Photo by Melody

Speedwells for the Border

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandMarch 14, 2009
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The speedwells exhibit considerable variation in size and form, from low and creeping to tall and narrow. This article will introduce you to the taller types of speedwells; the species, cutlivars and hybrids that make ideal plants to use in the middle or back of the border.

Gardening picture

The genus Veronica comprises a large group (about 250 species) of mostly blue-flowered perennials. In the wild, they grow a vast diversity of habitats from rocky, dry, alpine regions, to wet swamps, lightly shaded woodlands and meadows. Some species are aquatic growing along streams and rivers. Several are very tenacious weeds, growing happily in our lawns and cultivated gardens. Flowers are typically 4 or 5-petalled with two stamens. The upper petal often has distinct darker radiating veins which act as nectary guides for pollinating insects. They are either produced individually from the upper leaf axils or in dense terminal or axillary racemes. The common name speedwell probably refers to the medicinal qualities of the plant, used to treat a myriad of ailments. The term ‘speedwell' is also old English for ‘good-bye' and may allude to the fact that the petals fall rapidly once the flowers are picked.

As garden ornamentals, Veronica fall into two main categories; the tall, spiked types which make admirable additions to the mid or back of the border versus low, creeping types which make ideal subjects for the rock garden or front of the border. In part one, I will discuss the taller border types. There are relatively few tall species of Veronica. In our gardens, we are concerned with 5 main species: V. austriaca, V. gentianoides, V. incana, V. longifolia and especially V. spicata. All produce dense, racemes of blue-shaded flowers although white and pink do exist in some of these.

These border Veronica are sun-lovers and need an evenly moist soil to look their best. They will quickly wilt and become stunted if kept too dry (a notable exception is V. incana). Prompt removal of spent flowers may reward you with a secondary flush. Most are easily raised from seed but named cultivars may not come true. To keep plants at their best, divide them, in spring, every 3-5 years, retaining the more vigorous outer portions. All of these tall Veronica are attractive to butterflies.

The flowers of V. austriaca are produced in dense, but relatively short, axillary racemes. Plants have a mounded, almost shrub-like habit and reach 25 to 60 cm, depending on the cultivar. The leaves are somewhat oval in shape with rounded teeth. The flowers are the brightest blue of any of the border types and the earliest blooming, late spring to early summer. There are several named cultivars including ‘Crater Lake Blue' (25 cm), ‘Blue Fountain' (60 cm), ‘Royal Blue' (25 cm) and ‘Shirley Blue' (45 cm). This native of central Europe is rated for zone 5.

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Two popular cultivars of V. austriaca are 'Crater Lake Blue' and 'Shirley Blue'

Veronica gentianoides produces evergreen, glossy, somewhat leathery, basal leaves in a mat-like habit. In early summer, stiffly erect stalks arise 30-80 cm. Flowers are commonly light blue with darker veins (reminiscent of fine porcelain); quite attractive and intricate when viewed a close distance. The individual flowers are the largest of the tall types but the raceme is not quite as dense as the others. Each bloom has 4 petals; three which are relatively large and rounded and a lower, narrowed petal. There are several named cultivars which include ‘Robusta' (60 cm, light blue), ‘Barbara Sherwood' (60 cm, light blue), ‘Pallida' (45 cm; nearly white), ‘Tissington White' (30 cm; ice-blue), ‘Lilacina' (30 cm lilac-blue), ‘Ramona' (aka ‘Blue Streak'; 45 cm; light blue) and ‘Variegata' (45 cm; light blue; thin white margin on the leaves). This native of SW Asia is rated hardy to zone 4.

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Veronica gentianoides and the selections 'Variegata' and 'Ramona'

Silver-leaved or wooly speedwell, V. incana, sits on the fence as being useful for rock gardens or the perennial border. Some forms are low (20 cm) while others reach to 45 cm. Plants produce a basal rosette of evergreen leaves. The leaves are covered in dense, fine hairs and impart a distinctly silvery appearance. It is the most drought-tolerant of the ‘spiked' speedwells and indeed needs a well-drained site. The dense raceme of tiny flowers are deep blue, providing a wonderful contrast to the foliage. The smaller stature and interesting foliage of this species lends them a position near the front of the border. In the wild, this species ranges from eastern Europe across to Siberia and NW China. They are rated hardy to zone 4 and bloom in early summer.

