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.
“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.
The glossy, bright green leaves are also rather attractive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seed of Tinantia erecta is also available from Chiltern Seeds.
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…
…and the annual purple millets (P. glaucum), such as ‘Jester’, with broader, deep brown blades and dark, upright seed spikes:
It turned out to be *way* bigger and, in some aspects, ever better than either of those.
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)…
…and after planting on May 18 (below right):
On June 4:
On June 12 (you can just see one of the Vertigo clumps in the foreground):
On July 13:
On August 9:
On August 27:
And on September 27:
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…
…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):
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.
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.
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…
…and then wandering up through the companions behind it.
‘Royal Tapestry’ does bloom, with tiny pinkish flower clusters, but they’re hardly noticeable unless you’re kneeling.
‘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 Amazon.com. Don’t forget that you can also get Hayefield Favorites: Tried and True Perennials in pdf format here, and Offbeat Edibles for free in a variety of e-reader formats through Smashwords or for the Nook at Barnes & Noble.