(Author’s Note: Last week’s column, “A Few Flowering Perennials for the June Garden” was devoted to favorite herbaceous perennials that bloom in early to mid-June. The following essay takes a look at the stars of the late June and early July perennial bed in Marjorie’s Garden. Portions of this essay first appeared in THE NEW ENGLAND GARDENER’S YEAR by Reeser Manley and Marjorie Peronto, published this year by Cadent Publishing of Thomaston, Maine.)
Marjorie is in the midst of her own “Big Dig”, an expansion of the island bed where our favorite herbaceous perennials grow. Every so often I get called away from the vegetable garden to help her dislodge a giant boulder uncovered by the digging. The smallest of these huge stones must have a mass of over 100 pounds. At present all of the excavated stones lie in the grass along the edge of the border, a still life of meteors on the outer fringes of a galaxy of flowering plants.
In early summer, one of the shining stars in this galaxy is the peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), also known as “willow bell”, a three-foot-tall plant with stiff sturdy stems bearing large, outward facing, broad bell-shaped flowers. The flowers open atop erect, unbranched, nearly leafless stems that arise from basal rosettes of narrow, toothed, bright green leaves (4 to 8 inches long). These leaves resemble in shape those of the peach tree, hence both the common name and specific epithet. Within the species, the color of flowers clustered on the upper stems ranges from white to blue; on the plants in Marjorie’s Garden they are a deep lavender-blue.
C. persicifolia is native to Europe and Asia. On both continents it can be found growing in open woods, on shrubby slopes and in mountain meadows. In the northeastern United States, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, as well as in Canada, it has escaped cottage gardens and borders to become naturalized.
Peach-leaved bellflower prefers a well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. It is generally intolerant of summer heat and does best in USDA Zones 3-7.
Available cultivars of C. persicifolia include ‘Chettle Charm’ with flowers that are creamy white edged with lavender blue and ‘Telham Beauty’ with porcelain blue blossoms.
Campanula rotundifolia, the bluebell bellflower, grows to only 15 inches in height. Native to dry, nutrient-poor grasslands in New England and throughout much of the United States, it blooms continuously from late spring through August with violet-blue, bell-shaped flowers in loose clusters on long, thin, graceful stems.
In the garden, bluebell bellflower performs best in sandy, well-drained soils and in sun to partial shade. It is perfect for the pollinator garden where it will attract both hummingbirds and bumblebees.
In order to reach the nectar at the base of the blossom, the bumblebee must crawl into the bell, disappearing except for the tip of its butt. It is not surprising that by the end of the flowering season the entire plant is bent over from the weight of bees.
Catmint and Lady’s Mantle
One of my favorite early summer spots in the island perennial bed is a corner where the deep purple flower spikes of catmint (Nepeta sp.) meet and mingle with the chartreuse flowers of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis). From the last week of June until late July, bumblebees forage from dawn to dusk and the tall slender catmint spikes sway back and forth under the weight of the tireless pollinators. Often in early morning I find a bumblebee asleep, or so it seems, having spent the night on a catmint flower, too tired to carry its heavy load of pollen back to the nest. It awakens while I watch, warmed by a shaft of sunlight, and resumes foraging.
Both catmint and lady’s mantle are easy to grow. Nepeta thrives in lean, dry soils with little care. We fertilize our catmint plants with topdressings of compost or aged manure in early spring, before growth begins, taking care not to cover the plants themselves. In late summer, when the plants have finished flowering, we shear them back to rejuvenate the foliage and keep them tidy.
Equally low in maintenance, lady’s mantle requires only occasional grooming, deadheading spent flowers and removing old, dried leaves, and an early spring topdressing with compost or aged manure. Plants overwinter best if the semi-evergreen foliage is left on until spring.
Lady’s mantle is a self-sower. In Marjorie’s Garden, small clumps appear throughout the garden, started perhaps from seed in the compost pile where we toss the spent flower stalks in fall.