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Wooly speedwell, V. incana, has wonderful contrast between flowers and foliage

The tallest of the ‘spiked' speedwells is V. longifolia, a native of central Europe and naturalized in eastern North America. This robust species typically has fuzzy, dull green foliage and stiffly upright stems to nearly 120 cm. The dense raceme of tiny flowers are quite long and imposing, making an impressive mid-summer display. There are numerous hybrids in shades from white through blue, pink and magenta. Some named cultivars include ‘Lilac Fantasy' (60 cm; lilac-pink), ‘Lila Karina' (70 cm; dusky pink), ‘Sonja' (80 cm; fuchsia-pink), ‘Fairy Tale' (70 cm; pink) and ‘Blue Giant' (80 cm; deep blue). A lovely variegated selection is called ‘Joseph's Coat'. The early spring leaves are quite pink but change to cream. Unfortunately, plants are liable to revert back to plain green. This European native is rated hardy for zone 4.

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Speedwells are generally attractive to butterflies, especially V. longifolia. Leftmost is the cultivar 'Lila Karina'

Perhaps the most popular and certainly, the most selected, is the true spiked speedwell, V. spicata. This European native is the hardiest, rated for zone 3. Plant height varies from 30-75 cm. Overall, this species looks like a smaller version of V. longifolia. Its more compact habit makes it well suited to the middle of the border or for use in containers. Like V. longifolia, flowers are available in a range of colours from white through shades of blue, pink to reddish-pink. Mid-summer is the main season of bloom but this species is the most likely to re-bloom after prompt deadheading. There are well over 30 named cultivars. Among the more popular are ‘Red Fox' (30-45 cm; reddish-pink), ‘Foxy Lady' (30-45 cm; lavender-purple with white margins), ‘Royal Candles' (30-45 cm; dark purple-blue), ‘Blue Charm' (60-75 cm ; lavender-blue), ‘Erika' (30-45 cm; pale lavender-pink), ‘Romiley Purple' (45-60 cm; dark purple-blue) and ‘Icicles' (60 cm; white). There are two notable dwarf cultivars that reach just 15-20 cm; ideal for rock gardens. These are ‘Blue Carpet' (deep blue) and ‘Giles van Hees' (bright pink).

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Popular cultivars of V. spicata are 'Foxy Lady', 'Royal Candles', 'Red Fox' and 'White Icicles'

There are several speedwells of hybrid origin, most commonly between V. spicata and V. longifolia. These hybrids include the 1993 Plant of the Year, Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue' with deep blue flowers on 60 cm plants that bloom all summer. Several other hybrid speedwells include ‘Blue Indigo' (45 cm; deep blue), ‘Pink Damask' (60 cm; pink) and ‘Eveline' (60 cm; magenta). White-flowered hybrids between V. longifolia and the closely related Veronicastrum virginicum include ‘White Jolanda' and ‘Inspiration', both which reach about 100 cm.

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Often considered as hybrids are the cultivars 'Sunny Border Blue', 'Pink Damask' and 'Eveline'

The spiky flowers of Veronica provide a wonderful contrast in the flower border. With their long blooming-season and variable heights they come highly recommended for just about any part of a perennial border.

There are many people who must be thanked for the use of their pictures: DebinSC ('Sunny Border Blue'), hczone6 ('Red Fox'), Marilynbeth ('Pink Damask'), Lenka ('Eveline'), pixie62560 ('Crater Lake Blue'), DaylilySLP ('Royal Candles'), bootandall ('Lila Karina'), momcat ('White Icicles'), Christabelle ('Foxy Lady'), tbonewap ('Ramona'), growin ('Shirley Blue') and Poppysue (V. incana, V. gentianoides and V. longifolia)


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
What to do with Crater Lake Blue? lmalarkey 5 33 Jun 28, 2009 11:34 PM
Wild Veronica janinec 2 10 Apr 15, 2009 12:05 AM
Terrific article! Fleurs 1 5 Mar 17, 2009 11:15 PM
Thank You... frausnow 1 8 Mar 16, 2009 7:23 PM
Be still my heart kathy65468 2 68 Mar 15, 2009 12:34 AM
Veronica "Giles Van Hees" edyhill 0 31 Mar 14, 2009 6:55 PM
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