Everybody Loves Lobelia

Lobelia erinusEverybody loves Lobelia.
This should not be a surprise, you might say, since there are a total of 415 Lobelia species throughout the world. There must be at least one species you would love and at least one I would love, too.
Two notable Lobelia species are seen in San Fernando Valley gardens. One appreciates fast-draining soil and regular water. The other is less fussy about soil and absolutely nonchalant when it comes to water; that is, it doesn’t need much water at all. Both can grow in full to partial sun exposures, both will trail over a wall or out of a flowerpot, and both demonstrate strong resistance to insect pests and plant diseases of every kind.
One of these species, Lobelia erinus, is what comes to mind when the word “Lobelia” is heard, at least among those with a modicum of gardening experience. It’s the Lobelia species that everybody loves and I think this love may be associated with two qualities.
First, the most widely grown cultivar of this species is a royal blue found in few other flowers. When it comes to flowers, blue is the least encountered of all colors, and true blue is rarer still, most blue flowers falling into the baby blue, mauve blue or lavender blue category.
Second, this Lobelia species grows small and compact, yet gently trails out of containers when called upon to do so.
The genus Lobelia is named after Matthias de l’Obel, who lived 400 years ago. He was a physician to the kings of England and the Netherlands, and a botanist, too. In those days, physicians were intimately familiar with the medicinal properties of plants and were typically master gardeners as well.
Physicians were constantly experimenting with plants brought back by seafaring explorers from their circumnavigations of the globe. When these explorers stopped at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, they harvested the seeds of Lobelia erinus, which is indigenous to that locale.
Lobelia erinus contains pain-killing chemicals; lobeline, a substance derived from a New England species of Lobelia, has shown promise in the treatment of drug addiction.
Lobelia seeds sprout easily, as long as the soil is to their liking. When it comes to planting, Lobelia seeds are tiny and barely should be pressed into the earth, which must be absolutely soft and fast draining, for germination to occur.
White lobelia, while less frequently encountered than the blues and lavenders, is occasionally seen. I recently saw it artfully situated beneath some pink hydrangeas.
Whereas Lobelia erinus is somewhat finicky about soil, Lobelia laxiflora, or Mexican cardinal flower, is not. Laxiflora, the species name, means “loose flowering” and refers to the fact that its flowers may appear anywhere and everywhere from within its sprawling, 2-foot tall mat of rhizomatous growth.
Mexican cardinal flower can grow with a little or a lot of water but, where soil stays wet, its growth will quickly get out of control. It blooms on and off for long periods throughout the year with pendulous yellow and orange, tubular and flared, flowers.
Purple hopbush
I recently spotted a strain of purple hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa ‘Purpurea’) with notably reddish papery fruits. On most hopbush specimens, these fruits turn from golden yellow to brown and are barely noticeable, but occasionally a plant is found with distinctively red fruit.
Purple hopbush gets its name from the fact that its foliage is purplish bronze and that its fruit were used by the first European settlers in Australia, which is its habitat, to make beer. While they are drought tolerant and make a fast growing hedge of around 10 feet tall, the downfall of hopbushes is a root fungus that generally kills the plants within six or seven years of being planted. Once established, it appears that the slightest bit of standing water is deadly to them, so it would be wise to withhold irrigation entirely after their first year or two in the ground.
Meidiland roses
Are you familiar with Meidiland roses and the story behind them? Meidiland (MAY-de-land) roses are produced by the Meilland (this name, although close, differs from that of the roses) family, whose original growing grounds are still thriving in the south of France.
The family has been doing this for more than 100 years, but their first truly commercial success came after World War II with the introduction of ‘Peace.’ This rose had been developed just before the war but began to be marketed throughout Europe and the U.S. in 1945. Over the next 50 years, more than 100 million ‘Peace’ roses were sold.
‘Peace’ is an ivory white to pale yellow with pink to red undertones on the petal edges. Hybrid tea roses, in general, have a reputation for disease susceptibility but ‘Peace’ is a hybrid tea exception, exhibiting unusual disease resistance for its type.
Meidilands as a whole are widely regarded for their toughness. They are similar to David Austin roses in having been hybridized from so-called old roses — or rose varieties that were found growing in gardens from the time of Napoleon. The difference in the new old-rose hybrids is their recurrent blooming capacity. Meidiland roses are especially famous for their shrub and ground cover selections, which bloom from spring until fall. Shrub types are pruned once a year, if even that often, with dead wood removal the only truly essential pruning required. They make excellent informal, long-blooming hedges.
If you like, you can invigorate them with a winter pruning, cutting back to a height of 18 inches. Ground cover types stay under 2 feet, while Meidiland hedges grow up to 5 feet tall. I recently spotted a magnificent shrub that looked a lot like the single rose variety known as ‘Candia Meidiland,’ whose deep pink petals surround white centers.

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