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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in purple flowers (5)


Itoh Peonies Are Not Easy to Find

Pictured above is Itoh peony Morning Lilac. It remained modest in growth and appearance during the previous four years and only this season has it merited the attribute “spectacular”. For this impatient gardener, four years was a very long time to wait.

Itohs are sturdy perennials that are impossible to dig up once planted; consequently, they defy multiplication by root splitting. Industrial growers here in Quebec employ tissue culture propagation to create new plants. Then the seedings are sold to growers who nurture them until they are ready for market. The gestation time from initial lab procreation to spectacular flowering takes years. Perhaps that accounts for the extremely high price tag for mature Itohs at both wholesale and retail sellers.

The Itoh family of peonies produces theatrically bold, oversized flower heads that do not require staking even in heavy rain. It feels like a gift from the gods that a plant which blooms in vivid tropical colors should survive so successfully in our cold climate.

Meanwhile, a magnificent garden design project is underway here in Montreal. A private park, where I once created flamboyant flowerbeds that blend English style perennials with bold colored winter- compatible roses, is being expanded.

The owner has allocated a generous budget that permits me to source any plants I deem appropriate. His love of flower gardens inspires me to plant Itoh peonies. Alas, they are not easy to find.

Two of the wholesalers upon whom I rely no longer carry them. A local upscale nursery retailer stocks a meager variety in small sizes that will not bloom for another two years. Growers situated in rural parts of the country sell them ready to bloom  but I must lose a day of designing and planting to source them.

Now that Itohs are just beginning to bloom, I have a strong desire to share the joy of this dramatic perennial with the client for he is as passionate about flowers as I am. Perhaps I will give up the rest that my body sorely needs this weekend to take a long drive out to the countryside where Itohs are available. Such a client deserves the extra service. The body will have to wait.


A Purple Autumn Perennial That Pops: Vernonia Lettermannii

Photo credit:The University of Tennessee, Institute of Agriculture

A client gave me a mandate to enhance her flowerbed whenever I find a reliable perennial that blooms in purple.

To please her, I scour my suppliers’ catalogues every spring looking for purple blooming plants. Then I test grow them for a few seasons to determine how they perform. Most are disappointing.  A few become messy or invasive. Some are short-lived plants lasting one or two seasons while others are unable to survive climate conditions in my growing zone.

Happily, this year I discovered that the recently introduced Vernonia lettermannii  - also referred to as Narrow-leaf Ironweed - meets my rigorous requirements for neatness and low maintenance. I intend to surprise my client by planting it in her garden this coming spring.  

Photo credit:

Although it is dramatically shorter than the species Vernonia arborescens or the variety Vernonia mammoth, lettermannii provides a far more intense color display than either of its taller cousins. It blooms in August and September in a bright true purple that projects from afar and happily holds its color in the August sun.

Unlike its taller relatives that fade as they age and shrink from view, the florets of lettermannii hold their form and maintain a vivid color [albeit slightly more reddish] long after dormancy sets in. By October, the flower heads may have long expired but their rich color, now on slightly scrunchy petals, sustains itself for another few weeks.

Here are several photos from this past season of Vernonia lettermannii  in one of my October flowerbeds:

Vernonia lettermannii satisfies gardeners’ needs on several fronts. It is a butterfly and hummingbird magnet. It feed a passion for purple flowers both when in bloom and into creeping dormancy and it enriches the color story of the autumn garden by extending the bloom season well into October.

photo credit:

An additional attribute is its magnificent feathery foliage. In late spring, the perennial shoots up to create a large, soft mound of glossy-green foliage that is enchanting to behold and heaven to touch. Throughout the growing season, this visual delight continues to add to the garden a] sumptuous architectural detail - think round but softer boxwood plants - and b] feathery sensuality like Amsonia hubrechtii.

Cold hardy in USDA Zones 4  [CND Zone 5] Vernonia lettermannii is a heat tolerant plant that grows two or three feet tall and wide in full sun, even in poor rocky soil, under average to dry conditions. Good drainage is required. Periods of inundation are tolerated, but not heavy or saturated soils.

