I recently visited RHS Bridgewater Garden in Salford with my friends at the Hebe Society. It was a mixed bag experience for me with a bit too much emphasis on repetition of plants through the planting schemes giving an overriding 'sameness' to a lot of the garden.
In design terms it makes sense to help to unify the design into a cohesive whole, but looking as a viewer, not a designer, left me feeling a little short changed. I suspect that it will steadily improve as the garden is further developed and it has all been built, planted and maintained to a very high standard throughout, so no complaints there.
Anyway, one thing that I always like to see is a plant trial. Being able to compare lots of different varieties or species of the same genus is really useful to help you choose your favourites. One such trial being undertaken at Bridgewater in 2022 is that of Helenium, sometimes called Sneezeweeds, apparently because the dried leaves used to be powdered to make snuff! Helenium are one of the cornerstone autumn flowering herbaceous perennial plants and definitely worth growing in a temperate garden. Hardy and quite robust once established, I find them significantly more likely to get through winters, especially wet winters than their more popular counterparts - Echinacea. They lack the range of colour that you can get in Echinacea, being more similar (colour-wise) to Rudbeckia. Reds, Oranges and yellows are the order of the day, with some heading towards pink/peach becoming available now too. I suspect we will start to see more chocolatey colours becoming available in the future as well. I have avoided bi-coloured varieties here and instead gone for the closest that I can to pure coloured petals and sympathetic central cone colours. The bi-coloured varieties may well be a post for the future.
I find them easy to grow in a sunny spot, with a decent, fertile, which is moist, but well-drained (very famous horticultural expression). They don't do well if waterlogged, but when actively growing do drink quite a lot. From experience, I find that they need a year or two to really establish and get to their full height, flowering potential and form a clump. You can speed this up by improving soil fertility, but patience is a virtue so don't overdo the feed and soil improvement.
On to colours then...
My first recommendation is for Red. If you asked me a year ago I would have recommended the variety 'Ruby Tuesday' as a good dark red and the ever popular 'Moerheim Beauty' for the best all round red-flowered form. I'm moving away from both now, despite them both being good plants; Ruby Tuesday flowers are a bit small and spidery and Moerheim Beauty flowers change quite a bit from freshly opened to going over. My new recommendation would be to look for 'Meranti' or 'Red Army', both of which have a freshness to the red and good colour intensity (See below)
Height is around 70cm (2' 4"). Some describe it as brownish-red, but I thought it was more vibrant than that.
Helenium 'Red Army'
Taller than many to around 1m (3' 3") and with more orange in the red than in 'Meranti', but still nice and vibrant.
The is a fair argument to say that most red Helenium are at some point in each flower's age orange. Here I'm looking for varieties where orange dominates the overall look of the flower. The variety 'Waldtraut' would be a traditional 'go to' choose for an orange and no bad thing at all. From assessment of the trial varieties, I was drawn to the varieties 'Moth' and 'Short and Sassy', although I will say that 'Waldtraut' did catch my eye still.
Seemingly tall to 110cm (3' 7") and indeed was standing a bit taller than most in the trial. I hadn't previously seen 'Moth' in the flesh and it seems less available in the UK for sale, but looks worth searching for.
Helenium 'Short and Sassy'
Compact, as the name suggests at 45cm (18"). A punchy name for a punchy plant. I've seen this variety for a few years now and have grown on the nursery, though not yet in the iPlantsgarden. Undeniably large flower on compact plant though.
One observation I have made over the years has been that yellow-flowered Helenium varieties, like the yellow-flowered species H. hoopesii go over quicker than reds and oranges. It is probably just because it is more apparent that flowers are in decline as there is nothing to hide behind in a pure yellow flower. I think that when they're good, they're great, but a little too often, they are grown in very dry soil, which doesn't suit them while growing and flowering. There are a number of fairly long-established, excellent, yellow-flowered varieties, like 'Goldrausch' and 'Butterpat', but they sell at a far slower pace than oranges and reds. Pity as they can be very beautiful.
Helenium 'Double Trouble'
A new variety to me. I had heard of it, but hadn't seen in the flesh until my visit to Bridgewater. Very striking, with bags of flower power! A nice, fresh-green foliage too, which helps lift the yellow flowers very favourably. Height 80-90cm (2' 7" - 3') tall and glowing in the beds.
Helenium 'Lemon Sundae' (Sundae Series)
The Sundae Series are pretty recent introductions of compact varieties with good flower production, not getting any taller than 50cm (20") and so suitable for pot growing or small space gardening. Flowers were brightly coloured and noticeably large too. A really good, small plant.
As breeding develops for this Genus, new colours and funky flower shapes will inevitably become available. One colour that has been on the edge of truly available for some time has been peach/apricot/pink (take your pick). A relatively unusual colour in plants generally (though I don't know why). I noted the Sundae Series has a 'Peach Sundae' among its ranks, but I felt the colour was bi-coloured rather than actually very peachy. I think we will see more of this colour going forward, but as far as I'm concerned, there is only one good peach-coloured variety currently available.
Helenium 'Loysder Wieck'
Unusual in that it has recurved petals as well as a very distinct flower colour. Some people call it burnt orange, others caramel, even chocolate gets the odd mention; I think it has peachy overtones, when viewed as a whole. You can make up your own mind. It is, in my opinion, a very handsome plant indeed. Flowers hold nice and upright against fresh, green foliage. Height 60-90cm (2' - 3') and well-worth growing.
Want more Late Summer/Autumn interest in your garden? Here are a couple of really good books on the subject to buy.
Late Summer Flowers by Marina Christopher and Daniel J. Hinkley. Legendary nurserywoman Marina Christopher and superb writer and plantsman Dan Hinkley know what they are talking about here. A very good read.
Autumn Gardens by Ethne Clarke is an interesting read and full of great pictures bridging summer and winter.
Please note, the links to Amazon are paid affiliate links. If you purchase the book from Amazon, using this link I will receive a small payment from them. It doesn't cost you anything and the book is priced as per the Amazon price. Thanks
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