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Three Neat Plants

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Sometimes it takes a new pair of eyes (or nearly 200 new pairs of eyes) to make you appreciate a plant that you walk past every day with hardly a second glance. Of all the bright flowers and in-your-face foliage plants I have here, one of the stars of this past weekend’s garden tour was a rather subtle, plain green annual with the common name of widow’s tears.

Tinantia erecta foliage Sept 2011

“Widow’s tears” is a very common common name applied to a number of different plants, including the perennial that gardeners also know as spiderwort (Tradescantia Andersoniana Group). The neat plant I’m talking about here usually travels under the name Tinantia erecta, though it also appears sometimes as Tradescantia erecta. Looking at the succulent, prominently jointed stems, it’s easy to see the similarities between this uncommon annual and the common perennial.

This widow’s tears could also share the common name of dayflower – or, more accurately, part-of-a-dayflower – because its nodding blooms open early in the morning and usually drop their petals well before midday, leaving behind a curved pink spur to provide a touch of color for the rest of the day.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

The glossy, bright green leaves are also rather attractive.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Taken individually, the various parts of this plant aren’t all that exciting. Put together, though, they make for a quite handsome presence in the garden.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Widow’s tears self-sows, popping up in a variety of sites and looking good everywhere, from sun to shade – even in the top of my compost pile.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Where it has room to fill out, it makes a dense, 2- to 3-foot-tall clump. In crowded borders, it weaves its way up through its companions.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

One of my garden visitors asked if it was a toad lily (Tricyrtis), which wasn’t a bad guess, because its foliage and habit do have a somewhat similar effect from a distance. I could never grow a toad lily anywhere near as lush as this, though – and I really have tried.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

The fact that widow’s tears is easy to grow, adaptable, and self-sowing without becoming weedy earned it a place on my “like it” list years ago, but after it caught the attention of so many visitors, I realize that it belongs on my “wouldn’t want to be without it” list.

I originally acquired the seed for Tinantia erecta through the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s annual Seed Exchange, and I plan to donate it back again this fall. Collecting the seed is easy: As the seedpods ripen, they go from nodding to upright and then turn brown and split open, so it’s easy to pluck them right off the plant.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

I try to remember to collect the seed in late summer and early fall, because once there’s a frost, the plants basically turn to mush and are icky to touch.

Tinantia erecta Sept 2011

Another star of Sunday’s tour was right across the path from the widow’s tears, and it is as wow as the widow’s tears is demure.

I scored a few small pots of Vertigo pennisetum on my plant-shopping pilgrimage to Lancaster County this spring. At that time, they didn’t look very promising, with just a few nearly-horizontal shoots in each pot.  I figured they’d turn out to look somewhere in between the tender perennial purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’), with slender, arching, eventually-deep-red blades and fluffy tan spikes…

Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'

…and the annual purple millets (P. glaucum), such as ‘Jester’, with broader, deep brown blades and dark, upright seed spikes:

Pennisetum glaucum 'Jester'

It turned out to be *way* bigger and, in some aspects, ever better than either of those.

Pennisetum Vertigo ('Tift 8')

The Proven Winners label gives the full name as Pennisetum purpureum Graceful Grasses Vertigo, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. With a little poking around, I found that the cultivar name is ‘Tift 8’, and that it’s actually a trispecific hybrid, resulting from crosses between P. purpureum, P. squamulatum, and P. purpureum. If you’re geeky enough to want all the details on its origins and characteristics, you can read about them in “Registration of ‘Tift 8’ Trispecific Ornamental Pennisetum” published in the Journal of Plant Registrations, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 2011 (available as a pdf file through this link).

Unlike the other dark-leaved annual and tender pennisetums I’ve tried, which mostly have been in flower, if not already in seed, for over a month now, Vertigo is showing no signs of flowering yet. And that article explains why: “Tift 8 flowers under short days; therefore, it will not produce inflorescences where winter temperatures reach freezing (0°C) or below, or before the daylength is 10.5 h[ours].” And if it does flower, it doesn’t produce pollen or seed, so there’s no worry about it becoming weedy. Good thing, because this gorgeous grass grows big and it grows fast. Here’s the front foundation border before planting, on May 12 (below left)…

Front path at Hayefield May 12 2011

…and after planting on May 18 (below right):

Front path at Hayefield May 18 2011

On June 4:

Front foundation border at Hayefield with Canna 'Australia' June 4 2011

On June 12 (you can just see one of the Vertigo clumps in the foreground):

Front foundation border at Hayefield June 12 2011

On July 13:

