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Rose campions, the biennial fit for a (Thomas) Jefferson

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The proverb says that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The gardener’s version is the request for plants and cuttings.

My experience is that ardent gardeners are eager to share favorite plants and information about their cultivation.

One day in late spring, about three years ago, I visited a friend in Riverdale whose garden included a steep hillside. As I drove up, I saw that a silvery plant covered the entire slope, which had small magenta flowers. I could just feel the plant lust emerging.

When I left, I was carrying several plants. That prize turned out to be Lychnis coronaria, the rose campion.

The plant is not native to the United States. Sources vary as to whether it originated in southeastern Europe or North Africa. Regardless, it already was being grown in England in the 1600s.

Thomas Jefferson, at 24, noted it growing at Shadwell, his boyhood home located in Albemarle County, Virginia. Throughout his life, Jefferson was interested in natural history, and kept extensive notes on his farms and gardens.

On June 4, 1767, he noted the larkspur, poppies and the Lychnis were in bloom. A huge number of papers relating to his agricultural and botanical interests are available at Monticello.org. Remember also that he was the president who contracted the Louisiana Purchase and sent out the Lewis and Clarke expedition, which kept extensive journals. These included 160 mentions of plants, and nine of geology.

Generally, Lychnis naturalizes easily — or so I was told — if they receive sufficient light and are not overwatered. However, I had not counted on them being biennials, which means I was looking at two years from seed to flower.

There are essentially three life-cycle patterns for herbaceous plants. These kind of plants do not have woody stems, and they die back to the ground at the end of the growing season.

The first type are annuals, which we buy each year at a nursery for summer color and live one season only. There are some crops that we grow in our northern gardens as annuals, but are actually perennials when grown in their warmer native climates. These include petunias, geranium, tomatoes and peppers.

The second possible life cycle is that of the perennials. Here the plants are long-lived. While it could take a few years for the plant to produce its first flowers and then set seed, perennials do not wither and die then. Next spring will see new growth, and the plant will go through another growing season cycle including flowers and ultimately seed.

I cannot expend the necessary yearly energy on annuals, and my garden is chock full of perennials such as hosta (genus Hosta), astilbe (genus Astilbe), cranesbill (Geranium maculatum) and Joe Pye weed (genus Eupatorium), and various genera of lilies.

Now we come to the third category, that of biennials. In this case, the plant only puts out foliage the first year very often in the shape of a rosette. Only after the second winter does flowering occur, seed is then set, and the mother plant dies to be hopefully replaced by her numerous seedlings the following spring.

Common biennial flowers include foxglove, which gives us digitalis and Canterbury bells. However, some of our common vegetable crops are actually biennial, but we harvest them in the first season. Those include cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, carrots and celery.

There is one caveat regarding the perennial category: Some perennials are relatively fragile and are grown as biennials. Hollyhocks, for example, seem to be susceptible to rust diseases by their second year, and therefore, are routinely removed from the garden at the end of the second growing season.

The genus name “Lychnis” seems to come from the Greek lychnos, meaning lamp. This may have come from the ancients using the wooly leaves for lamp wicks. Coronaria refers to garlands or crowns, and may have referenced being fit for use as a victor’s garland in athletic games.

Lychnis is part of the caryophyllaceae family, which includes the carnations, baby’s breath and the annoying chickweed. In addition to the attractive flowers, which can also be white or rose colored, I am enamored of the silver foliage, which “pops” the colors of darker surrounding plants.

Some other popular plants for brightening shadier garden areas include the Japanese painted fern, silver shimmers’ pulmonaria, Jack Frost brunnera, and Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria). Lychnis however, in addition to the silver coloring, also has felted hairy leaves in common with lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantine), wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and ornamental mullein (Verbascum).

Finally, this year I had numerous flowering Lychnis all over the garden, which augers well for future seasons.

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