After a summer of drought, extreme heat, and marauding insects and deer, you’re probably on the lookout for a plant that can withstand all these assaults. But perhaps you were thinking that there’s no such plant. In fact, there is: rose campion. It withstands hot, dry summers, has a long season of bloom, and best all all, is shunned by deer and other four-legged nibblers. Oh, and it is not bothered by pests or diseases, is easy to grow, and holds up nicely as a cut flower.
Rose campion ((Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) has been classified by some experts as a short-lived perennial and by others as a biennial, but since it reseeds like crazy, it will function like a perennial in your garden. It has a basal rosette, which looks much like lambs ears (Stachys), out of which grow multiple tall stems (2-3 ft.) topped by small, brilliant magenta flowers. It starts blooming in late May in this area, and continues through July, and into August. This plant, a native of Europe, has been popular in gardens for at least 2,000 years, and has been in cultivation in the United States since colonial times. In recent decades, however, it has become a rarity in nurseries and garden centers, though the seeds are readily available. Apparently, the fact that it doesn’t bloom until its second year renders it less appealing to the nursery trade.
But what about the name? Unfortunately, the species name is an unpleasant reminder of the current coronavirus pandemic. Horticulturally speaking, the term “coronaria” refers to its use in making garlands, perhaps for champions. And yes, the common name campion, refers to athletic champions. The genus name lychnis comes from the Greek name for lamp, and is believed to refer to the use of the leaves as lamp wicks.
The brightness of the flowers is not universally appealing, and some gardeners feel that the flowers do not play well with others. Here’s how Phillips and Burrell put it: “The campions have strongly colored flowers that can be difficult to incoporate into the garden.” And Allan Armitage refers to the flowers of the species as “gaudy,” though recommends the hybrids, including ‘Abbotsford Rose’. All three are more fond of the white-flowered version — ‘Alba’ — and the bicolor ‘Angel Blush’. Don’t be discouraged, though. In my humble opinion, the key lies in is using it effectively: it’s all about placement and pruning. If you’re not yet excited, just watch this video: Champion of the Garden, Rose Campion/Okla.Ext.
I’ve had the magenta-flowered rose campion for several years now, and they’re great in masses (as shown in the above-mentioned video). They’ve been a bit tall for my borders, but with timely pruning, they fit in with others more felicitously. I also employ pruning to control the number of seedlings that appear next year; I prune some plants in mid-summer to encourage a second, shorter (in height) flush of bloom, while leaving others to set seed. Tracy DiSabato-Aust has experimented with pruning and deadheading rose campion, and her advice is highly recommended. She offers a couple alternative methods:
- You can pinch or cut back the stems before flowering, which will give you shorter, more compact plants that will play well with others in your mixed borders.
- If you do this cutting back when the plants are 15″ tall and in bud, they will flower at 2 ft rather than at the normal 3 ft., though flowering is delayed by 2 to 3 weeks.
- If you cut them back when they are only 6 inches tall, there will be no delay in flowering.
- You can deadhead every week or so through July and August to prolong bloom by several weeks.
I should also note that if you cut back your rose campion down to the basal rosette right after its initial bloom, it will “behave more like a perennial” — and have a longer life.
I started with one plant a few years ago; thanks to the seeds from that one plant, I now have countless plants. The best way to start, however, is with seeds, and you can plant those seeds now — or as soon as the weather cools off. Planting the seeds in early fall is highly recommended, as is sowing the seeds close together if you want a massed effect. The seeds need about three weeks of moist cold for good germination. If started indoors in spring, seeds require light and three weeks of moist chilling. Rose campion grows well in any good, well-draining garden soil, either acidic or alkaline, in full sun. Though it will tolerate dry conditions once established, it needs plenty of water during the germination and establishment period.
I should mention that there’s a relatively new variety of rose campion that has shorter stems, larger, double-flowered, rose-red blossoms, and is sterile. It was discovered and introduced into commerce by the BBC television show, Gardeners’ World.
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials (Ellen Phillips & C.Colston Burell, 1993)
Armitage’s Garden Perennials: A Color Encyclopedia (Allan Armitage, 2000)
The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques (Tracy DiSabato-Aust, 2006)
Featured Photo: courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder.