Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Plant Profiles: Verbena bonariensis

A comma butterfly sips nectar from a Verbena bonariensis bloom
A comma butterfly sips nectar from a Verbena bonariensis bloom - in my garden last year 

May's always a tense time of the year... it's peak gardening time with lots of spring jobs clamouring for attention, and then there's the key question... have all my precious plants survived the winter? There are always some alarming gaps in my borders which can't be written off and replaced until the end of May.

These gaps are where the tender salvias, dahlias and short-lived perennials live, joined in my daily anxious searches this year by the Verbena bonariensis 'curtain' between my double terrace beds. The good news is a couple of the plants have survived... the bad news is a couple of them haven't.

This was a bit of a surprise as Verbena bonariensis is relatively hardy for my part of the world - rated as H4 according to the RHS - but the cold heavy clay of my garden always causes more winter damage than the hardest of frosts. We had a mild yet wet winter here in Wiltshire, so my plant casualties are a little more than usual this year. I'm sad to see my Salvia 'Amistad' and Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' have succumbed too.

However, my garden has provided me with an immediate solution, for the verbena at least. It's a notorious self-seeder, and indeed a couple of seedlings have appeared in the shelter of my central patio steps. With some careful relocation, the gaps in my display will be complete.

Cultivation Notes

Flower 'parachutes' from Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis grows tall, reaching around 2 to 2.5 metres in height and up to a metre wide. However, it's quite a see-through plant and so can be used successfully all around the border, not just at the back. My friend L in Tetbury uses it as a see-through screen to great effect combined with low growing cottage-style plants in the narrow border between her patio area and the main planted part of the garden. It's a good plant for prairie-style borders too.

It prefers a sunny spot, in a moist, well-drained soil, and isn't that
Insect homing in on a Verbena bonariensis flower head
Click on the pic for a surprise!
fussy pH-wise. It flowers from August to October and it's a great plant for attracting pollinators to the garden. It produces dense clusters of seeds, which smaller garden birds feast on throughout the winter. I love watching their balancing antics as they perch on the tall stems. For this reason alone I leave the stems over winter and only cut them down in the spring. After all, any unwanted seedlings can easily be edited* out of the garden.

Mildew on a Verbena bonariensis leafIf growing in a colder part of the UK, a winter mulch will help to protect your plants. In view of my winter losses, I'll try that myself this autumn.

I haven't had much in the way of problems pests or disease-wise, though I did have a problem with mildew a couple of years ago. This was due to the dry summer that year, combined with a late planting, which I didn't water sufficiently. Watering, plus the milky drink I refer to in the above link were sufficient to bring my plants through to grace last year's garden.

Verbena bonariensis has the RHS Award of Garden Merit, though non-UK based readers should note that it's regarded as invasive in some parts of the world. For instance, it's considered a weed in Fiji, New Guinea and other Pacific islands, and is on the invasive species watchlist for Washington State in the USA.

* = editing is the term used when a wanted plant needs taking in hand, rather than weeding which is reserved for, er... weeds ;)

Latin without tears

Verbena bonariensis hails from South America, which is reflected in its species name - bonariensis means from Buenos Aires. As well as Argentina, it's found in the warm tropical regions of South America such as Brazil, Chile, and Columbia.

Verbena refers to the Latin name for the sacred boughs of olive, myrtle and other plants carried in processions. 

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  1. Hello again, VP lovely photo, both butterfly and plant are a favourites of mine. Interesting to hear your plants don’t always survive but as you say, your clay soil might be at the root of that - no pun intended ;-) I understand that anxious wait very well up my way. I hear of so many blogs at your end of the UK tell of it being a prolific self seeder so it’s no surprise at all that it could be seen as a weed in warmer climates of the world. Mine looks like it’s starting to come back this year (I no longer spend money on multiple plants – every year I keep meaning to try cuttings though. I have grown it from seed).

    This year I’ve had the anxious wait for the lower growing, more compact (better for wind damage perhaps) Verbena Bonariensis Lollipop come to life and it seems to be – looking forward to seeing that one bulk up :-)

    1. Hi Shirley - thanks for the reminder re 'Lollipop' - a great alternative where a shorter plant is preferred, which retains the virtues of the original VB - a pretty plant loved by wildlife :)

  2. I think it might be to do with liking a warmer temperature and free draining soil. Soil ph doesn't seem to make a difference. We gardened in Oxfordshire (alkaline chalk) before moving to Exmoor (acid sandy) and in both places Verbena Bonariensis grows prolifically.

    1. Hi Gail - I've seen it used pretty extensively in England and Wales on a variety of soil types. Its H4 rating might make it more of an annual plant further north...

  3. I'm pleased to see Gail's comments about chalk as I have several trays of seedlings ready for a wavy floral hedge which I will get around to planting in our alkaline soil at some point during the coming century. Isn't it typical that they seed into the shelter of steps? All that soil available to them.. *she types while eyeing a collection of wayward viola in paving cracks.

    1. Ah yes, wayward Violas... I have plenty of those too Sarah. They're not as picky as my VB seems to be ;)

  4. Thar We have verbena self seeding all the place. We have a few in the front flower bed that never got back last year that reshoot end. Strangely we have ,clay soil too maybe at the front of the house they receive some sort of protection.

    1. Been on the plot today and the verbena there has survived well too in a more exposed area.

    2. Good to hear it thrives for you in Yorkshire Sue - my BIL has some in Tingley too :)

  5. Oh that butterfly looks most happy with its perch VP. Verbena bonariensis seedlings proliferated so much at the allotment that I had to eradicate them in fairness to my neighbouring plot holders. In the garden salvia 'Amistad' came through last winter only for the new growth to be decimated by molluscs.


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