Anna Naeser: Anna’s Garden
August 16, 2008
In the odd perspective of the photo, the substantial leaves and thick, tall branching stems are obscured, so it isn’t obvious how wonderfully Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) contrasts with the fine-textured, wiry but drooping stems of an ornamental oregano (Origanum libanoticum). While the English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) in the right foreground is fine-textured too, the leaves are linear and the stems upright, whereas the oregano’s bitty leaves are rounded and the stems arch low and parallel to the ground. In bloom, the long straight wands of lavender are even more strikingly different, emphasizing the linear. What unifies all three are the curiousness of the flowers and the harmonizing colors in variable shades of subtle pinks, purples and blues.
Origanum libanoticum has burgundy-red stems branching symmetrically at precise angles into even thinner burgundy branch-lets, each terminating in a pendulous flower head of narrow bracts overlapping like scales on a pinecone or shrimp. They are blushed pale green in. Tiny lavender-pink flowers peep from between the bracts. It is one cool-looking plant. When it has dried to a pale buff with the texture of paper, it rustles when I brush by it, eventually shattering over the winter. There are several other ornamental oreganos I really want to try, such as the more intensely colored O. rotundifolium “Kent Beauty.”
My oregano has parlayed a handful of seedlings into a 7-foot-wide mat. Not only that, but its robust, energetic roots dove down through the planter and then sprouted new growth at the base of the wall, producing the marvelous two-tiered effect shown in the photo. I couldn’t have made this up. You can see why it can get by with little watering. The drought-tolerant Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) has spread around my garden by volunteering instead of running. When it showed up among the oregano, I immediately understood that this was a great combination: In its first year it grows a large rosette of leaves somewhat like mullein, only the leaves are hairy and green, not velvety and silver. The second year, it flowers on the 2-to-3-foot branching stems decked in whorls of showy bracts and calyces from which the odd two-lipped flowers spring, all beautifully and subtly colored in pink, violet, cream and green, with faint maroon markings. Like the oregano, not only is the color of the flowers impossible to pin down with one word, but it goes through an increasingly subtle range gradually fading to buff. As if all these great qualities weren’t enough, Clary sage is one of the strongest scented plants in the garden; to savor it I need only touch any part of it. Some people don’t care for the smell ” maybe the same people who buy perfume? ” but to me it smells of summer and abundance.
Last week’s column about annuals included a paragraph about Clary sage. That is, until it dawned on me that mine is biennial. There is indeed an annual Clary sage (Salvia viridis), but I have never grown it. There is a selection of this species called “Blue Denim” with deep purple veining that sounds interesting.
The lavender is actually in another planter, one step lower, growing with Knautia, a pincushion flower (not visible in picture). The unusual and vibrant wine red of the Knautia flower, which I have described in detail before, plays up the similar color in the showy oregano stems. For the first time I have cut back the Knautia, hoping to prompt another flush of bloom. Just this week, as the last flowers of the Clary sage drop, and the lavender is just past its prime, Violet Queen (Aster amellus) has started to bloom. It is a patch of green above and on the left of the oregano. It tolerates dry soil more than most garden asters, but restricted water, perfect for the oregano, sage and lavender, may be keeping it from reaching its full potential. The large purple-blue ray flowers accented by yellow eyes almost sparkle against fading pastels.
Henry Mitchell once said in one of his Washington Post columns something to the effect that while painting pictures with plants is grand, sometimes it is enough to admire the “glory of an individual plant.” I like to do both.
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