Sunday 25 September 2016

Spring vetch adds a touch of purple now

Gerry Daly

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

DEEP PURPLE: The spring vetch
DEEP PURPLE: The spring vetch

The spring vetch, or vetchling, as it is also known, is a superb garden flower for early colour. It is looking just a picture at the moment. This is a small-scale relative of the sweet pea, although it looks very different at a glance. There are wild vetches that appear in roadside verges and on waste ground, and on dunes by the seaside. But this is not a native plant, it comes from continental Europe.

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Its natural home is in open woodland and scrub areas of mountains as far north as Siberia, so it is a tough little plant that belies its apparent delicacy. Its leafy shoots appear in early spring when very few other plants are growing. When it reaches about 30 centimetres, the flower groups are produced at the top of the stems above the narrow leaves. The flowers are carried in clusters and open in sequence over a period of a few weeks, lengthening the flowering period.

Unlike the sweet pea, the short stems do not twine around other plants or twigs, and do not climb. Instead, the clump of stems supports itself and is able to deal with inclement weather. If it is very exposed the stems can be tossed about a little, and fall over, so it is best where there is some shelter. It is likely to flower much better if it gets a good amount of sunshine, so it does best when planted at the front of a mixed border where the shade is not too deep.

The rich purple flowers are typical pea-flower type with two hooded wing petals over a tubular base. This tube part opens to allow access to pollen if a pollinating insect lands on it. The two hooded petals often turn to deep violet as they age, making a contrast with the remaining red-purple. There is natural variation in flowering, some plants being more floriferous.

Although invaluable as an early-flowering perennial for a mixed border, it is usually seen just as a single plant, but it looks best when planted as a group of plants. It looks great near yellow flowers, such as daffodils or tulips, and flowers during the period when daffodils fade out and tulips follow. There is a very pretty form of the spring vetch, called 'Alboroseus', which covers its top with light pink and white flowers.

The spring vetch is a woodland or scrubland native and it likes open humusy soil that drains well, but does not get too dry. It grows well in acid or limy soil. It roots deeply and dies back in summer when the roots of trees and shrubs become too competitive for moisture. If it is used as a group of plants, some other plants that need the space, such as sprawling kinds of summer geraniums, can be planted nearby.

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