Monday, 23 July 2012

Silene Coronaria and Geranium 'Patricia'

Rose campion and Armenian geranium make a perfect pairing. The campion, with its fuzzy silver stems makes an upright contrast to the mound of finely-cut geranium foliage spangled with dark-eyed magenta flowers. The flowers on the campion are, if anything, even more vivid than the geranium’s, almost a fluorescent pink. See them together here and here.

geranium psilostemon
Geranium psilostemon, Wikipedia Commons, photo by Frank Vincentz

The two come from the same part of the world, too. Lychnis is native to southern and central Europe and central Asia, while geranium psilostemon comes from Armenia and the surrounding Caucasian territories.

silene coronaria
Silene coronaria, Wikipedia Commons, photo by Udo Schröter 

There are those who would say that this is a eye-hurting combination. The word I would use is “showy”, and who doesn't want a bit of pizazz in the garden?

Lychnis, as you probably already know, has been relocated to the silenes, and is now known as silene coronaria. (See my previous post: Ken Thompson says don't worry.) If you look at the shape of the flowers and buds on silene dioica (red campion) and silene latifolia (white campion), they are very similar to the rose campion. Visual similarity can be misleading, though, as in the great geranium/pelargonium muddle. In addition to looking alike, the silenes share DNA, which settles it.

Which is a shame, really, as it has been known as lychnis since the times of the ancient Greeks. The name means ‘light’ and comes from the stems being used as lamp wicks. The Roman writer Pliny tells us that the stems were also used for chaplets, being stiff. This is the origin of the coronaria part, which I had always assumed referred to the flowers. (Cornonaria meaning a woman who makes garlands.) This was probably what inspired Linnaeus to rename it Agrostemma, or "field crown" in his Species Plantarum.

It is interesting that Pliny compares phlox and lychnis, as their flowers have a similar shape. Another writer, Graham Stuart Thomas, says that "the rounded flowers are like good pinks..."(260) The stems branch this way and that, with flowers appearing at the end of each branch. The stems and especially the leaves are pleasant to touch, being fuzzy like lambs' ears (stachys byzantina). Some find the subtlety of the gray leaves let down by the bright flowers, even going so far as to call it "garish". 

Silene coronaria; photo by Wouter Hagens

Lychins may have been a garden plant since classical times, and ever since (medieval Christians called it Our Lady’s Rose) but geranium psilostemon is a more recent introduction.

It was discovered in Armenia in 1867 by Pierre Edmond Boissier, who named it geranium armenum. However, it had been described before, by Karl Friedrich Ledebour in 1842, who called it psilostemon, meaning that it had hairless stamens. You have to be a botanist to think of something like that. (The “p” is silent, by the way.)

Both gentlemen have reason to be pleased with themselves. GP is a great plant, with leaves as finely cut as a Japanese maple's, and those vivid flowers, set off by the black eye in the middle of each bloom. Graham Stuart Thomas describes it as a “foliage plant of excellence” (187) especially when its leaves take on reddish hues in the fall. Noel Kingsbury praises it for not having lost the free habit and balance of flower to foliage that it has in the wild.  My favourite is Margery Fish's description of how she loved it "at every stage of the game, from the moment it puts its little pink nose through the soil until it opens its wicked eyes". (Rice: 113)

When I grew it in northern England it flowered from June to August, benefiting from a cut-back every so often when it got too many seedheads. This length of bloom meant that I could pair it with a variety of plants, from other June flowers like lychnis and aquilegia, to the late July show of loosestrife, monarda and monkshood. In fact, my old garden diary records that both geranium and lychnis were still flowering in October one year. (Although I grew the variety 'Patricia' rather than the straight species; it may flower longer to make up for being paler.) Jenny Fuller points out that the flowers take on a bluish tinge in the low light of fall or evening. (See picture above.)

Geranium 'Patricia' by Simon Ross

Like most geraniums, GP is easy to propagate. Dig up a big clump of it, and break it into smaller ones, with some root in each one. You should be able to just pull it apart with your hands. Replant each piece and keep them watered until they start making new leaves. Geraniums are a gateway plant for us divideaholics – it’s hard to fail with them, and you get over your fear of harming your plant. Once you get confident ripping up geraniums, next it’s the daylilies and then nothing is safe.

Lychnis, on the other hand, is best propagated by letting it seed. It will always come true, and the seedlings don’t seem to mind being moved, as long as they’re well watered before and after. The soft, silvery leaves make seedlings easy to find, too. (And ensure that you’re not nurturing some horrible weed.) This is best done at the end of the season, since if you’re good and pick all the dead-heads off, you can keep your lychnis in bloom pretty much all summer. It’s not as bad a job as it sounds, and the squared-off seedheads are attractive, as well as snapping off cleanly from the stem. 

Both plants are easy-care, long-flowering, and have good leaves as well as flowers. I don't know what more you could ask for. Except maybe subtlety, but you're not going to get it.

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