When I discovered Vernonia noveboracensis last year, my excitement was fueled by the height and color of the plant. Only a handful of perennials grow as tall as this one does, [ 6-8 ft. (1.8-2.4 m)] especially at the end of summer, when most lofty plants bloom in gold or yellow. I found it at the nursery, lying on its side like an invalid, because it had outgrown its seedling-sized pot and was root bound. It was planted in my garden in August of 2009, with an expectation that it would establish itself and deliver impressive results by August 2010. That did not happen. Clearly, this infant perennial needed more time to mature and its lack of presence in my garden a year later was disappointing. One tall stalk grew where I had expected several and that stem had only a modest amount of branching florets. Part of my disappointment lay in the fact that the color of its blooms, a muted violet magenta, does not have the brilliance to project itself over long distances. I came to the conclusion that unless one admires this plant up close, it makes no statement at all.
That negative impression was short lived. A few days after it bloomed, I began my vacation and found myself in a public park in downtown Zürich where Vernonia was the star attraction. What a shock to see this plant at center stage. It had been planted as part of a larger flower composition, now mostly gone to seed, and remained the only perennial still in bloom. To my surprise, it looked impressive. A long row of twelve mature Vernonia formed a lush backdrop to the original composition. What I learned in Zurich is that this perennial can be visually effective when it is mature, with many brackets of blooms, and when planted in drifts. Distributing plants in drifts is a garden design technique that produces dramatic results. However, it requires architectural perennials like Vernonia that can also supply winter interest. The challenge, going forward, is to find a way to incorporate drift planting into small residential gardens.
By the time I returned home, my own Vernonia florets were spent and I decided to leave them uncut so that I might be able to differentiate this plant from other spent stalks that grew nearby. That decision turned out to be wise because later in autumn, the Vernonia dead heads morphed into cinnamon-colored feathered seed pods that shimmered in the sun. This visual and textural interest was a bonus that I could have never imagined.
At the far end of my garden, another story was unfolding where only a few months before I had planted Boltonia. In my never ending search for tall perennials, I purchased a seedling at the nursery in order to experiment with it in compositions. For many years, I had seen this plant in other gardens and never found it attractive. It reminded me of a giant weed. Even the pink color of its flowers looked insipid in the sun. What an irony that a plant should be so distorted by the very thing that it needs to survive. Nevertheless, I had wanted to see how it would perform in my garden setting and had hoped to be inspired by its height. It did no better in my garden than it did in others. Even though it was tall [4 to 5 feet] and architecturally majestic, it remained unimpressive in bloom. That it needed to be staked early in its growth, just like a Delphinium or Aster Alma Potchke, did not earn it high marks either.
However, it did occur to me, that if I were to lift and move it to the other side of the garden, in front of or behind Vernonia, perhaps the two plants might enhance each other. I am trying to imagine if the juxtaposition of pale pink and violet magenta will help improve the color projection of both plants.
I am also inspired to add silver blue Perovskia in front of the Vernonia and lemon yellow Helianthus nearby. The possibility that I might generate color synergy between the four perennials intrigues me and I have placed that project on my to-do list for next season. It’s a wonder how these ideas keep percolating upward now that it is too late to act upon them until next spring.