Few if any retail nurseries stock Vernonia in any of its varieties. Consequently, all the varieties growing in my garden were purchased from mail order suppliers.

Here is how online seller Plant  describes this flowering perennial :-

Vernonia lettermannii is a fascinating ironweed that hails from Arkansas and Oklahoma where it can be found in rocky soils and on rock outcrops. Imagine taking an Amsonia hubrichtii, shrinking it to 2' tall x 2' wide, shearing it into a round ball, then topping it with hundreds of purple flowers in August and early September, and you have Vernonia lettermannii...a hummingbird delight. We grow this in our hot, dry, scree garden where it has caused visitors to lust in their hearts.

The seller’s words above are not hyperbole. Although the variety lettermannii  is much shorter than the species, it  produces a far more dramatic color display than any of  its taller cousins and it holds that color long than they do - even after it goes dormant.

At that time of year, while the gardener is mournfully anticipating the falling leaves of autumn and when there is little or no color left in the fall flowerbed, Vernonia lettermannii can cheer the heart and  take one’s breath away.


Itoh Peonies, Beet Soup, and Bold Colored Gardens.

The supplier's catalogue labeled this color Lavender Pink. It looks darker and richer in my garden. My eyes tell me that it's Purple.In my quest for knowledge about Japanese peonies, I planted several introductory-sized varieties in my test garden to see how they would perform; I wanted to determine if they might be suitable for my clients. One variety that disappointed me was Itoh peony Morning Lilac; it flowered in the color of beet soup instead of the lavender-pink tones depicted in the supplier’s catalogue.

A trade photo similar to the one in my supplier's catalogue.The saturation of its color was too deep. No perennial growing nearby is that vivid or rich; a situation that made the new plant stand out for its boldness. Allowing it to remain in my garden would disturb the color theme that I labored for so many years to develop.

However, on the day set aside to dig it out for discard, the flower opened fully. That is when noticed how dramatically its rich, gold stamens contrasted with the petal coloration. At that moment, I cancelled my plans to administer capital punishment. This peony didn’t deserve the compost heap; all it needed was an appropriate home. I have a colleague who likes rich colors and I am certain that she will appreciate this plant more than I do.

Don’t be deceived by the color of the twin peonies in the photo immediately above this paragraph. The camera captured a shade of purple, just a little bit closer to the soft tones depicted in the catalogue, but unlike the deep bold tones I actually saw in my garden in blazing sunlight. Sometimes cameras produce images that are unreal. So do suppliers' catalogues! Next season, I intend to order Itoh peony First Arrival. Perhaps that one will produce a more accurate  lavender-pink flower.

Regal colors can work well in a flowerbed when they are combined with others of similar saturation. That will create a balance appreciated by all, even if the bold colors themselves are not.

Readers will find a relevant and passionate discussion about hot colored flowers written by Sarah Raven, in The Bold and Beautiful Garden. Find my review of this well-received publication here and look for the book in the far right column, at the top of this blog page, under the heading Book You Need: 12 favorites.


Allium Alert: About Those Tall Purple Balls.

Allium Purple Sensation

 Price sticker shock is what happens when unsuspecting gardeners attempt to purchase the impressive Allium bulbs known as Gigantium or Globemaster. The cost per bulb is high. Now, there is an antidote for this trauma. It is the Allium bulb Purple Sensation, a better-priced, better-valued option.

Allium Purple Sensation in my garden I planted it in my flowerbeds last autumn and the effect in spring, when it came into bloom, was dazzling.

Purple Allium, of any size, flower in shades that are ideal for English-style flower gardens; they will also add depth and richness to hot colored flowerbeds, as one can see above on the cover of Sara Raven's book, The Bold and Brilliant Garden. circumference of A. Purple Sensation's flowering sphere [about the size of a tennis ball] is half the size of the larger varieties and its height of three feet places it mid way between A. Gigantium and A. Globemaster. With those technical specs, why pay about $8 to $14 for one giant bulb when 10 Purple Sensation bulbs cost only $10 and give the gardener equally exciting visuals? [Plant Purple Sensation in repeating groups of three or five, or in a serpentine row of five or seven bulbs]. When it flowers, its stately posture and long blooming globes are just as eye catching as their giant cousins.

