It was Wolfgang Oehme* who first introduced me to Persicarias--actually, not the man himself, but an article in which he mentioned Persicaria polymorpha (Giant Fleeceflower). I was impressed by the stature of this plant (six feet tall and just as wide), its fluffy plumes of white, the fact that it blooms throughout most of the growing season, and that itís hardy in our zone 5 garden.
ersicarias, known collectively as Smartweeds, Fleeceflowers, or Knotweeds are a genus of plants with over 50 species. They range in size from six inches or less to the imposing Persicaria polymorpha I just mentioned (pictured at right). Blossom color among the species includes white, pink, bright scarlet and numerous intermediate shades. Many are considered weeds, some even noxious weeds.Among the garden worthy species are three of my favorite perennials: Giant Fleeceflower, Painter's Palette (Persicaria virginiana var. filiformis), and Firetail (Persicaria amplexicaulis). We have two clumps of fleeceflower at the rear of our white garden. At six feet tall and wide, most garden visitors assume that it's a shrub. They're amazed, as I was, that something that large starts out at ground level each spring. Although some Persicarias self-sow to the point of weediness, the Giant Fleeceflowers gracing our garden for the past six years have produced nary a seed.Unfortunately, that's not true of Painter's Palette. The trade-off, though, is worth it. I love the berry-juice-colored
Wikimedia Kiss-me-over-the-Garden Gate (Persicaria orientalis )
Wikimedia Pink Knotweed (Persicaria capitata )
Wikimedia Water Smartweed (Persicaria amphibia )
squiggles across its white and green leaves. It has filled an entire bed along our driveway, which is also the main entrance to our gardens. Visitors never fail to comment on its unique beauty. I also value its delicate sprays of tiny scarlet blossoms in late summer. They make interesting fillers in flower arrangements. Think of them as red Baby's Breath.
Almost as important to me as the unusual leaves is the fact that they emerge later in the spring than those of most perennials. I've taken advantage of this habit by underplanting the entire bed with early tulips, Roman hyacinths, and daffodils. The foliage of these spring bulbs is already starting to die off when the slender shoots of Painter's Palette make their appearance. The unsightly foliage is soon completely hidden as this Persicaria grows rapidly to a mature height of about 20 inches.
I use Firetail to hide unsightly growth as well. The subject to be hidden here is 'John Cabot', a climbing rose,. By mid-summer, it's lost its leaves from the ground up to about two feet. The bare, very thorny canes are not only unsightly but downright menacing, especially if I'm weeding in their vicinity. Firetail's exuberant growth and reddish, tail-like blooms cover the bare canes beautifully. Unlike the meandering nature of Painter's Palette, Firetail stays put in an ever-expanding clump. Simply divide it when it gets too big and share some with fellow gardeners or find another spot for it in your own garden.
Judging from my chats with other gardeners, Persicarias are not well known to many here in the U.S. And there are other garden-worthy species. Among them are Persicaria microcephala 'Red Dragon', Persicaria orientalis (aka "Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate), Persicaria capitata ("pink knotweed"), and Persicaria amphibia ("water smartweed"). Why not try one of these beautiful and unusual plants and do your part to make them more well known in your gardening circle and beyond?
This National Park Service photo shows one not-so-pleasing Persicaria, Mile-a-Minute Weed (Persicaria perfoliata). It arrived in this country in the late 1930s as a stowaway in some holly seeds from Japan and ultimately landed at a nursery site in York County, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the owner allowed the seedlings to mature and set seed. The vine covers the ground and climbs into trees, eventually killing them--a sort of the "Kudzu of the North." It also grows nasty little barbs, which make it necessary to wear protection during any attempt at manual eradication. So far it has spread over 300 miles from its original location.
*Wolfgang Oehme, a well-known Landscape architect--along with his partner, James van Sweden--founded Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc., known for its promotion of a revolutionary garden style called the "New American Garden."
Thanks to PlantFiles contributors Kell, rcn48, and hczone6 for their photos.
Please scroll down to leave comments about this article.
About Larry Rettig
An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.