“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.”
This uninhibited and passionate confession was penned by William Wordsworth, a British poet, in 1802. The world has certainly changed in the intervening two centuries yet there is no denying that the phenomenon Wordsworth describes still exists. At least it does for me. The only difference is that rainbows, while wonderful, are nothing like flowering plants, which add a living dimension to your wonder and an extra fervor to your leap.
Just the other day, while gazing at some ‘Mona Lavender’ plants that were bursting into bloom throughout a shady garden, my heart leapt up. A dense cloud of lavender blooms floated above dark foliage, leaves that were sea green on top and violet-purple underneath. Usually you see the lavender blooming version of ‘Mona Lavender,’ but there is also a pink flowered cultivar available. Plant them in well-drained, compost enriched earth and they will bloom from fall until spring.
‘Mona Lavender’ is a plant that, once you see it, you will always want to have it around and — lo and behold! — that is the easiest thing in the world to do. Take shoot tip cuttings a few inches long and stick them in sand or in a shallow cup of water and they will root soon enough. And here’s the thing: you want to clip or pinch off shoot tips of this plant anyway, in order to keep it compact, which adds to its blooming capacity. As a bonus, those pieces that you pinch off can be propagated, even as you see more flowers on the mother plants as a consequence of their having been pinched.
‘Mona Lavender’ is one of those plants that defy the conventional wisdom which cautions that if something sounds too good to be true, it just can’t be true. ‘Mona Lavender’ lives up to your expectations of it and then some. Not only because of the win-win act of pruning — giving you, at once, many new plants and more flowers on the existing ones — but because of Mona’s amazing shade tolerance.
To say a plant is shade-loving is always problematic. There are locations so bereft of light that nothing — with the possible exception of mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria spp.), seemingly impervious to the laws of nature — can grow. In such locations, you might consider placement of a recirculating fountain, creating immediate interest with its gurgling calm despite the absence of plants. And then you can think about placing a few goldfish in the fountain to bring some color into your dark corner as well.
Yet if there is a flowering plant that approaches the status of shade-loving, ‘Mona Lavender’ would have to be it. I do not know any flowering plant that matches Mona’s shade tolerance, with the possible exception of lily turf (Liriope spp.) By the same token, it is suitable for half-day sun locations, too. Its one weakness is cold sensitivity, and it may not survive when temperatures dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mona is an ideal container plant. While customarily grown on patio or balcony, she can also be grown indoors in a sunny east or south facing exposure. It is often the case that a plant which favors a shady exposure outdoors necessitates a brighter exposure indoors, especially if it is a species grown for its flowers.
‘Mona Lavender’ is a hybrid, a member of the Plectranthus or spurflower (in Greek, plektron = spur and anthos = flower) genus. The flowers are indeed distinguished by a protruding spur at their apex. Some Plectranthus species (creeping Charlie and coleus come to mind) are in need of regular water but others are patently drought tolerant. Those that can go nearly all summer without irrigation are blessed with leaves that are both succulent and aromatic. Examples would include highly culinary Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus), lobster flower (Plectranthus neochilus), and mentholato (Plectranthus cylindraceus).
Both succulence and fragrance have a contribution to make when it comes to drought tolerance. Succulence means that a thick leaf cuticle acts as a physical barrier to water loss from leaf surfaces while fragrance means that viscous compounds are found in plant sap which tightly hold onto water molecules, further discouraging them from escaping into the atmosphere.
Mrs. Mel Birken wrote to inquire about plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. It so happens that ‘Mona Lavender’ and her ilk are a good place to start. You see, the Plectranthus genus along with all the sages (Salvia spp.) and many common herbs (rosemary, oregano, lavender, African basil) belong to the same family (Lamiaceae) that features flowers that are either thin and tubular, inviting hummingbirds to sip nectar from them, or sufficiently colorful or fragrant to attract butterflies.
Common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) attracts swallowtails and milkweeds (Aesclepias spp.) attract monarchs. It’s not by chance that butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.) have the name that they do and many California natives, including mallows (Lavatera spp.), monkey flowers (Mimulus spp.) and beardtongue (Penstemon spp.) are butterfly magnets as well. Where hummingbirds are concerned, count on most members of the mallow family, including hibiscus, abutilon (Chinese lantern), and Lavateras, as well as tubular or trumpet shaped flowers of every color, principally in the bignonia family, many of which grow on vines.
It’s not just plants that attract butterflies but garden conditions, too. Make sure your butterfly garden is wind protected and that there is a bird bath or other water feature — which is vital to hummingbirds, too — from which they can sip.
Tip of the Week: Speaking of butterflies and hummingbirds, the following comes from Craig Endler of Santa Clarita: “This year I purchased some Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) seeds from Lowe’s, thinking that the flowers might make a nice display in my whiskey barrel planters. The seed packet said that the flowers attracted butterflies, and that is all I needed as an incentive to try them out. While you can plant these in a well prepared garden, I decided to try whiskey barrels, available from both Home Depot and Lowe’s for around $40.00 each. You will need to drill multiple 1/2 inch holes in the bottom for good drainage. I used the Miracle Grow planter mix that retains moisture. I also purchased four inexpensive bricks to place under each barrel to raise them up to promote good drainage, aeration from below, and provide shelter for my backyard lizards. I planted the Mexican sunflowers in a circle, leaving the middle part open for planting different flowers. Little did I know that the sunflowers would average over four feet high, and would need that extra space to grow.. I had placed a tomato cage in the middle to keep cats from jumping in the barrels and digging up the seeds, and it turned out to be a great added support for the Mexican sunflowers as they grew in and around the cages. Hummingbirds also liked to rest on the top of the cages and the flowers seemed to attract them as they looked for small insects flying around. Tithonias are very slow growing, so you should plant early, around March, and the beautiful green leaves are eye pleasing as you wait patiently for the flowers to start blooming. I have seen a couple of monarchs and yellow skipper butterflies checking out the flowers. The sunflowers don’t like water on their leaves, which causes mildew. During our summer heat wave, I would have to water them once or twice a day or they would quickly show signs of drying out.. The seeds seem to germinate very well, and I am collecting the spent flowers, full of seeds for next year’s bounty. Tithonias need a little more TLC than other flowers, but the reward is oh-so-worth-it.”