This affordable variety combines elegant, vertical structure with substantial, rounded forms that, together with its rich coloration, bring exciting novelty to traditional flowerbeds., after the flowering ball has gone to seed, [image above] it continues to add interesting textural form to the garden until mid-summer, when it begins to look scraggly [an appropriate time to cut it down]. Planting Purple Sensation is akin to thinking outside the proverbial box. am not the only gardener that has stumbled across this marvelous substitute. In an attempt to purchase more Purple Sensation for my clients - because they are all clamoring for those purple balls - I discovered that two of the more prominent bulb sellers in Canada, Veseys and Botanus are now sold-out of this popular bulb. In addition, three significant nurseries in the greater Montreal area, as well as three major big box garden centers, are inventory-depleted of this Allium variety. Clearly, more gardeners - than anyone might have guessed - are discovering this very impressive bargain bulb.

Image:, by patiently scrolling through Google, I was able to find another online source here in Canada, called Campbell River Garden Centre, located on the west coast, in British Columbia. They are relatively new to online marketing and I contacted them by phone only because of a technical glitch at check - out. Nevertheless, they had the stock I needed and sent it by mail, only minutes after I called in my order. I am delighted that my three-day, anxious hunt for Purple Sensation has finally ended. I am even more relieved that I can now fill my clients flowerbeds with those tall purple balls at a price that will make them happy.


Delicious Purpleicious 

A new variety of Veronica began to bloom in my garden during the third week of June. It started out as a one gallon potted perennial that I received in a shipment from my supplier last season. It was not on my original shopping list. However, the freight charges were so high for the inventory needed, that I decided to increase the size of my order to amortize delivery cost.

By paging through the supplier’s catalogue, I was able to identify plants that appeared to have potential in designing flower gardens. As usual, I looked for height, color saturation, or prolonged bloom period. Finding a perennial with all three attributes would have been a pleasant surprise.

That season, I had become sensitive to purple when I contracted to design a flower garden for a client who loves any shade or tone in that family. Veronica Purpleicious, a new introduction, piqued my interest for its color, a vivid purple-mauve, and its declared bloom period, June to August. Some sellers say it will bloom until September. I suppose that applies to those who garden in warmer climates. to most perennials delivered directly from growers and nurseries, Purpleicious had been pumped with plant food to ensure impressive flowering. I did not pay attention to that attribute. Experience had taught me that plant steroids, as I call them, enhance both the height and volume of a newly delivered flowering perennial to an extent that the gardener might be disappointed the following season, when the plant reverts to its genetically predetermined performance level.

That is why I am pleased that Purpleicious is as spectacular in year two as it was when it first arrived. The greatest surprise is not that it repeats last season’s stellar performance, but that it has already doubled in volume in a very dignified manner. Some perennials become problematic when they begin to sprawl or invade. However, regal color, neat mound, and disciplined upright posture of flowering spikes make this plant’s exponential growth welcome. supplier’s catalogue informed that this plant will spread to a width of only 18 inches. Now, that’s what I call a neat plant!  I suspect that mine has already reached that potential and I am pleased. In rounded volume of its clump and plush textural quality of floral spikes, this perennial adds substantial architectural presence to the flowerbed. The intenseness of its unique medium-light purple is also welcome as it enhances and complements the traditional colors that define English-inspired gardens.

Veronica Purpleicious may reach 2 feet in height depending on growing conditions. No matter!  What it lacks in stature it compensates for in saturation, texture, volume, and overall presence. The best news to garden designers is that growers declare it will bloom for most of the summer. However, that fact still requires corroboration. If it lives up to that promise, attractive flowerbeds couldn’t get better than that! Following that, if long-term sustainability in the garden can be determined, this plant will go from exciting to spectacular.