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Whimsy in the garden

Whimsy in the garden

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Asters are amazing, and zinnias’ carnival colors are zippy, but in addition to these and other garden mainstays, consider adding a few plants to your garden to express your sense of playful fun. Here are suggestions for a few unusual, whimsical plants that are fun talking points and reflect a delightful, unexpected, capricious sense of humor in the plant world.

‘Hot Lips’ Sage (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’)

If you you’re looking for a little sass in your gardening life, look no further than ‘Hot Lips’ sage. This saucy little number with its white flowers tipped with vivid red lives up to its hybrid name. A long-blooming sage, its eye-catching, spurred flowers continue coming all summer long, even during the hottest periods. The flower form and color attracts human notice while the nectar attracts hummingbirds and other pollinators, bringing the small shrubs alive.

A small plant in a 4-inch container will quickly grow to a compact shrub about 3 feet tall and wide. It’s a durable plant that needs little care, doing perfectly well in a dry garden, but also tolerating our wetter summers. Give it full sun and good drainage, and you will be amply rewarded.

Cat’s Whiskers (Orthosiphon stamineus aka O. aristatus)

The aptly named cat’s whiskers sport dramatic, showy white or lavender flower spikes that have long, elegant stamens that really do look like white cat whiskers. It grows up to 4 feet tall and wide, and flowers from May through November — or until damaged by cold. Butterflies and hummingbirds flock to the flowers, adding to the lively scene.

Although technically perennials, these are tender plants that should be grown as annuals in Virginia.

Unfortunately, cat’s whiskers are hard to find, and hence can be expensive. Starter Flower Plant on the Etsy site offers a 4-inch rooted cutting for $29.99. It’s an outrageous price to pay, but consider it an investment in garden joy, and take cuttings once the plant is established (you may want to trim them back anyway to keep them in bounds). They’re a member of the mint family, and like mint, will root easily. Before long, you’ll have enough to share with your friends and family. What a great gift for a special occasion.

The plants grow in full sun to light shade, and prefer an evenly moist soil. Mulch the plants to retain moisture and water every three to four days during hot dry spells. A general garden fertilizer (20-20-20) applied semi-monthly from March through October will encourage plant vigor and bloom. If your soil is alkaline, add extra iron to prevent leaf yellowing. For best flower display, deadhead spent blossoms.

Cluster cat’s whiskers along paths, tuck some into a flower border or grow them in containers. You’ll be glad you did as they really are the “cat’s meow” in the garden.

Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata)

Add fireworks to your garden with the red spider lily.

Originating in Japan, in that country lycoris is believed to be the flower of the afterlife, and it is planted at the tombs of ancestors to help guide souls into their next incarnation. The poisonous bulbs also are planted around rice paddies and homes to discourage mice.

Red spider lily enjoys a number of monikers that reflect various properties of the plant. Among them are corpse flower (perhaps because of the toxic bulbs), equinox flower, resurrection lily (it’s perennial and will flower annually if the bulbs are left undisturbed), hurricane lily (heavy autumn rainfall triggers the bloom), and red magic lily (they are magical to behold).

Like naked lady lilies (Amaryllis belladonna), lycoris flowers before the leaves appear, adding to their drama. Large orange-red orbs comprised of a cluster or umbel of individual flowers that have narrow, wavy, recurved petals and long projecting stamens grow atop the bare, sturdy stem. They look like exploding chrysanthemum fireworks. The display last for about two weeks as the flowers fade from brilliant fluorescent red to a deep pink.

The plant was first introduced into the United States in 1854, when Japanese ports were opened for U.S. trade. According to tradition, it was a Captain William Roberts who brought back only three lycoris bulbs as a gift for his garden-loving wife Lavinia. Since then, those bulbs have naturalized by bulb division in North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and many other southern states of the U.S.

In Virginia, the bulbs are hardy down to 0°F. Lower temperatures than that are rare in our area, but to be on the safe side, mulch them in the fall and grow them in a protected area. One or two degrees warmth can make a big difference.

Grow them in full sun in well-drained soil buried 8 inches deep, and spaced 6 inches to 12 inches apart. Left undisturbed, they’ll flower annually in late summer or early fall, with stems around 24 inches to 28 inches tall. The strappy leaves follow the flowers, remaining through the winter and disappearing in early summer.

The red spider lily is a trouble-free plant that is virtually disease-free. Because the plant is poisonous, deer and other pests keep a wide berth; however, Lycoris nectar is an important late season food for nectar loving insects.

As long as you don’t overwater it during its dormant period in summer, risking rotting the bulb (one reason for insuring it has well-drained soil), lycoris should bring you years of delight, multiplying over time to form a dense colony.

Passion Flower (Passiflora)

The history of Passiflora or passionflower (Flos passionis) is fascinating. Discovered in South America in the early 17th century (known then as New Spain), drawings and dried parts of the plant were sent back to Rome where Giacomo Bosio, a churchman and historian (1609), interpretated the flower parts as representing various elements of the crucifixion (also referred to as Christ’s passon). Thus the plant became known as “La Flor de las Cinco Llagas” – “The Flower With The Five Wounds.”

