Miss Floribunda: In search of blue flowers for landscaping
Dear Miss Floribunda,
When I bought my house in Hyattsville two years ago, the deciding factor in my choice was that the backyard had not been landscaped. The former owners had children and dogs and had kept it a play area. Although a lot of work faced me, the idea of having carte blanche was irresistible. At first, I took “blanche” literally after seeing photographs of the white gardens created by such landscape geniuses as Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West. I tried out a very modest version with white annuals: petunias, geraniums, alyssum, cosmos and moonflowers. It looked cool in hot weather and was nice at night, but it soon became a little boring.
Since then I’ve noticed plans and seed collections for other monochrome gardens. Blue is my favorite color, but I know that some of the recommended plants are actually purplish. In addition, some of the blue flowers I like and grew up with in the Pacific Northwest might not do well in the climate around here. So, can you recommend flowers that are really and truly blue and that will thrive in Hyattsville? Any special tips?
True Blue on Buchanan Street
Dear True Blue,
You have quite a challenge ahead of you. Aside from the difficulty of blending blues, you won’t find quite as many blue flowers that will thrive in our area as you will find flowers in other colors in the spectrum. The most beautiful blue flowers generally come from cool mountainous areas like the Alps, the Himalayas, the mountain ranges of South Africa, and your own Pacific Northwest. However, there are a few blue-flowering plants that thrive here that are truly gorgeous.
Not having created a blue garden myself, I telephoned someone who has: Celeste Azulejo, one of my oldest gardening friends. She was quick to point out that you face many pitfalls, especially when ordering plants you haven’t seen in the petal. As you suspect, you can’t trust the term “blue.” The “True Blue” petunia, for example, is quite purple. Celeste suggests when choosing any supposedly blue plant from a catalog or online to look at the Latin name and choose those that have such qualifiers as “azurea,” “cyanus” and “caerulea.”
For example, the grape hyacinths to plant in fall for very blue spring bloom are Muscari azureum The other muscari are what she terms “violet,” which are blue enough for many people but probably not for your purposes. For spring she also recommends the very early blooming Iris reticulata “Harmony,” an almost royal blue; the sapphire-blue Scilla siberica, which look more like bluebells than most plants called by that name; and the sky-blue chionodoxa, or “Glory-of-the-Snow.” All of these rapidly naturalize to stunning effect. Later in the spring, the exquisite Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) will also spread out in a shady and well-drained location. If you have a moist enough area, the easiest forget-me-not to grow is the Myosotis sylvatica, which blooms from April till June.
This brings us into summer, where the so-called Chinese forget-me-not, Cynoglossum amabile, is easily grown and blooms in intense heat. “Heavenly Blue” morning glories provide heart-stopping color as do the blue cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus. In our area most hydrangeas are intensely blue. Hydrangeas are like litmus paper: when the soil is acid the flowers are blue and when it’s alkaline the flowers are pink. Notable exceptions are those bred to be white or ruby red. If you want to be sure, choose a classic like “Nikko Blue” or, if you prefer lacecaps to mopheads, “Blue Billow.” (If you are planting them around the foundation of your home be sure it isn’t limestone — I made that mistake and have pink hydrangeas.)
For softer shades of powder blue, you could try plumbago and blue lace flowers (Trachymene coerulea). The humble dayflower, (Commelina), viper’s bugloss, (Echium), and borage bloom in very rich hues of ultramarine and turquoise.
Celeste cautions that the tidy Borago laxiflora is more manageable than the sprawling Borago officinalis. She recommends cobalt blue lobelia for shady areas and hanging planters. For a more formal effect Veronica and salvia are good, Salvia farinacea being a much truer blue than most other salvias. Veronicas come in different colors and heights, but there are some genuinely blue ones for many purposes — some to provide height at the back of the border and some creeping varieties that make a beautiful ground cover.
In late summer Celeste likes the diaphanous azure Nigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, and in autumn she favors plants with berries of blue and a number of asters. Her favorite is the “Astrid Thomas.” which grows to a manageable height of 12 inches, and whose color she describes as “twilight in fairy-land.”
My one tip to you is to include silver-toned fillers like lamb’s ear, artemisia and dusty miller to draw the various tonalities together. You can nip in the bud the pink or yellow flowers of these plants on the rare occasions they want to bloom; the foliage is continuously beautiful.
If you would like to consult with other color-loving gardeners, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society at 10 a.m. on March 15 at the home of Heather Olsen, 4915 42nd Avenue.