Front foundation border at Hayefield with Pennisetum Vertigo and Canna 'Wyoming' July 13 2011

On August 9:

Front foundation border at Hayefield with Pennisetum Vertigo, Canna 'Australia' and 'Wyoming', Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', and Eucomis 'Oakhurst' August 9 2011

On August 27:

Front foundation border at Hayefield with Pennisetum Vertigo and Canna 'Wyoming' August 27 2011

And on September 27:

Front foundation border at Hayefield with Pennisetum Vertigo, Canna 'Australia' and 'Wyoming', Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', and Eucomis 'Oakhurst' Sept 27 2011

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') Sept 27 2011

Vertigo isn’t just part of the border, at this point – it pretty much is the border. So much for the label description of 3 to 4 feet tall: it’s already well over 5 feet tall and wide. Granted, I did work a fair bit of alpaca manure into the soil before planting, and we’ve had a ridiculous amount of rain over the last two months, but still, that’s an impressive amount of growth for a Pennsylvania summer. The ordinary purple fountain grass clumps in that same sunny border are even now puny by comparison.

The article describes the leaves as having “a reddish purple color,” which hardly does them justice. Yes, they’re reddish with the sun shining through them…

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') backlit Sept 2011

…but under usual lighting conditions, they read as deep maroon to practically black (place your cursor over the images below to get the names of the companions):

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') with Zinnia tenuifolia 'Red Spider' and Swiss chard Aug 2011

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') with Datisca cannabina Sept 25 2011

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') with Mirabilis jalapa July 15 2011

Pennisteum Vertigo ('Tift 8') with Salvia coccinea 'Lady in Red', Alternanthera 'Purple Knight', and Iresine 'Purple Lady' Sept 27 2011

Hardiness is given as Zones 8-11, but with growth like this in just four months, even using it as an annual gives outstanding results. I’m thrilled to have finally found a substitute for the dark-leaved phormiums that look so stunning in warm-climate gardens.

If you love dark leaves, you really need to give Vertigo pennisetum a try in a border, or maybe a large container. I can’t give you any seed sources, since there are no seeds, but you could try Googling for mail-order sources next spring, or look for plants at a local nursery then.

Last up, another option for dark-foliage fans, on a much smaller scale. You may already know and appreciate the deep purple leaves of ‘Purple Knight’ alternanthera (usually listed under Alternanthera dentata), which is itself a terrific choice for adding a touch of intensity to the front or middle of a border.

Alternanthera 'Purple Knight' with Sanvitalia procumbens 'Mandarin Orange'

Alternanthera 'Purple Knight' with Echinacea purpurea, Sambucus nigra 'Aurea', Scabiosa atropurpurea, Tropaeolum majus, and Ipomoea batatas 'Sweet Caroline Light Green' 2010

Alternanthera 'Purple Knight' with Agastache rupestris and Salvia viridis 'Blue Denim' July 24 2009

Althernanthera 'Purple Knight' with Salvia splendens 'Dancing Flames' Oct 4 2008

I use a lot of ‘Purple Knight’ out front, because it’s relatively easy to grow from seed, and because voles don’t bother it, as they do purple-leaved sweet potato vines.

About five years ago, I acquired a plant labeled Alternanthera reineckii, which also had dark foliage but a much daintier appearance.

Alternanthera "reineckii?" with Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Golden Arrow' mid Sept 06

Alternanthera "reineckii"? with Coleus 'Sedona' and 'Bellingrath Pink', Agastache 'Golden Jubilee', Kale 'Redbor', Toona sinensis, and Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' midJuly 05

I doubt it was correctly labeled, because A. reineckii is normally sold for use in aquariums. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it until frost but then couldn’t find it again for quite a while. This year, I saw a listing for Alternanthera ‘Royal Tapestry’ in a seed list, which seems very similar, if not identical, to the plant I grew under the other name. This one is sometimes listed under A. dentata and sometimes under A. brasiliana, but as long as you look for the cultivar name ‘Royal Tapestry’, you should get the right thing.

Like ‘Purple Knight’, it was easy to start indoors on a heat mat under lights in March for planting out after frost. Also like ‘Purple Knight’, it tends to be low and spreading at first and then grow upright, creating dense patches to about 1 foot tall along the edge of a border…

Alternanthera 'Royal Tapestry' with Zinnia 'Profusion Yellow' and 'Profusion Orange' Sept 2011

…and then wandering up through the companions behind it.

Alternanthera 'Royal Tapestry' with Ageratum 'Red Sea' Sept 2011

‘Royal Tapestry’ does bloom, with tiny pinkish flower clusters, but they’re hardly noticeable unless you’re kneeling.

