Fourth of July

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Lily of the Nile are floral Fourth of July fireworks.

Fireworks, Fourth of July parades, and the associated crowds are of course canceled for this year.

Lily of the Nile does not mind. It blooms in time for the Fourth of July regardless of what the rest of us are doing, or not doing. That is one of the two reasons why some of us know it as the ‘Fourth of July flower’. The other reason is that the nearly spherical floral trusses resemble exploding skyrocket fireworks. They are mostly blue, with some white. All that is missing is red.

The bloom in this picture is not exactly exemplary. It would have been larger, rounder, and likely more advanced in bloom if it had developed in a sunnier location. There are enough of them that we do not notice that most are somewhat diminutive. In autumn, many of the overgrown plants will be relocated to a sunnier situation where they can bloom as they would prefer too.

Lily of the Nile was the first perennial that I grew a significant quantity of. While in junior high school, a neighbor instructed me to remove a healthy colony of lily of the Nile that had grown obtrusively large in only twenty years. I could not just discard it, so chopped it into more than sixty pups, and planted it all over the neighborhood. Much of it is still there. A bit of it is here.

Back then, it was known as Agapanthus orientalis. In school, I learned it as Agapanthus africanus. I still do not know if they are two different species, or if one is just a variety of the other. I do know that mine are distinctly different from common sorts, with bigger and rounder floral trusses. The others have straighter stems that support their blooms batter, and finer foliage.

Periwinkle

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Bloom is sporadic, but the delightful purplish blue color is worth it.

If the Latin name of dwarf periwinkle is Vinca minor, it is logical that large periwinkle should be Vinca major. Large periwinkle is more commonly known simply as periwinkle or common periwinkle, although it is not as common as dwarf periwinkle is, at least in landscapes. In some regions, it has naturalized as an invasive weed.

Some might accurately say that periwinkle is shabbier than the relatively neat and dense dwarf periwinkle. Others might say that it is just rustic or informal. The wiry stems stand less than a foot tall before they bend over from their own weight. Fallen stems can root where they touch the ground, and grow into new plants over winter.

The evergreen foliage is rich green, and a bit darker than the top of a billiard table. The simple paired leaves are about an inch and a half to two inches long. The slightly purplish blue flowers are about an inch and a half wide, with five petals each. Bloom is sporadic, but almost continuous, except for a lapse through winter.

Catmint

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Catmint is mellow like old denim.

Not to be confused with closely related catnip, catmint is a resilient perennial for sunny and warm spots. Nepeta faassenii had always been the more familiar catmint. Modern varieties include a few other specie and hybrids. The various catmints work like the various lavenders or trailing rosemary, without getting so shrubby.

Unless they lean on something or climb through shrubbery, stems do not often get any higher than a foot as they spread to two or three feet wide. A few stems around the edges can grow roots through winter, to spread more the following year. New plants are easy to propagate by division of some of the rooted stems before spring.

The diagonal flower spikes that bloom most profusely as weather warms in spring are the color of faded blue denim. Some catmints bloom white or pink. The finely textured foliage is grayish green, although some varieties of catmint have chartreuse or greener foliage. Spent bloom can get shorn off to keep new foliage neat.

Forget-Me-Not

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Blue like this is worth remembering.

Alaska, the biggest state in America, claims one of the most diminutive state flowers; their native alpine forget-me-not, Myosotis alpestris. Common woodland forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica, is the more familiar species here. It is not as common as the name implies though. Where naturalized, it stays within riparian or coastal situations, where the soil does not stay too dry for too long.

Forget-me-not is not notably popular in home gardens nowadays either. Of course, that only means that it is not often planted intentionally. Like violets and alyssum, it can proliferate where it gets a bit of water. Those who recognize it as more than a weed often leave it to provide delightful sky blue bloom until it succumbs to the warmth of summer. It is pleased to toss seed for the next year.

Common woodland forget-me-not is an annual, or at most, a biennial. Self sown seed starts to germinate through autumn, and grows into plants that can bloom before the end of winter. Manually sown seed wants to be in the garden early too, even if it grows slowly. New plants are too delicate to be commonly available in nurseries. Mature plants are less than a foot tall and two feet broad.

Blue Is The Loneliest Color

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Colorado has a blue State Flower.

The majority of common pollinators are not impressed with blue. Otherwise, more flowers would be blue. After all, floral color appeals to pollinators. Each type of pollinator prefers specific colors. Plants customize their floral color to their preferred pollinators. If more flowers could attract more pollinators with blue, they would do so. Instead, they rely on colors that have worked well for them.

Green is actually the most common floral color. It is not obviously common because green flowers are generally ignored. They are the sort that rely on wind for pollination, so make little or no effort to draw attention. They are also the sort that produce the most and worst pollen, which gets carried farthest by the wind. Flowers that rely on pollinators produce coarser pollen that clings to things.

Of the many other colors that appeal to pollinators, most are significantly more complex than they appear. For example, what appears to be simple orange may appeal to pollinators that perceive it to be yellow, as well as those that are drawn to red, even if none are interested in orange. Different pollinators perceive different color ranges. Insects do not perceive red; but hummingbirds do.

That certainly could not explain why blue is such an uncommon color for flowers. It surely has more of a following than red, which is more common among flowers. Since most pollinators perceive blue, more flowers should utilize it. They could even add some ultraviolet or infrared to it, if that would make it more appealing. Nonetheless, true blue, without the influence of purple, is quite rare.

Lily-of-the-Nile and blue dawn flower are some of the more substantial species that provide exquisitely blue bloom. A few cultivars of butterfly bush bloom true blue too, but the color is not so clear and bright. Delphinium, bellflower, squill and grape hyacinth are smaller, but worthy perennials for the richest blues. Petunias, lobelia, nigella, cornflower and columbine are blue blooming annuals.

