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Garden Magic: Alchemilla

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21May 8, 2014
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Some perennials have a reputation for lovely flowers, others for handsome foliage. Alchemilla earns its keep by delivering on both counts.

Gardening pictureDescription
A member of the family Rosaceae, alchemilla grows in low clumps. Its small, airy chartreuse flowers bloom from May to June, held above the foliage on long stems. The soft, hairy, deeply-lobed leaves exhibit a high degree of water resistance. This is the source of the plant’s most charming characteristic: its ability to catch and hold droplets of water.

History
Native to Turkey and the Carpathian Mountains, alchemilla served as a medicinal herb in ancient times. Its astringent properties made it useful for treating bleeding. Plant parts also served as a source of green dye.

The name alchemilla is a Latin diminutive of "alchimia" or "alchemy". Alchemists, those medieval seekers of a magical elixir of life, believed that dew found on the plant’s leaves was so pure and powerful it could turn base metals into gold. Alchemilla’s common name ‘lady’s mantle” refers to the cloak shape of the leaves. This also dates to medieval times, when many garden plants bore names associated with the Virgin Mary.

Varieties
Although numerous alchemilla species exist, only a few have found their way into ornamental gardens. Most commonly planted is versatile and rugged A. mollis, measuring up to 12 inches tall and 24 inches around, with leaves up to 6 inches around. Its velvety gray-green leaves catch and hold drops of dew and rain which sparkle in the light, making it worth growing for the foliage alone. Cultivars include A. mollis 'Robusta’, which is slightly larger and more upright than the species, and A. mollis ‘Thriller’, with a more compact habit and greener flowers. Introduced from Europe, A. mollis ‘Auslese’ is more upright with flowers of lime green. All thrive in zones 3-8.
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A. mollis 'Robusta’
A. mollis ‘Thriller’
A. mollis ‘Auslese’
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A. alpinaA. saxatilis
A. erythropoda

Smaller and more delicate, A. alpina forms low mounds only 6-8 inches high, with deep green leaves edged in silver. Similarly compact, the leaves of A. saxatilis, or alpine lady’s mantle, are deeply cut. A. erythropoda, or dwarf lady’s mantle, looks identical to A. mollis but is half its size. All are hardy in zones 2-9.

Quite different from other alchemillas, A. ellenbeckii, or creeping lady’s mantle, carpets the ground with tiny green leaves borne on red stems. The plant's small yellow flowers remain tucked in the foliage. This ground-hugging habit makes it ideal for tucking between stepping stones. It’s hardy only in zones 6-9, where it remains green throughout the year.

How to Grow
Trouble-free and tolerant of a variety of condition, alchemilla does best in moist, fertile soil. It performs in both sun and shade, but prefers afternoon shade. Place specimens of A. mollis 18 to 24 inches apart; smaller cultivars can be spaced more closely. After bloom is finished, shear back the flowers and any tattered leaves. This will rejuvenate the plant so that it looks neat for the rest of the season, and may even encourage a light rebloom. This plant multiplies slowly by creeping rhizomes. When it becomes crowded, alchemilla benefits from division, best performed in spring or fall.

Uses
Alchemilla makes a marvelous edger for any border, and can even substitute for ground cover. The bright yellow-green flowers offer a delightful contrast to deep purple or blue plants, such as dark-leaved heucheras. The fluffy, go-with-everything blooms create a useful filler in floral arrangements, both fresh and dried.


DG Member Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo of A. mollis by kudrick
A. mollis 'Robusta' by AnniesAnnuals
A. mollis 'Thriller' by jg48650
A. mollis 'Auslese' by Gabrielle
A. alpina by TuttiFrutti
A. saxatilis by plantaholic186
A. erythropoda by AnniesAnnuals

 


  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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