Alternanthera 'Royal Tapestry' in bloom Sept 25 2011

‘Royal Tapestry’ alternanthera makes a pretty, fine-textured foliage addition to container plantings, too, where it’s partly trailing and partly a bushy filler.

To finish, a few bits of blog business:

1. As for all of my Three Neat Plants posts, I have not received any form of compensation for writing about these plants or for listing possible sources.

2. A heartfelt thank-you to those of you who visited Hayefield on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s garden tour last weekend. It was a thrill to meet some of my blog and book readers for the first time, as well as to see those of you who had previously visited this garden and/or my previous garden. Daniel and Duncan also thank you for providing them with hours of entertainment and hope that they were sufficiently interesting in return.

3. For those of you who like your garden reading in electronic form, I’m pleased to announce that Storey Publishing has recently released Fallscaping in Kindle format; it’s available through

Posted on 14 Comments

14 thoughts on “Three Neat Plants

  1. Pennisetum purpureum vertigo – wow! that plant is a stunner! Wish it was hardy, it sure does demand attention.

    Also love salvia splendens dancing flame, what great colors.

    You’re sure tempting me to experiment with annuals more, I tend to focus on perennials, but those would be so nice, even if only for a season.

    Anymore, plants are getting so expensive that I prefer annuals that I can grow from seed. But with plants like Vertigo and that salvia, I’m willing to spend a little to buy one (or a few), when I’m lucky enough to find them. Haven’t been able to get ‘Dancing Flames’ for a few years, unfortunately.

  2. You grow the coolest plants. I use alternanthera ‘gail’s choice’ in some of my pots. I take cuttings every fall and winter it over in the house.

    I hadn’t heard of ‘Gail’s Choice’ before, Melanie. Looks like it’s pretty similar to ‘Purple Knight’, but maybe a but more compact? You’re smart to overwinter it. I’ve tried that, but I keep my house pretty cold in winter, so I don’t have much luck overwintering plants indoors.

    1. It was a freebie from Avant Gardens. I think it’s almost identical to ‘purple knight’. It’s not quite as dark when grown in some shade.

      Ah, yes – I saw that they had the first listing. The same is true of ‘Purple Knight’: the purple is deepest in full sun, turning to greenish purple where it’s shaded.

  3. Your Three Neat Plants feature is my favorite, Nan. The Vertigo Pennisetum is amazing, and hardy to zone 8 might make it in the new weather world we now live it. It makes quite a splash along your front walk!

    Hmmm…good point, Frances. Maybe it’ll be hardy even here in another decade. I’m trying to decide if it’s worth trying to dig up one of the clumps and put it in the basement for the winter. I’ve never had luck doing that with purple fountain grass, but I think I may have to try the experiment again with Vertigo – if I’m able to actually move one of those giants.

  4. i discovered Tinantia erecta three years ago as a very little seedling I saved from a pot plant I have bought on a plant fair. In summer, it was a great plant with lush foliage, then appeared nice pink flowers. It reseeds every spring and I like it even as a foliage plant as you say here. Last year, I bought Tinantia pringlei with mottled leaves and light purple blue flowers flowering from spring until now, with a spreading habit. A little jewel too !

    Funny you should mention that, Nicole. I ran across T. pringlei when I was Googling to check the nomeclature on this one and was finally able to connect the name with the plant itself, which I had seen many years ago. I need to acquire that one for next year. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Regarding Pennisetum purpureum ‘Tift 8’, during rain did it flop and come back up or did it not flop at all? We are in S. Jersey and have had unbelievable hard hard rains with big time wind. Most larger bladed grasses flop during those conditions and I find that the larger bladed grasses cannot come back up on their own. They need staking. This Pennisetum looks so good in your photos, and I’m certain you’ve had bad weather in your area, so I assume that P. ‘Tift 8’ is holding up through bad weather. If it holds up I’ll pair it with Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ and Canna and with a group of others. Would be gorgeous with any Agastache running through. I can see it with Agastache ‘Ava’ which would be a breathtaking combo and a great late season combo. Today, 9/30/11 my large sweeps of A. ‘Ava’ are in magnificent form. Your comments would be appreciated. I am a garden designer. You have done a lovely job with your property. Lots of hard work. Good thing you have those two Alpaca boys to help you!
    Woodbury, NJ

    Hi Janice! Absolutely no flopping from Vertigo, even after over 2 feet of rain in the last 6 weeks (and even more in this bed, since it gets all of the runoff from the front roof. This bed is also exposed to strong winds, and the soil there is very rich. No staking of any form, either. If it didn’t flop here, I can’t imagine it sprawling in any other sunny site, so I’d highly recommend giving it a try.

