two are definitely in my top-10 perennials list. (Okay, technically they’re shrubs, but I always think of them as perennials.)
I still like Sunshine Blue and ‘Hint of Gold’ the best, but since caryopteris as a group have done so well for me, finding room for the variegated selection Summer Sorbet (C. x clandonensis ‘Dyraisey’, above) wasn’t difficult. Like the others, it keeps a twiggy framework all year. I cut it back to about 6 inches once new growth appears in spring, and it reaches about 30 inches tall and wide by the end of the growing season. Seen up close, the tidy yellow edge around each leaf creates an attractive foliage accent; from a distance of more than a few feet, it gives the plant an overall light yellow appearance.
The late-summer flowers are the ordinary purple-blue of many other caryopteris cultivars, but they make a very pretty complement to the yellow-and-green leaves. Summer Sorbet shows off best against a dark background, but it also pairs well with companions that have solid yellow or bright green leaves. It thrives in full sun but can tolerate half-day shade too. Caryopteris are supposed to hate poorly drained soil, and I wouldn’t suggest deliberately planting any of them there, but I’ll also say that they all seem to tolerate my winter-wet soil. I’ve also seen that they’re supposed to be root-hardy to Zone 5 but top-hardy only to Zone 7; so far, though, all of them have been top-hardy here in mid-Zone 6. If you need a mini-shrub that does double-duty for both foliage and flowering interest, consider giving Summer Sorbet a try for yourself. Look for it locally, or check out mail-order sources such as Rare Find Nursery or Fairweather Gardens.
Another cool variegate to try is the heirloom hot pepper (Capsicum annuum) variety known simply as ‘Fish’. It’s apparently useful for cooking, but it’s worth growing even if you never plan to pick from it, because the 12- to 18-inch-tall plants produce dramatically variegated foliage: rich green increasingly splashed with white.
Even better, the fruits are also variegated, ripening from green-and-cream through orange with green to brown stripes to solid red.
It’s not complicated to grow ‘Fish’; just give it as much sun as possible (a half to full day of sun is ideal) and average, well-drained soil. I start the seeds indoors in late March or early April, then set out the seedlings in the third or fourth week of May, just as I do other peppers.
‘Fish’ looks interesting in a border and even better in containers and window boxes, because raising the placement of the plants makes it easier to see the showy fruits as they ripen in late summer and fall. You probably won’t find ‘Fish’ seeds or transplants locally, but you can mail-order the seeds from Territorial Seed Company or Seed Savers Exchange.
And to finish, yet another foliage beauty: white-veined Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia fimbriata). Unlike some of the vigorously vining, large-flowered species, this scaled-down, South American version hugs the ground, growing only about 6 inches tall and looking much like a mottled-leaf wild ginger (Asarum) during the growing season.
This charmer also has neat buds (this one’s about 1 inch long)…
…and, like wild gingers, small but intriguing flowers that are worth kneeling down to see.
Or, you could grow it in a hanging basket to enjoy the foliage and flowers closer to eye level. The blooms are followed by elongated, striped seedpods.
They ripen slowly, eventually splitting down the sides but still hanging on at the top, resembling an upside-down parachute. It’s easy to pick off the dried seedpods and shake or pick out the triangular seeds.
You might think something this exotic-looking would be tough to grow, but it was surprisingly easy. I acquired seed from the Hardy Plant Society – Mid-Atlantic Group seed exchange last winter and sowed it (barely covered with growing mix) indoors in early March on a heating mat. It took three to four weeks for the seedlings to appear. In early May, I moved them to individual 6-inch pots, where they lived for the rest of the growing season because I couldn’t decide what to do with them. I was delighted to see the plants start blooming in early August and end up with fully ripe seed in November.
From what I’ve read, the plants are hardy only to Zone 7, so I’ve brought them into the basement for the winter. If they overwinter, that’ll be a bonus; I’m planning to sow the seed I collected too. How amazing that something so striking can be grown as an annual! I had also read that that the plants prefer full sun to partial shade, but I’d forgotten that and treated them like my gingers, putting the pots in a site that got only a few hours of morning sun. They did all right there (though were popular with slugs), but next year, I plan to give them a much brighter spot. One on-line source I found for white-veined Dutchman’s pipe seed is Summer Hill Seeds; plants are available through Plant Delights.