Keep the flow­ers com­ing

Long-flow­er­ing cottage gar­den pen­ste­mons keep bloom­ing to the frosts. Val Bourne picks the best

Garden Answers (UK) - - Contents -

Cottage-gar­den pen­ste­mons keep bloom­ing to the frosts

Pen­ste­mons peak glo­ri­ously in late-sum­mer and au­tumn, pro­vid­ing con­tin­ual flower of­ten into Novem­ber. Their airy, up­right spires pro­vide a ver­ti­cal pres­ence in a sunny bor­der and their tubu­lar bells come in shades of white, pink, deep-red, pur­ple, laven­der and elec­tric-blue. Flower shape can vary from ele­gantly slen­der trum­pet to wide-open gap­ing mouth. Many have finely veined white throats de­signed to lure in bees; pen­ste­mons are very wildlife friendly. Most of our named forms are bred from North Amer­i­can species and har­di­ness does vary. The Vic­to­ri­ans, who had much colder win­ters than we do now, grew them as sum­mer bed­ding and raised new plants from cut­tings ev­ery year. How­ever in the early 20th cen­tury, plant breed­ers be­gan to raise hardier pen­ste­mon hy­brids and two Swiss-bred cul­ti­vars, ‘Schoen­holz­eri’ (pre­vi­ously ‘Fire­bird’) and ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ (pre­vi­ously ‘Gar­net’) were in­tro­duced into this coun­try by the late Alan Bloom of Bress­ing­ham in 1939.

Se­crets of suc­cess

The se­cret of suc­cess is to leave the top growth in­tact over win­ter to pro­tect the base, then cut them back in spring once new growth ap­pears. They can look a lit­tle ragged in hard win­ters, al­though this didn’t stop em­i­nent lady gar­den­ers such as Margery Fish (1892–1969) of East Lam­brook Manor, who en­thused about their ‘con­tin­u­ous colour’ and de­scribed li­lac and white ‘Sour Grapes’ as ‘iri­des­cent’. Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) grew many in her Siss­inghurst Cas­tle gar­den and passed ‘Sour Grapes’ to Beth Chatto, but it proved to be a muted li­lac-pur­ple called ‘Sta­ple­ford Gem’. To this day, the two are still mud­dled. Much breed­ing was cen­tred around the Worces­ter­shire town of Per­shore. In the 1960s, am­a­teur breeder and for­mer Vice Prin­ci­pal of Per­shore Col­lege Ron Sid­well (1909–1993) bred a Bird Se­ries. ‘Black­bird’, ‘Flamingo’, ‘Osprey’, ‘Whitethroat’ and near-black ‘Raven’ are still grown to­day. Per­shore stu­dent Ed­ward Wil­son (1948–2009) raised and named more than 50 new cul­ti­vars from 1985 on­wards. Many have Pen­sham in their name, where Hayloft Plants is based. They took over Ed­ward’s col­lec­tion af­ter his death and still sell bright pink ‘Pen­sham Just Jayne’, ‘Pen­sham Vic­to­ria Plum’ and ‘Pen­sham Laura’, a pink-edged white. Stong, tall ‘Pen­sham Ted’s Pur­ple’ has a white throat and ‘Pen­sham Plum Jerkum’, my favourite, is named af­ter a lo­cal liqueur. The best range is avail­able in May. Pen­ste­mons slot into cottage-style gar­dens re­ally well and com­ple­ment sil­ver-leaved plants per­fectly. Sul­try reds and dark-pur­ple blacks add a rich­ness to borders of golden daisies. Wine-red ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’ is ex­cel­lent with soft-blue nepetas, herba­ceous clema­tis and pink roses. Dainty pink ‘Eve­lyn’ min­gles well with Stipa tenuis­sima and blue Catananche caerulea. These amenable plants flat­ter re­peat­flow­er­ing roses too, fill­ing in any fal­low patches and act­ing as an en­core.

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