Three ‘what’s that?’ plants to show off with….

January 20th, 2014 Posted In: Uncategorized

I was a total newbie when I started in this garden ten years ago – when it was beautifully planted with shrubs. Things quickly grew out of control, the lawn shrank, and it started to look like a David Hessayon book cover on a bad hair day (not in a good way).

Staircase plant or Leonitis Leonorum is a great talking point in middle-sized gardens

My favourite Leonitis Leonorum is a great talking point for middle-sized gardens

How to bluff at gardening…

But even then I managed a couple of gardening victories. I went on a Sarah Raven grow-your-own-cut-flowers course, and started sowing from seed. It gave me enormous pleasure when other gardeners asked a question I could actually answer. ‘What’s that?’ they would ask, pointing to a tall, dark red foliage (and salad) plant.

‘Atriplex rubra’ I would reply, proud of knowing one Latin name of a plant, and fancying my gardening cred rising. It’s not rare but it always triggered questions. It self-seeded itself for a few years, attracting compliments, until it got sick of me, and stopped. As a beginner, I found it easier to use choose from a concise seed catalogue, rather than ploughing through thousands of baffling options, so I used the Sarah Raven catalogue to find one ‘What’s that?’ plant every year. If your garden doesn’t have sweeping acres, magnificent double borders or glorious views, it’s great to have a ‘talking-point plant’ to make it (and you) feel special.

Leonitis leonorum in summer

Leonitis leonorum in its summer plumage

The all-time winner is….

For last few years, my number one plant for surprising other gardeners has been Leonitis Leonorum, or Staircase Plant, a 6ft tall orange thistly-looking plant which I partner with dahlias (and which looks great in frost, see above). It’s guaranteed to generate questions, is sculptural-looking and long-lasting. It doesn’t self-seed, but it’s relatively easy to keep the seed and re-sow from it.

I contacted Sarah Raven to ask what ‘talking-point plants’ she’d recommend for me this year.  She came up with Amaranthus tricolour ‘Red Army’ which she said would work very well with my saturated-colour burgundy and orange dahlias for late summer and autumn. It would also look good with zinnias

Amaranthus Tricolor Red Army. Photo: copyright Jonathan Buckley

Amaranthus tricolor Red Army. Photo: copyright Jonathan Buckley

I’m also very tempted by her suggestion of Coreopsis hybrid ‘Incredible’ Tall Mix, which she discovered when she visited Chernobyl last year and found it growing happily near the nuclear reactor.  I’d love to see if people instinctively step back – before working out that a seed from a plant that originally came from Chernobyl is hardly likely to be radiating nuclear energy. Sarah says this would look good with white Cosmos – and I am planning a ‘white bed’ at the back, so I will give it a try.

Coreopsis x hybrida Incredible. Photo: copyright Jonathan Buckley

Coreopsis x hybrida Incredible – pretty and also from Chernobyl. Photo: copyright Jonathan Buckley

All three are available from All photos are my copyright, except for the amaranthus and coreopsis, which are by Jonathan Buckley.

Next week: I am hoping the snowdrops will be out in force, and my friend Amicia de Moubray has a wonderful ‘snowdrop walk’ in an avenue of Canadian redwoods. My middle-sized garden doesn’t run to a snowdrop walk, but I hope that the snowdrop puddle I planted last year will be singing its song, and I’m going to ask Cambo, who have the National collection of snowdrops, what their advice for snowdrops in smaller gardens is.

5 comments on "Three ‘what’s that?’ plants to show off with…."

  1. Ros Mitton says:

    I planted 6 seeds in seed compost, on a window sill, watered every other day, but it’s more than 2 weeks now and no sign of a shoot. I m so disappointed! Alexandra – any tips for getting Leonitis leonorus seeds to germinate?

    1. Oh, I’ve had problems with germinating Leonitis leonorum, too. Some seeds are very variable, and also it can depend on the seed supplier as you can be unfortunate and get a packet from a bad batch (which can happen to anyone). I think it’s worth leaving it a little longer. One tip I’ve had for sowing seed is to only sow a few seeds at a time, then sow a few more a few weeks later and so on. Sometimes just a few weeks later or earlier (that’s usually about the light and length of daylight) can make a difference. I hope they’ve germinated by now.

  2. Pam says:

    I bought a leonitis leonorum whilst on holiday in Devon but it took immediate dislike to my Staffordshire plot and promptly died on me. Don’t think they are very hardy. But I ‘ m going to try again if I can find one. Nine to be found today at RHS Chatsworth flower show.

    1. That’s interesting. I grew mine from seed – it took a long time to get going but was huge when it did. I think perhaps I did lose a few, but just one or two survivors had an excellent impact.

  3. emma says:

    I’m with you about Leonitis Leonorum being the top favourite –
    I’ll have to get some…

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