True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

It is hard to believe the year is more than half over. The sun reached its zenith two days ago and is now sinking, imperceptibly at first, toward its nadir a few days before Christmas. Astronomical summer is here at last and just at the time we are hungry for a colorful explosion in our gardens. 

My dear mother-in-law doted on the color red. So, some 40 years or so ago I decided to create a border of all, or mostly, red features, the bulk of which would be perennials but augmented with a few annuals, shrubs and even small trees. It would be in her honor, and later, in her memory.

It was harder than I had thought. In the first place, there aren’t many red perennials, so that color had to be provided by a sizable share of said annuals, etc. The red perennials I first thought of were daylilies, and they have been the biggest species there in terms of total flower. However, their bloom time is not long and the “rebloomers” as they call them, were found wanting after the first flush of flower in early summer. 

I just a few weeks ago planted a red hot poker there, my second try. The first one didn’t make the winter. I hope this time it works. The label said the variety I used would “rebloom.” We’ll see. The early years included a couple of red peonies for early color. They proved to be brief of bloom and their foliage going off was a blob of brown. No dice. 

The daylilies have thriven, but after years of duty flowering has dwindled. They really should be divided about every four years right after bloom. I have neglected to do it. My bad. 

The border has been revisited and rebuilt several times, but the last time I wrote of it at any length was some 25 years ago. Let us take a look now at plants that make up that border.

The bed is some 60 feet long by perhaps 10 feet deep, backed by a wood fence with espaliered fruit trees that have been a dismal failure. After some 25 years, the trees produced eight apples and three pears, which were immediately wiped out by squirrels. The foliage is, however, a plus. 

Just about the best flower in the border is of Spigelia marilandica, the Indian pink, a native but rarely seen. It is not pink, but produce little funnels of sure enough red with chartreuse throats. True lilies in the red range contribute too.

Cannas, for foliage and flower, have been there a long time, but I lost most of them last winter and have replanted. They’re slowly gaining substance. A red honeysuckle tumbling over the fence shows good color in spring. 

Shrubs do excellent duty. About the best is ‘Orange Rocket’ barberry, upright to about 3 feet. It is cut way back in spring; the leaves of the year are the most colorful, grading from orange to red. ‘Rosy Glow’ barberry is there too, with highly variegated foliage of red and gray on leaves of the year. Then there is one specimen of ‘Concorde’ barberry, a nice dark maroon. Several red or orange roses help.

Standard nandinas are at each end of the border; their big crops of berries provide winter interest. A ‘China Girl’ holly grown on a standard and with a head some three feet across, has fine crops of red berries, thanks to the tryst with her nearby lover, ‘China Boy.’ A specimen of a flowering cherry with brief bloom but with glossy dark red leaves offers foliage color, as does a purple smoke tree, cut back each year to provide the best foliage. 

Back to herbaceous things. ‘Red Dragon’ persicaria grows like wildfire and must be controlled. However, it provides swags of maroon leaves with a chevron of a paler shade. It dies down in winter but never fails to come back. A piece of it in a mixed pot for the summer is good, but it never comes back there. 

Annual red dianthuses offer nice seasonal color and some the ones sold as annuals will return for another year or more. 

As the season progresses, the red theme segues into more yellow and orange, with native black-eyed susans and orange Mexican sunflowers, but by that time it is fall and those two colors fit the season.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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