Garden’s star blooms

Anna NaeserAspen, CO Colorado

From earliest spring – when I look for miniature daffodils hardly bigger than a thimble- to late fall when purple asters and yellow Maximilian’s sunflowers compete for attention, the tiered planters that make up the retaining wall along one side of my driveway always have something interesting going on.In one of these planters, I noticed this week that Knautia macedonica, star performer in my garden, had started to display its intense, rich, wine-red pincushion flowers behind a row of mixed lavender cultivars.Lauren Springer introduced me to Knautia (she pronounces it NOW-tee-a ma-she-DOH-ni-ca), featuring it in “The Undaunted Garden,” along with another outstanding performer that has been blooming for a month in another planter – snow daisy, Tanacetum niveum. She wondered why both of these tough, water-wise, beautiful and beautifully adapted flowers weren’t more common in Colorado gardens, and 13 years after her book was published, I, too, am wondering that. Even lavender, a familiar species, doesn’t seem to be used as much as it warrants. Tanacetum niveum isn’t even listed in the “Sunset Western Garden Book.”I love the look of crimson-burgundy dots of Knautia macedonica dancing through the coolly upright violet-blue flower wands of the lavenders, Lavandula x intermedia “Grosso and “Hidcote Giant.” From a wide clump of medium-green, medium-coarse basal foliage, many gangly thin stems emerge, clasped every few inches by pairs of leaves, progressively more deeply incised as they go up the stem, terminating in vestigial leaves from which buds emerge. The minutely hairy stems and leaves have a faint silvery shimmer that, together with the glimmer of pale stamens protruding ever so slightly above the flower domes (hence the name, pincushion flower), unites them with the silver in the green-gray lavender leaves and stems.The Knautia has a most interesting habit of branching in a double-V shape on either side of a flower like arms raised up around it. As terminal buds on these arms begin to flower, the original flower is shedding its petals and making seed, so I reach down between the arms and clip it off where its stem joins the other two. This plant would benefit from daily (yeah, right!) deadheading, but it is so floriferous it’s hopeless trying to keep up with it. At some point there are so many developing seed heads that I give up. It gets harder and harder to clip the flowers too, because the internodes between blooms get shorter and shorter. By the end of the summer there is almost no stem between the flower and the branch. Even if I can’t keep up the deadheading, it will continue to flower lightly until hard frost, long after the lavender has gone to seed.Cutting off flower spikes gone to seed doesn’t affect the lavender bloom quantity, quality or time, so I leave it alone. Except for its agonizingly slow start in spring when it looks as dead as a doornail, lavender looks terrific in all its phases, the mounds of grayish foliage, a foil for everything around it. Be careful not to cut into woody stems when you’re removing damaged growth and old flower stems in late spring, after new growth has begun because this is not a perennial but a shrub, and you could lose it. I grow different cultivars all over my garden, including seedlings of Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender, reputed to be the hardiest of all the lavenders. I don’t even think about deadheading Tanacetum niveum, a huge airy mound of myriad white-rayed, yellow-centered half-inch daisies with something of the effect of baby’s breath. It is another plant with beautiful silver foliage, which looks serene in the hot weather we’ve been having, when many green-leaved plants, including trees look distinctly stressed, in spite of my efforts to water them more.For some reason Knautia and snow daisies, which are supposed to be prodigious self-sowers, are not, while lavender self-sows copiously in my garden, I had them for many years before I found the odd seedling, every one of which is welcome. Both volunteer lavender and snow daisy even grow very well in my desert garden, with agaves, cacti and other drought-adapted plants, although even this border needs supplemental watering. I haven’t tried the Knautia there, but I don’t know why not.Anna gardens with her husband, Gerry, in Basalt. She’d love to hear about your garden. You can get in touch with her at


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