Sunday 18 March 2018

Autumn splash of deep purple

Liriope: flashes of deep, cool colour among autumn’s reds and golds
Liriope: flashes of deep, cool colour among autumn’s reds and golds

Gerry Daly

Any plant that provides flowers in autumn deserves consideration. And so it is with liriope, or lily turf, a wonderful little flower that looks great in October. The flower spikes are about 30cm tall, covered with tiny round, bead-like blue-purple flowers. These are long-lasting and open in sequence along the length of the stem, some falling, then being replaced.

Though it is a small plant, its rich purple colour is remarkably effective during the autumnal splurge of yellow, red and orange. It also offers a point of contrast with autumn leaf colours, setting them off and being highlighted itself in the process. The effect is enhanced when mature plants generate a clump of upright stems.

Liriope produces grassy leaves, somewhat broader than a true grass, but light and flexible. These are more or less evergreen, varying between species. It offers year-round greenery in flower borders that might otherwise be left looking a little bare. It is tolerant of shade and can be used to fill around and in front of shrubs.

Although grass-like in appearance, it's a member of the greater lily family, more specifically the lily-of-the-valley section. Lily-of-the-valley has little nodding, bell-shaped flowers and lily turf has round, bead-like flowers along the flower stems. It is usually seen as a tuft of grassy leaves at the front of a shrub border or a mixed border, and it is often used as an edging plant, forming a run of grassy leaves that arch outwards.

Two species are likely to be seen, both originally from China and Japan, where they grow in light woodland. Liriope spicata has a tuft of leaves that are semi-evergreen and produces spikes of light purple flowers in late summer. This species produces spreading rhizomes.

The other species, Liriope muscari, is larger with more deeply-coloured purple flower spikes. It flowers best in sunshine and flowers a bit later that the other species, lasting into November. It has tuberous roots and doesn't spread as much, slowly making a dense clump.

There are some named forms: among them 'Big Blue', a selection with good spikes of purple-blue flowers, and 'Monroe White', a white-flowered kind. But it is a bit washy and not of great interest. Some have variegated foliage but these do not flower as well and look a bit sickly.

Plant liriope in good open soil, well drained, with plenty of leafy organic material dug in, in a sheltered spot where the foliage won't be damaged by harsh winds. While the established plants are relatively tolerant of a dry spell, new plants find it difficult to get going if the soil is too dry. Watch for slug damage to the new foliage as it emerges in spring and early summer.

Where are my berries for the birds?

Q I bought a lovely pyracantha in spring, which is supposed to have berries for the birds. It has come on really well since I planted it but hasn't got a single berry. Can you tell me why please?

A Young pyracantha plants, like many other trees and shrubs, tend to grow vigorously for a few years when newly planted and may not carry many, or any, berries for the first few years but will eventually settle down to berrying annually. It will be slower if shaded, or growing in heavy soil.

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