Monday 19 August 2019

In The Garden: Eye-catching lobelia always shines in summer borders

SHADES: Bedding lobelia
SHADES: Bedding lobelia

Gerry Daly

The bedding lobelia is used in flower beds and especially as trailing forms in window boxes and baskets. In these situations, it produces masses of flowers in a range of shades of blue, pink and white, and is quite well-known.

It is invaluable for giving light texture to a combination. Although the flowers are obviously very similar, the border lobelia plants are almost the exact opposites of the small bedding plants.

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Not only do these plants not trail or hang down, they are among the most strikingly upright plants in the garden. The flower spikes are produced in summer and grow straight up from rosettes of leaves at ground level.

Later the flowers open, first at the bottom of the spike and the strong colour accentuates the upright shape.

There are many varieties and hybrids of the border lobelia. The main species is the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, from the east coast of North America. It has brilliant scarlet-red flowers on 90-cm stems against a backdrop of green leaves.

The scarlet lobelia, Lobelia splendens, from the southern USA, has bright scarlet flowers and green leaves and stems that may be darkened with red-purple.

A range of named varieties has been raised from these and other species. 'Bee's Flame' is a very well-known hybrid with bright scarlet flowers dramatically set off by deep beetroot red foliage and stems.

'Cherry Ripe' has rich cherry-red flowers against green foliage that has a touch of a dark-red flush. 'Will Scarlet' is also dark-flushed and has deep scarlet flowers.

'Dark Crusader' has dark-red flowers against dark red-purple foliage. 'Queen Victoria' is another very popular dark-leaved kind with bright scarlet flowers.

The Fan series of lobelias is relatively new, shorter in height at about 60cm, which suits smaller gardens. 'Fan Deep Scarlet' has rich scarlet flowers. 'Deep Red', 'Rose', 'Salmon' are what the name says but 'Fan Blue' is, at best, purple blue.

'Vedrariensis' is a beautiful, vigorous variety with purple flowers. 'Pink Elephant' has somewhat paler purple-pink flowers, a real beauty. Lobelia tupa is another, even bigger species, not hardy, though fine in mild areas. It can reach to more than 1.5m with spikes of hooked tubular dark red flowers.

These plants are all natives of habitat with moist soil and they grow very well in areas that have heavy but open soil. The soil needs to be opened up with plenty of organic material to improve fertility and to retain moisture.

They can also be grown close to a pond with their roots growing down into the water. They are natives of marshy ground and often with trees nearby, so they are quite tolerant of some light shade, but their colours look so much better in the sunshine and given the low levels of summer light, they are better in the sun.

Placing border lobelias to get the most impact is not difficult. They are so eye-catching that they will be noticed anywhere in the garden. But an even bigger impact can be created in a number of ways.

First, always try to have a clump, not just one or two stems. The plants can be propagated by division in spring. Use three or more clumps to amplify the effect.

Place one or two groups in the foreground and one or two to one side or in the background. This is very effective. Hardly noticeable before they flower, because of the compact leaf rosettes, but unmissable when they do.

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