This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.
First off, I suspect you would like an explanation of what the heck is a “bud-blooming” heather. It’s a fair question so here is my answer: A bud-blooming heather is a type of Calluna (a commonly planted summer-blooming heather that is in many of our gardens) whose buds never fully open but still manage to show color - often for many months during the fall and into the early winter.
These types of heathers will look fresh for months and fill a gap as summer-blooming heathers fade and before winter heathers start to show color. They make great additions to container plantings or incorporated into our landscapes - they are also easy to grow, provided they have good drainage.
Bud-blooming heathers are used throughout Europe to decorate grave sites in the fall (over 90 million are sold annually in Germany alone). Up until recently, the varieties that were available were not winter hardy and would turn brown after the first hard frost.
German plant breeder Kurt Kramer saw the need to develop hardy varieties that could both serve as gravesite decorations and also as hardy garden plants for permanent landscapes. He started to bring to the market new crosses that displayed the long blooming color of the bud-blooming varieties with the addition of colorful foliage, and of course hardiness.
These new varieties will easily withstand any minimum temperatures that our northwest winters might usher in, so there is no need to worry about them failing in our gardens due to freezes.
Most of these bud-bloomers are compact and only grow 12 to 16 inches tall and a bit wider as they mature. Like all heathers, a good shearing in the spring (after they bloom) will keep them tidier and produce a more uniform looking plant.
Flower colors range from white to shades of pink and probably the most alluring feature, in my opinion, is the incredible variations in foliage - from blackish-green to shades of yellow, orange, or red and even silver. The colors grow even richer as the winter temperatures drop.
Of all the new varieties that Mr. Kramer has developed, I think the most enjoyable are the ones he calls “The Garden Girls.” Names like Zeta, Zalina, Zulu, Zilly, Golden Angie, Claire, and Amethyst are all varieties with fabulously colorful foliage. (I should mention that Mr. Kramer isn’t the only breeder to jump on the band wagon with bud-blooming heathers. You can also find collections under the names of “Beauty Ladies” and “Sea Star” that contain many of the same attributes as the “Garden Girls.”)
While these new heathers will help fill a gap in the transitional time between summer and winter, I think the single most creative application of these plants is when they are used in containers in combination with other hardy perennials, such as Euphorbia “Ascot Rainbow” or any of the sedges like the newer “Ribbon Falls” or “Fountain Falls” or even the old standard “Orange Sedge.”
For the ultimate in simplicity, you can even find multiple varieties like “Zulu,” “Zeta,” and “Zilly,” all planted in the same four inch pot where all you need to do is plop it into an attractive ceramic pot for a perfect front porch accent.
There is a fairly short window of opportunity to find these new gems in the garden center, so don’t miss this chance to have some fun with these hardy, long blooming, and colorfully foliaged plants. I guarantee they will put a smile on your face all winter long.
Sunnyside will be hosting a free class called "Essential Evergreens" next Saturday, October 26th, 2019, at 10:00 am.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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