  6. Nan, I have admired the ‘vertigo’ grasses in your garden pix all summer and glad you blogged on it in particular. Its an amazing plant! I like how earlier on in the border those darker cannas are upright and the ‘vertigo’ provides a downward sweep. Very cool rhythm. (What are the cannas BTW? I am looking for some good varieties of tall dark types). I agree that the widow’s tears looks like a nice toad lily. I am fond of the spiderwort family except it tends to be weedy for me. Your garden is just gorgeous and I see all sorts of little gems tucked in the corners that I just love. Thanks for an interesting and inspiring article.

    Hi Kate! The cannas most prominent in those shots are clumps of ‘Wyoming’, but there is also some ‘Australia’. (If you put your cursor over an image in the post, you should be able to see the specific ID info for each photo.) ‘Australia’ has glossy, broad leaves that are solidly deep maroon and produces brilliant red flowers through most of the summer and fall. ‘Wyoming’ reads as purple from a distance, but its narrower leaves tend to be more greenish toward the centers, with an overall grayish cast. It’s a lot bushier than ‘Australia’, but it hasn’t shown any sign of blooming yet. Both are great, but I’d give ‘Australia’ the nod if you want extremely dark foliage.

  7. Love your front foundation border, wish I could have anything like it here!
    But I have the Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ (which I hope will survive the winter) in my new “stone border” where I also have one rose-red and one orange Heuchera under a newly planted tree – a Robinia pseudoacasia `Umbraculifera`.

    Hi Susie! I have a feeling that the purple fountain grass won’t overwinter in your climate, but only time will tell. If it doesn’t, maybe you’d consider replacing it with one of the red-tinged switch grasses, such as ‘Shenandoah’, if you have access to those plants.

  8. Nan,

    Thank you for another wonderful blog with imaginative images and great information. Your gift of giving knows no bounds. We are all grateful. Noticed the new high tech features; very helpful to identify what we are viewing and the ‘follow’ tab is a nice touch.

    Wish every blog reader were able to see Hayefield and meet you in person. We’re still talking about our visit; it was the highlight of the PHS Tour for us.

    Gee…I have a “Follow” tab now? I really ought to look at the blog from its public face and not just from my blog dashboard; WordPress occasionally introduces new features that I’m not aware of. I also need to update to the new version of my blog theme, but I’m trying to hold off until this winter, so I’ll have time to fix the inevitable quirks.

    Thanks again to you and your wife for taking the time to visit us, John. Mom, the boys, and I were all happy to meet you in person!

  9. What beautiful plants, Nancy. And your borders are stunning! I’ll have to keep these in mind for next year.

    Thanks for visiting, Grace! I do hope that Vertigo will be more widely available next spring and not disappear as quite a few other exciting introductions have done over the past few years.

  10. I like that pennisetum! Although planting it would most likely require me to start another garden…

    You say that like it’s a bad thing, Dave!

  11. It is always a treat to read of your three neat plants. I love these choices and will look for them on your recommendations. Beautiful border and beautiful garden.

    Hey there, Layanee. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

  12. I love the widow’s tears… such a delicate, sweet blossom. The Vertigo is stunning. It’s even more impressive having been able to see the evolution of your border garden. As always, you have the coolest plants!

    Thanks for checking in, Cathy. I’m glad you enjoyed these selections. There are plenty more to come!

  13. Oh Nan, how on earth did I miss this post? I can only guess it was while I was on vacation back home in Nebraska. Anyway, I’m so excited to see you did a detailed post on that Pennisetum, which I’ve been lusting over since you first showed photos of it earlier this year. If it is indeed hardy here, I must find some…which means I now have at least one goal during this coming winter!

    BTW…a few of the Vernonia seedlings did germinate for me! Somehow I missed them completely, but now that the other plants in that bed have died back a bit, I finally recognized them! I think they are going to turn out like regular Vernonia (the leaves aren’t amsonia-like), but that’s ok…I still LOVE ordinary Ironweed…and I still have a few seeds left in the fridge, you never know, one of them might just be the golden ticket, so to speak :-)

    Anyway, thanks again for another great post, I’ll definitely be ordering some Alternanthera as a filler for the garden next year…I can’t get enough dark-leaved plants (or chartreuse-leaved ones, for that matter)!

    Hi Scott! Glad you found the post. That’s great news about the vernonia seedlings. Mine from the same batch weren’t as narrow as the original ‘Iron Butterfly’, but they weren’t nearly as wide as other vernonias. They flowered this fall, which was a nice surprise.

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