Posted on 17 Comments

Three Neat Plants


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.

caryopteris-summer-sorbet-aug-08The 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.

Posted on 17 Comments

17 thoughts on “Three Neat Plants

  1. Hi Nan, We look to you to guide us to new and interesting plants and you haven’t let us down yet! I planted Summer Sorbet this year, like you beginning with the straight species and then to Worcester Gold, one or two left of those. I see you recommend them by dark foliage, oops, I put my three by the muhly grass, but they are easily moved. Or enlarge that space and add some dark green, HA. The fish peppers are great, love the fruits, but the must have is the Dutchman’s pipe, I always thought they got huge, I love this little guy and will look for seeds. Thanks again for helping spend my cashola! :-)

    I can imagine that Summer Sorbet would look very pretty with the muhlenbergia, especially in the fall, so don’t make any changes unless you really don’t like the combo. Though, if you *did* want to enlarge the bed and then buy some dark foliage for a background, and make room for the aristolochia too…well, you know I’m always happy to help others spend their money!

  2. Nancy,

    I’d like to try the Caryopteris ‘Summer Sorbet’. How do the deer like it?

    My Summer Sorbet is inside the fence here, so it’s basically protected. At work, we included several kinds of caryopteris (C. x clandonensis, C. incana, and C. divaricata) in our deer-resistant garden, and none of them seem to be bothered. We did see occasional hoofprints, so we know the deer sometimes wandered through there. My tentative conclusion is that they’re probably not as attractive to deer as hostas and daylilies; I wouldn’t, however, bet on them being totally deer-proof. Maybe put them in the same category as hellebores that way.

  3. That small Dutchman’s pipe is so interesting. I agree it would be great in a hanging basket.

    Always Growing

    Thanks for the comment, Jan. Yep, I think that’s what I’m going to do with them next year. I’m normally not much for hanging baskets (so much watering, you know), but I think it would be worth the trouble to be able to see the flowers more easily.

  4. Those are definitely three neat plants! The caryopteris is especially great in the fall when most other things have stopped blooming. It just keeps on going. It’s also very easy to propagate! Next year I’m going to make sure I get an ornamental pepper going. My seedlings damped off. I like that Dutchman’s pipe as well, great foliage!

    I wonder if you could get away with direct-sowing peppers, Dave, especially if you want ‘Fish’ more for its foliage than its fruits.

  5. I love your blog. The eye-candy photos. I’m also a foliage freak (your foliage book is on my Christmas list) so the wonderful way you paint with foliage is inspiring to me.

    I am familiar with the ‘Summer Sorbet’ Caryopteris but the other two are new to me. Thanks for the information.

    Thanks for your comments, Cynthia. I hope you get the foliage book for Christmas. Rob Cardillo’s photos are truly eye candy!

  6. Nan, today is my first year anniversary as a blogger and I only wish I had found you a little earlier – to get more of your suggestions about combinations. My weakness. Of course, you’ve helped lots of people with your Fallscaping book (and others). After my book review our local bookstore said there was lots of interest. And sales. I love riding on someone else’s coattails to get thanks.

    Congratulations, Pat! And thanks again so much for the awesome review!

  7. Caryopteris is a plant I have tried to grow so many times and failed. It has beat me into submission. I am not going to try to get those lovely blue blooms any more. I can never figure out why they die for me. Sigh.
    I am envious every time someone tells me how easy they are to grow. WHINE…

    Oh, sorry, Lisa; I wasn’t gloating, honest. As I said, I really don’t think they should grow for me either. But then, other stuff I *should* be able to grow dies. Keeps us humble, right?

  8. Okay, I’m in love with ‘Fish’ for sure! I don’t usually like white variegated foliage for some reason, but that is very cool (reminds me of my philodendron) and then the striped fruits just completely sold me. :)

    I kept thinking that I should get ‘Worcester Gold’ caryopteris for my front yard… but then figured that I already have too much funky foliage there. So I opted for the strait “green” (which is really a silvery/blue green) of ‘Petit Bleu’ instead. I have yet to see babies, though… will have to keep a lookout for those!

    Oh, Kim – “too much funky foliage”? Is that even possible???

  9. I keep admiring the Caryopterises, and trying to decide where I could put some. ‘Summer Sorbet’ is beautiful, but then I’m a sucker for variegated foliage.
    I have to say that the flowers of that Dutchman’s Pipe are so freaky! It looks like it belongs on a coral reef. The buds are really cool & so are the seedpods.

    Hey, yeah – the tentacled blooms do look like something like a sea anemone, or some other denizen of the deep!

  10. I love all the variegated hot peppers, and displayed a group of them in pots on my front stoop this past growing season. (And you’re right, the many-colored fruits definitely add to the attraction, especially in those cultivars that hold them upright above the foliage.) I hadn’t thought to plant any in borders as ornamentals, but they’re perfect. Thanks for yet another great idea!

    Considering your penchant for cooking, I think maybe you need some ‘Fish’ for yourself for next year.