Many iris, sage and lupine provide exquisitely true blue bloom as well.

Horridculture – True Colors

P90821Bearded iris can bloom in almost any color. It is expected of them. There is not much they can do to surprise us.

Dahlias exhibit a remarkable range of both color and floral form. Only a few colors are beyond their range.

Roses, gladiolus, freesias, tulips, hyacinths, petunias, pansies, primroses and several of the most prolific bloomers are expected to provide many choices of color.

Other flowers are not so diverse. Forsythia blooms only in bright yellow, or perhaps a lighter hue of yellow. Mock orange blooms only in white, either single or double. Until recently, before purple was invented, the common species of lily-of-the-Nile were either blue or white. We tend to appreciate such flowers for their simplicity, and do not expect anything more from them.

Decades ago, hydrangeas were either white or pink or blue. I say ‘either’ because what seems to be three choices is actually only two. White hydrangeas were always white. Pink or blue hydrangeas were the same, but were pink in alkaline soil, or blue in acidic soil. Blue hydrangeas planted into alkaline soil turned pink. Conversely, pink hydrangeas turned blue in acidic soil.

In the slightly alkaline soil of the Santa Clara Valley, pink hydrangeas were common. Blue hydrangeas were fertilized regularly with aluminum sulfate or some sort of acidifying fertilizer.

In the more acidic soil of the West Coast of Washington, pink hydrangeas would have been blue without lime.

Some more recently bred cultivars of hydrangea excel at either pink or blue. It does not take much to convince them to exhibit their preferred color in less than conducive conditions. These cultivars made it easier to grow blue hydrangeas in the Santa Clara Valley, or pink hydrangeas on the West Coast of Washington.

Then breeding got ridiculous. Hydrangeas were bred to bloom reliably in rich shades of purple, red, or dark blue, with minimal sensitivity to the pH of the soil. They are appealing to those who like these unnaturally rich colors; but to those of us who expect hydrangeas to bloom in white or traditionally soft hues of pink or blue, they are just too weird.

Fan Flower

60727Only a few flowers are true blue. A few more are nearly blue, but slightly blushed with lavender. Of the latter group, fan flower, Scaevola albida, which is usually more lavender than blue, can be quite convincingly blue if conditions are just so. The semi-circular flowers (which are actually wide bilateral flowers) are most abundant in spring and summer, but can bloom sporadically all year.

The finely textured evergreen foliage is dense enough to function as light duty groundcover. Mature plants eventually get about four feet wide without getting deeper than a foot, and more typically stay less than half a foot deep. Outer stems pressed into the soil with their tips up should root and grow into new plants. Fan flower prefers regular but moderate watering. Shade inhibits bloom.

Fan flower only became available in the middle of the 1980’s. How appropriate for flowers of such distinctive style and color! The original common type is still the most reliable. Newer cultivars are not quite as resilient, and might not be as vigorous either. However, they are worth growing for their bigger and bolder flowers, and because they cascade better from pots or raised planters.

Mexican Bush Sage

51014In the first year, Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha, does not get very big. Then it gets cut back to the ground at the end of winter. It gets about twice as big in the second year, only to get cut back again as winter ends. By the third or fourth year, healthy maturing plants can grow to five feet tall and seven feet wide each season. While cut back, big clumps can be divided to propagate.

Strikingly purplish blue floral spikes bloom from summer or early autumn until frost. The odd white ‘tags’ that protrude from the fuzzy bracts are the true flowers. The lanceolate leaves are grayish sage green and somewhat fuzzy. Plants are well rounded like tumble weeds, and should not be shorn. Mexican bush sage is very popular among hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.

Mexican bush sage wants full sun exposure, and unlike most other sages, it prefers relatively rich soil. Fertilizer can compensate for inferior or dense soil, and improves foliar density, but too much can delay bloom. New plants like to be watered regularly, especially if they grow well. As they mature and disperse their roots, they become less reliant on regular watering.

Blue Marguerite

60907Most blue flowers are blushed with purple to some degree. Except for lily of the Nile, true blue flowers are quite uncommon. Even with their yellow centers, the tiny daisy flowers of blue marguerite, Felicia amelloides, seem to be too blue to be real. They are almost expected to fade to lavender. Bloom may not be as full as it was a month ago, but continues as long as the weather is warm.

Mature plants are usually less than a foot and a half tall, and not much wider, with a symmetrically rounded form. The branches are rather fragile, and can be broken by something as trivial as a clumsy cat. They really are not strong enough for bouncy dogs or children. Yet, their tiny oval leaves are just raspy enough to deter deer. Unfortunately, blue marguerite plants live only a few years.

Nierembergia

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When first created by Chrysler, the Imperial was considered to be so close to perfection that fancy colors were unnecessary. It was originally only available in black or white, and later red, like the Chrysler Imperial rose that was named for it. It took a while for other colors to become available. Perhaps perfection is the same reason why nierembergia is only blue or white, or maybe purple.

Nierembergia is most popularly grown as a warm season annual for color from the middle of summer to autumn. It can get half a foot high and a foot wide. As a perennial, it has the potential to get twice as high and wide after its first year, but it lasts only a few years, and looks rather shabby through cool winter weather. The small flowers are evenly dispersed over the finely textured foliage, lacking only on the shaded sides of the densely rounded plants.

Because it gets a bit deeper than most other annuals, nierembergia is a nice transitional plant between lower annuals that might cascade over the edge of a planter in front, and higher or more upright perennials or shrubbery that might obscure a foundation behind. It can work alone too, but does not cascade from planters, big pots or hanging baskets.