Scarlet Pimpernel

It is widely regarded as the most ornamental weed, if you dare call it a weed.
Its sudden appearance in the garden is greeted with yelps of astonishment and joy since most people do not consider it a weed at all but a pleasant horticultural surprise they wish would spread.
Alas, it is an annual that dies soon after flowering and may or may not reseed the following year.
The plant to which I refer is scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis).
The name conjures up that classic, mild-mannered yet deceptive gentleman who is a master of disguise. Instantaneously, he can transform himself into a fearless fighter who snatches falsely accused and imprisoned victims of terror, removes them from harm’s way and carries them to freedom.
In the early 1900s, Baroness Orczy wrote “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” a play and novel whose main character later served as a template for the popular masked heroes of comic book, television and cinematic fame.
The scarlet pimpernel plant also disguises itself, albeit in a reverse sort of way. It appears to be the most docile and friendly of plants yet it contains toxins and its digestion by grazing animals may cause their death.
By the same token, scarlet pimpernel is recommended as fit for human consumption. It appears that growing conditions influence its toxicity. Where it grows in a rough, uncultivated environment such as pastureland, its toxins are concentrated to a lethal extent whereas, under cultivated garden conditions, it is a tangy vegetable that adds zing to your salad.
The sobriquet of scarlet pimpernel is also misleading since its flowers are not scarlet, but have the color of orange sherbet.
In the manner of most potentially poisonous plants, scarlet pimpernel’s constituent elements, in the proper dose, are highly curative. Its genus name, Anagallis, is derived from Anagelao, Greek for “to laugh,” since it relieves the sadness that accompanies a variety of illnesses.
In the 18th century, a British herbalist offered convincing evidence that a powder made from scarlet pimpernel could heal epilepsy.
Parkway alternatives
Whenever I pass a parkway, that strip of ground between sidewalk and street, and I see something other than grass planted there, I stop and take a closer look.
Often, the horticultural transformation from grass to garden is quite remarkable. Instead of a struggling green mat of turf you may see native garland flowers (Clarkia unguiculata), California poppies (Eschscholtzia californica), and penstemons. Bees will buzz and hummingbirds will hum where the only previous sound was the early morning hiss of highly pressurized sprinkler spray.
Grassy parkway strips make no sense for several reasons: In order to water the grass, you cannot avoid irrigating cars parked along the curb; sidewalk and street are watered as much as the grass; parkway sprinklers frequently break due to foot traffic; and neighborhood dogs take a fancy to relieving themselves on grassy parkways, necessitating constant reseeding.
It makes sense to consider alternatives.
I recently observed a number of delightful drought-tolerant plants growing in parkway strips, most notably rock purslane (Calandrinia spectabilis). Rock purslane is a unique succulent species. It has long, orchidlike stems topped with magenta-pink flowers.
In nearly all succulents, flowers are either an afterthought or, when present, an ephemeral phenomenon. In the case of rock purslane, however, flowers are a long-lasting main attraction.
When you first notice the flowers and look down to see where they are coming from, you do a double take when you notice a clump of succulent leaves, blue-gray and attractive enough, but dull and plebeian when considering the brilliant and aristocratic flowers above.
Native to Chile, this is a tough perennial that can handle foot traffic and is reputedly resistant to deer. It starts blooming in May and will continue to flower all the way into November. It is hardy down to 15 degrees and may have allelopathic effects since weeds are not found in its vicinity.
Most plants have a downside but rock purslane is not one of them.
If you are looking for yellow flowers to contrast with rock purslane’s pink ones, consider Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa). This is a stalwart perennial with durable flowers that also stand up well in a vase. Leaves are a fuzzy greenish gray. It is a fitting color complement to the vast array of blue and purple sage (Salvia) species.
Lion’s tail (Leonotis Leonurus) is Jerusalem sage’s orange-flowered companion, another rugged perennial that seems to be in bloom most of the year.
Both Jerusalem sage and lion’s tail grow to around 5 feet tall and both are available in compact or dwarf versions that only reach 3 feet.
Leonotis menthifolia is a dwarf lion’s tail that was on sale at the Conejo Valley Botanical Garden nursery in Thousand Oaks the last time I checked. The nursery is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
A warning is in order: A parkway garden can block vision of the street from the driveway and extra caution will be needed when backing out your car.
Tip of the week
It appears that star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) has become the hedge of choice around Valley homes. Long touted as a ground cover and as a vine, gardeners have discovered that it is easily trained into a hedge. All you need are a few feet of chain-link fence or trellis to get it started. Once star jasmine has been encouraged to grow vertically, you just have to keep pruning back all wayward horizontal shoots to make it into a hedge. In truth, star jasmine is kind of a nightmare when grown as a ground cover, a garden function for which it is ill-suited. When grown as a ground cover, star jasmine’s meandering shoots wrap around one another, spiraling up or off to the side, creating an untidy mess that requires constant pruning to keep in bounds.

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