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

Jimmy Williams

Mauve is a color, much maligned, a wimpy shade that lags behind … 


Well, mebbe. Some call it purple, some call it pink and others — just a few — recognize what it really is. Mauve shows up, sometimes often wanly, in our spring gardens, where it most often is recognized as purple. Mauve, a soft color for soft flowers. 

A famous garden writer I read of a few years back said her garden at some point every spring features everything knee high and purple. She was not far off. If purple (mauve) is prominent in mid-spring it is just Nature’s fault. Blame it on her. 

It is beside the point whose fault it is. I would posit that mauve is a color that befits spring as much as yellow “buttercups” and varied tulips. 

As far as I am concerned, you can’t have too much mauve this time of year, else why would Mother Nature provide such a glut of it? Our garden is chock full of it in the month of April and a bit either side of it.

Well, violas and pansies. We have had them all winter. It has been the best winter for them in a while. Some were — are — mauve, teamed with yellow on some of them for contrast. They will keep it up through May if the weather doesn’t get too hot too quick. 

Then there is the native woodland phlox, botanically Phlox divaricata, that graces overgrown areas and cultivated gardens as well, a true mauve if there ever was one, though most people call it purple. Speaking of cultivation, it adapts to it beautifully and easily. Ours has penetrated most of our beds and borders by seeding from a few collected from the wild years ago. 

Following on the phlox in the wild and in our beds, borders and woodland is the native Jacob’s ladder, so named for the compound leaves that, with their leaflets, mimic a ladder. The flowers, only about an inch or less across, are a pale strain of mauve that are borne in clusters atop foot-tall stems.

Another native, Virginia bluebells, are here with paddle leaves that sprout almost black, then turn green. Their flowers, sure enough bell shaped, open pink then morph into mauve as they expand. This time, the mauve is a rather unusual tone, almost blue with a somewhat electric effect. East of us, in the hill country of middle Tennessee, Virginia bluebells are often found covering entire creek bottoms, a sight to behold. In our county they are not as plentiful, but they adapt to woodland and shade.

Let us now move a thousand miles or more to another continent, South, not North, America, to locate what is native in Argentina and Uruguay and a cinch to grow here. A soft mauve, and sometimes white, are the species, Ipheion uniflorum, often called starflower. These are bulbous plants of the onion family. You can recognize that by crunching a stem and giving it sniff. 

Why this plant is not better well known is beyond me. As I said, it is a cinch. Best use of it is naturalized, in sun or shade, where it will reproduce readily by seed. It is seldom seen, and when it is seen, it is often invading lawns. My starts, in fact, came from a nice lady in west Paris a few years ago. She was mowing down a stand that had almost taken over her  lawn, and agreed heartily when I asked for a start. “I wish you would take them all” was her retort. Obviously, she valued the grass more than the mauve flowers. 

Ipheion will grow to some six inches or so in grass, or a bit more than that when crowded in a border abutting more vigorous things. In such a situation, it might get a foot tall in trying to outgrow its neighbors. 

Like most bulbous plants, the foliage should be allowed to ripen before mowing off. Ours has “invaded” quietly borders and grassy areas that won’t be mowed until about May. Nearby yellow “buttercups” have just the yellow that spices up those areas.

I have never seen Ipheion for sale locally, but Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Virginia has them at a reasonable price. Google them up. 


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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