  11. Great suggestion on those peppers Nan. I LOVE the striped fruit. Must get some.

    I’ve never grown caryopteris but am wondering if they would work in some of my back beds. These beds are in light shade all day until towards the end of the day when they get blasted by sun for a couple hours. That makes for difficulties when trying to grow sun or shade loving plants. Too much sun for the shade lovers and too little for the sun lovers! It’s frustrating. :)

    Give the caryopteris a try there, Jean. I bet they’d be able to take it. You might want to pair them with some calamagrostis (either C. x acutiflora or C. brachytricha); both do well for me in similar tough conditions.

  12. Nan, You have the most beautiful gardens! That Dutchman’s Pipe is so unique. Does it like shade? (I do have a few areas with a lot of sun…)

    Hi Shady! The Dutchman’s pipe did all right for me with just a bit of morning sun, though it apparently would prefer much more light.

  13. nan, Caryopteris has never liked the growing conditions in my garden, but I might be willing to give the ones you’ve mentioned a try…and I have to tell you my spouse isn’t the least bit interested gardening, but he took notice of the fantastically attractive peppers! The Dutch Man’s Pipe is exquisite! Thank you for sharing! Gail

    Good to hear from you, Gail. I’m delighted to hear the peppers got a thumbs-up. Maybe you need to try them in your garden next summer!

  14. Nancy, I’m just delighted to have found about you & your blog from Anne Raver’s luscious and high-praise column in the NY Times. I clipped the article weeks and weeks ago; finally the wind is at my sails and I’m writing back.

    I am so jazzed to be able to keep up with someone else who is always up for something more distinctly variegated, more sun-toleratingly yellow (or more deeply burgundy), and happy about being cut to the ground each Spring. Truly, glad to make your e-quaintance. (Yipes: just made that word up. Dunno is it’s a keeper.)

    I’m blogging at, and I’d be honored for a visit. But first, a question and a recommendation.

    Question: Your Catalpa b. ‘Aurea’ coppice looked so glowing in the NY Times picture. I’ve planted this several times, in different clients’ gardens, and I wonder if you’d had a problem with brown-rimmed little “buckshot” holes in the leaves? (Your catalpa’s leaves looked pristine.) In my experience, the foliage gets a bit ratty by August, darn it, although the bush couldn’t be more vigorous in growth regardless. Thanks so much if you’ve got advice here.

    Recommendation: (I haven’t had time yet to review your entire blog, but this weekend definitely. Apologies if you’ve already mentioned this plant). For me, Ulmus glabra ‘Aurea’ is the more reliably bright-yellow tree-sized pollard for the Northeast. My garden in Rhode Island is high Zone 6 (Z 7 with mulch), and so it can get hot. The foliage never scorches, never fades. I grow mine as a pollard; the new ‘wands’ are, truly TEN feet long by September. Just incredible. My experience (small) is that pollarding or coppicing delays the new growth just enough so that it’s too late for leaf gall, which plagued the tree when it was growing free-range. Smaller as well as bug-free: pollarding made this remarkable plant perfect.

    ANYWAY, so glad to be checking out your blog. And getting your book. Congratulations, and thanks if you have a minute for advice on Catalpa b. ‘Aurea’ foliage hassles.

    Kind regards,—Louis

    Hi Louis! I’m glad you stopped by for a visit. Yep, I’ve had the same problem with my catalpa. I now cut mine to around 2 feet in late April or early May and again to the same height in late May or early June, and that seems to take care of the leaf problems. Plus, it helps reduce the vigor quite a bit, so the plant isn’t overgrowing the space.

    Thanks for the recommendation of the golden elm. We had a few at work, and they were all snatched up before I got one. Sounds like I need to grab one next year!

  15. Hi Nan: Wow: thanks for your speedy reply.

    Cutting back the Catalpa TWICE. I’ll do it. (I do this w/ PG hydrangeas, by the way, so they get smaller heads that don’t flop over.) Maybe, like w/ the Ulmus g. ‘Aurea’ pollarding, coppicing the catalpa twice delays the foliage just enough for it to be out of sync w/ that buckshot malady. Delighted to try it out this year.

    Thanks! Louis

    Glad to help. I wouldn’t try the double-cut on a young plant, but once it’s well established (my golden catalpa is about 8 now), this trick seems to work. You might consider going back only halfway for the second cut, especially if it looks like you’re going to get a dry spell in June.

  16. Just a quick note: With respect to the Dutchman’s Pipe, plants are also available from my most favourite source for cool plants, Seneca Hill Perennials, and for considerably less of a cost then Plant Delights.

    I appreciate your note, Nancy. Yes, Seneca Hill is awesome!

  17. I planted 3 ‘baby’ caryopteris plants this past fall – gifts from our son and dil’s garden (C x clandonensis ‘Dark Knight’). I like the fall blooms and love seeing the bees all over it. I do hope they live through the winter and thrive. I’d like to try that lovely variegated ‘Summer Sorbet’ too.
    Love your other 2 suggestions as well. Neat indeed and quite unusual! Thanks for the always interesting plant ideas, Nan.

    If the babies don’t make it, maybe you could try again in the spring? I often have better luck moving them then. But I hope yours return.

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