Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Damn Good Plants - Centranthus ruber, Jupiter's Beard

I love those moments when someone raves about a plant that you hadn't previously heard of. Maybe its just new to you or one you've come across in the past but forgotten about.  But, when I first heard the name 'Jupiter's Beard', it didn't conjure up any illusions of grandeur.  Fortunately, Jupiters Beard, or Centranthus ruber also goes by some other more inspiring names like Red Valerian, Scarlet Lightning, or Keys of Heaven.  I think you'd agree, the latter have a slightly more thrilling edge to their names than some an old stinky beard! 

Flickr.com - Captain Mish

White and Pink forms
Flickr.com - Francis Foley
For whatever reason, Centranthus isn't a perennial plant that makes it on too many peoples top ten list.  I suspect the reason is similar to mine, where it lurks in obscurity among other better known plants.   However, this Mediterranean plant is favorite in Europe, embraced as a staple in grand estate gardens to cottage styled gardens.  It's non-stop bloom-fest starts in June as rich carmine-red to pink flowers erupt on 2-3 ft stalks, continuing freely until late summer. There are also white forms available for those looking for a more subtle color to work with. Couple this trait with fragrance and you begin to realize what you've been missing out on.  But for me, the fact that it lures in butterflies who swarm to its nectar rich blooms, made it an easy choice for my garden.

Flowers aside, the foliage has substance, providing a contrasting grey-green bushy backdrop to accompany the bloom.  The leaves are said to flavorful when eaten in a salad, but unless it gives you untold energy or makes hair grow back on head ( a wish of mine! ), I don't understand why you would eat it in the first place.  Compared with other more fussy perennial cousins, Centranthus will flourish without any extra attention.  Even when it comes to pests and diseases, nothing noticeable is known to afflict it, not even deer!  So easy going is its habit, it excels in most soil types and doesn't miss a beat when drought conditions stress both plant and gardener alike.

Flickr.com - henrye72
To get the best from this perennial, site it in full sun and keep the soil pH a little high by adding some lime.  It often naturalizes itself along old walls and close to the foundations of a house where the leaching of lime from concrete keeps the soil sweet.  Don't feel tempted to overly enrich the soil or use a heavy hand with fertilizer.  This is a plant prefers the 'treat it mean, keep it keen' approach.  Flowering may slow to a stop in the heat of summer. If so, pruning it halfway back to stimulate another round of blooms to appear.

Centranthus is known to have a habit of popping up around the garden.  The seeds have little parachutes similar to the seeds of a dandelion, that will catch the wind and carry them to new areas to colonizes.  To reduce this propensity, a bi-weekly deadheading will not only cut back on its colonization but encourage more flowers to appear.

Why more hasn't been done to promote this plant to new homeowners looking for high impact plants with low impact needs is a mystery to me.  It's a perfect winning plant for someone new to gardening, that will build their confidence as it grows from strength to strength. So now when you're asked what your top ten list of perennials would be, you might consider including this easy going perennial.

Flickr.com - Mollivan Jon



5 comments:

  1. Ok, Smartypants, you left out one key fact: this plant needs absolutely sharp drainage or it will die a slow death that will allow it to taunt you with its misery until it succumbs. It absolutely hates Virginia clay. How do I know this? I've killed it multiple times and finally gave up growing it. But I have a friend growing it on a very rocky slope so I may try it again. It's one of my favorite plants. :o)

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    1. First time for me growing it so I'll watch how it does. My soil does get wet and tends to stay wet during the winter but other drainage lovers seem to do OK in the same spot. Sometimes you need to roll the dice and see what sticks!

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  2. These are so pretty! I have these growing around my home and love them. They bring so much color to the area, but my only problem is that I have clay soil and find myself having to water them a lot because the soil gets too dry..any advice?

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  3. Thanks for this. Great plants, robust and fine-looking, attractive to insects.

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  4. I have lots of red valerian, self sown, growing around the actual walls of my house. It looks lovely and does flower all summer - but are the roots likely to cause a problem undermining my house??? Can anyone offer any advice on this please?

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