The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Summer’s secret stars
Alstroemerias are fabulously colourful and long-lasting – so how come no one knows?
LEGENDARY gardener Vita Sackville-West once wrote that her garden gave her most pleasure from spring until the middle of June, after which it started to look a little tired. ‘It is then that the alstroemeria come into their own,’ she enthused, describing these perennials affectionately as ‘lumps of colour’.
Sackville-West admired them for their colour, beauty and time of flowering, and grew several varieties in the borders of Sissinghurst Castle. Among her favourites was Alstroemeria ligtu hybrids – she proclaimed that summer was officially over when its flowers started to fade.
Despite a few notable fans, alstroemerias have been overlooked as garden plants. They suffer from a reputation for being old-fashioned and a bit lily-livered, turning their toes up at the mere mention of frost. Some people don’t bother growing them as they think the floral show lasts a matter of weeks.
It’s fair to say that some older varieties deserve the flak, but modern alstroemerias are dead easy to grow and will often provide a display for six months, from June until November. Many are hardy down to -10C.
As far as I’m concerned, they are the epitome of understated garden glamour with delicate, six-petalled, trumpet-shaped flowers in a wide range of colours. You’ll find white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple varieties, with many splashed with a contrasting shade or boasting inner petals that are flecked, striped or freckled.
The open shape of the blooms provides easy access to bees foraging for pollen and nectar. Similar perennials that are a magnet to wildlife tend to have perfumed flowers, but the only drawback with these beauties is that they have no discernible scent.
Well, apart from one exception, that is. Bred at the University of Connecticut in the late 1990s, ‘Sweet Laura’ is the world’s first fragrant alstroemeria. This unique variety boasts golden yellow flowers adorned with orange specks that are held on 2½ft-tall stalks from early summer until September. Commonly known as Lily of the Incas, Peruvian lily or parrot lily, alstroemerias are native to South America.
Known for their tall, 4-5ft stems, ligtu hybrids are cottage garden favourites and come in a wide range of shades, including pink, yellow, orange and rose. Plant breeding really took off in the late 1960s, when John Goemans at Parigo Horticulture in Lincolnshire launched pink ‘Ballerina’, the first of about 50 new varieties for the garden and cut-flower industry that have been developed by the nursery over the years.
There are now about 250 different alstroemeria available in Britain. One of my favourites is ‘Indian Summer’, due to its fiery orangered flowers that stand out brilliantly against a foil of bronze-coloured foliage. Also superb are ‘Butterfly Hybrids’, a mix of pink and purple shades bred to create plants just 2ft tall.
THE so-called planet series consists of varieties with exotic-looking blooms on stems ranging in height from 2ft to 3ft. ‘Sirius’ has soft pink flowers with a golden throat and ‘Mars’ is scarlet with a yellow streak. ‘Saturne’ are apricot-orange with yellow. Little Miss alstroemerias are compact plants just 8in tall, making them ideal for small gardens or pots. If you want something that really stands out, try ‘Rock ’n’ Roll’ with its outrageous orange scarlet flowers displayed against striking green and cream leaves. Alstroemeria tubers are available for planting in early spring, but I prefer to start with young plants, either plugs or specimens in larger pots. Plant in a sunny or slightly shaded position, making sure they are sheltered from strong winds – alstroemerias do best in moist, well-drained soil but can cope with drier ground if watered well for a couple of seasons until established.
Those that grow over 3ft will need staking. Keep alstroemerias blooming by removing any spent flower stems.