The five petals and five sepals are understood to represent the 10 disciples less Judas and Peter. The corona filaments are the crown of thorns, the five stamen with anthers match the five sacred wounds, and the the three stigma symbolize the nails used to attach Christ’s two hands and his feet to the cross.

This western interpretation is not recognized worldwide. In Japan it is sometimes known as “Clock-faced Plant” and it has recently been adopted as a symbol for homosexual Japanese youths.

Passiflora was first classified by Linnaeus in 1745 when he recognized 22 species. Today botanists believe there are more than 600 species, although many are under threat in their natural rainforest habitat.

Of these the most common passion flower grown in our region is the native maypop or purple passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata). It is a vigorous vine that grows up to 25 feet, climbing with axillary tendrils if it can find nearby support or sprawling along the ground. Grow it up a trellis, along a fence or over an arbor for a showy vine with a fun story. The edible yellow fruit, which varies from sweet to sour, is also enjoyed by birds. Butterflies, notably flock to the flowers, and it is a larvae host to a number of butterfly species.

Gloriosa Lily (Gloriosa superba)

The botanical name says it all. This lily really is gloriously superb. Also known as flame lilies because of their fiery spiked petals, and cat’s claws (another way of seeing the pointy, recurved petals) these outstanding plants thrive in fertile, well-drained soil in full to partial sun.

Perennials in USDA hardiness zones 10 and 11, here they should be lifted and stored for the winter. They’re definitely worth that trouble. The 8-foot vines grow nicely on trellises, fences and walls. Their long, narrow leaves turn into tendrils at the tips, enabling it to climb or cling to other plants or structures. The vines blossom with yellow and red flowers with petals that curl backward to resemble a flash of brilliant flames. These flowers begin in mid-summer and continue blooming until the season’s end.

The ideal time to the plant gloriosa lily tubers is in spring after the soil has warmed and all danger of frost has passed. Bury them 2 inches to 4 inches deep and 3 inches to 4 inches from the trellis, fence or other support. Lay the tuber in the hole on its side. For a rich floral display and to provide optimal growing room for the mature plants, space them at 6-inch to 8-inch intervals.

Water well immediately after planting and keep the soil evenly moist for the first 2 to 3 weeks until the shoots appear. Once you see active growth, reduce watering to once or twice a week or whenever the soil feels dry.

The vines should cling to the support on their own, but they may need a little help in the beginning. Soft plant ties will do the trick.

To promote healthy and vigorous flowering, fertilize your gloriosas every two weeks with water-soluble fertilizer designed for flowering plants.

Before the first frost, lift the tubers to dry and store over the winter in a cool location. Be careful handling them because the tubers are brittle. Many people find it easier to leave the tubers in containers year-round, sinking the pots to the rim in the garden in the late spring and digging the whole thing in the fall to bring indoors. If you bring them indoors in pots, force them into dormancy after they stop blooming by tapering off watering and then allowing them to dry out over the winter.

In addition to the species flower with its flaming orange and yellow coloration, there are numerous named hybrids, including ‘Citrina’ (yellow tepals with maroon stripes), ‘Grandiflora’ (has large golden yellow flowers), ‘Lutea’ (yellow flowers), ‘Simplex’ (deep orange and yellow flowers), and a dwarf form called ‘Nana’ that is well-suited for growing in containers on a deck or patio.


The name alone is a conversation starter, although it may induce blushes among your more sensitive friends and family members. The botanical moniker, Amorphophallus is from the ancient Greek amorphos, meaning without form or misshapen and phallos, (you can guess the meaning). The name is inspired by the shape of the prominent spadix (a spike of minute flowers), typical of plants in the Arum family.

There are a number of species that are all garden worthy. Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina carries a good selection, including the yellow speckled love lily (A. lacourii 'Hot Night Spot'), A. kiusianus, which is one one of the most durable and hardy of the Amorphophallus species, the rare A. titanium (there are only several hundred specimens of this species known in cultivation; it wows people by producing the largest flower in the world with an inflorescence that can be up to 8 feet tall), several named varieties of A. konjac, and the closely related dragon arum, Dracunculus vulgaris.

Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery, has written a vivid description of A.konjac: “When old enough, the tuber produces a fascinating 5-foot flower (early May, before the leaf emerges) resembling a giant vase made from the purple vinyl used for cheap '70s car seats. The vase (spathe) is home to a 3-foot purple spadix that sits atop a 2-foot speckled petiole...gather your neighbors for the fragrant flowering ritual.

“After flowering, the plant may rest for months before the leaf emerges. The mother tuber will form offsets, eventually making a giant clump...very exotic and unusual!

“Amorphophallus konjac has long been prized medicinally for its weight loss properties and is now used in many weight loss products. As we can attest, if you've ever eaten Amorphophallus konjac you can easily understand why it would make you lose weight.”

Dracunculus vulgaris is another X-rated plant. Avent describes the 18-inch flower, writing, “Picture a fleshy, purple, ruffled vase, from the center of which emerges a fleshy appendage resembling an upside-down purple the botanical artists in your neighborhood for this special treat. Just tell them to hold their noses for the first day.”

The plant kingdom is filled with weird and wonderful plants. Choose a few for your garden and then throw a garden party to show them off, amazing and amusing your friends.

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