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In Praise of Biennials

Norma Evans

Sweet William, an old-fashioned garden favourite, is still a popular biennial. Beginner gardeners may not realize that the original plant dies and seedlings spring up, winter over and bloom the next year. Most biennials behave this way. They bloom in late June and early July, and drop their seed in July and August. The plant then dies, but the seed germinates and creates new plants, most of which will bloom the following year. It makes sense to mulch these small plants in case we have a harsh winter with much freezing and thawing.

Few plants can equal the colour range or fragrance of Sweet William. The "babies" drop close to the "mother" plant and are easy to rearrange for the following year. Self-sown seedlings may be moved in fall or early spring. The monks in the 1100s were cultivating this plant, but there is no consensus as to the origin of the name.

Foxgloves (Digitalis), Hollyhocks (Alcea). Canterbury Bells and Honesty are all popular biennials, and there are many others. Both "Fox Glove" and Hollyhocks" were listed in the Toronto Nursery Catalogue of 1827.

Hollyhock flowers were used to heal coughs and colds and the dried flowers made a deep purple-black dye. Hollyhocks were once grown for their fiber and were likely taken to Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades. New cultivars are now available and if the double apricot called "Peaches ‘n’ Dreams" lives up to its picture, it is indeed a showstopper. The Powder Puffs Mixed are listed as fully double in a range of five colours—often short lived. Nigra is a rich chocolate maroon flower with a black center. Some gardeners are returning to the traditional single form. Patrick Lima, a well-known gardener on the Bruce Peninsula, says that he used to prefer doubles but they tended to look congested and began to remind him of those toilet paper decorations on wedding cars. There are varieties out there for every taste.

Foxgloves had even more unusual names in England "Witch’s Thimble or " Bluidy-Man’s Finger." Foxglove "babies" travel away from the "mother" plant and may turn up were least expected. The seed catalogues list varieties from 30" to 6’ so they have many uses from the front to the back of garden bed. In addition some may turn out to be "perennials where happy". The new colours are spectacular – with yellow included. Foxglove "bells" hang down on the stalk but some of the catalogues are listing an upward facing variety called Candy Mountain. Foxgloves need a fairly rich well-drained soil and will not grow in wet soils. They seem to do best in partial shade.

The scientific name for foxglove, Digitalis, refers to hoe easy it is to slip the flower onto a finger. The use of foxglove extract for the treatment of heart conditions has been around since the 1700s and is still in use today. A group of compounds are extracted mostly from the leaves of the second year’s growth and create drugs such as digitoxin or digoxin (brand names include Lanoxin and Purgoxin).

Another old-fashioned bienniel is Lunaria, but most people know it as Silver Pennies or Silver Dollar. Easy to grow in almost any garden soil, needs some shade but can handle a lot of shade, produces splendid purple flowers and the seed pods are attractive in winter bouquets. Once you have it in your garden it is probably there to stay because it is quite hardy and seeds readily. You just have to pull out the seedlings where you don’t want them.

There is always "something new under the sun" so enjoy some of the newer varieties and some new colours. They can all be grown inexpensively from seed. The seeds of most biennials can be started in March or April, moved outside in April or May, and the plants will bloom that same year.