Plants - Perennials

The classic grace of crocosmia

By
Carol Hall

A once-forgotten perennial from the Victorian era is making a comeback in modern gardens


At one time a mainstay of Victorian gardens, where they were known as montbretias, Crocosmia spp. almost disappeared from cultivation. Luckily, these classic, summer-
blooming perennials that grow from marble-sized corms never quite vanished from gardening consciousness ("Oh, yeah, I've seen those before"). But their name—any name for them—still escapes most people's memory.

To see these half-forgotten plants is to like them instantly; along with dahlias and cannas, Canadian gardeners have rediscovered their charms in a big way. Native to South Africa, and related to other tender corms such as gladioli, Ixias, Sparaxis, freesias and angel's fishing rod (Dierama spp.), the brilliant flowers of crocosmias range in colour from bright yellow to red, counterbalanced by the airy delicacy of their form—slender sprays of blooms carried on graceful, wiry, arching stems. These are complemented by 60- to 90-centimetre-tall, narrow, sword-shaped leaves, with veins that run lengthwise almost in pleats. Caught by a breeze, the architectural-looking foliage has nearly as much movement as ornamental grasses.

Where to grow them
As a bonus, crocosmias are ridiculously easy to grow. All they ask is a place in the sun (or light shade where summers are very hot), reasonably fertile, well-drained soil and a modest amount of water. Pests and diseases are almost unheard of—even deer shun them. They multiply quickly (they'll even naturalize in Zone 6 and up), beautifully filling in that fresh-colour gap of late summer.

Rebounding from near extinction
So what caused the near demise of these one-time garden mainstays? The Second World War. Although crocosmias are much hardier than most South African corms, the original species were assumed to be fully winter-hardy only in climates as mild as England's, where their pre-war popularity led to the development of more than 100 named hybrids. But the severe wartime shortage of workers, the resulting neglect of nursery stock and the necessary conversion of flower-growing fields to food crops caused the loss 
of nearly three-quarters of these hybrids. 
The post-war trend away from elaborate, labour-intensive perennial borders further diminished the popularity of these plants, as did their undeserved reputation for being temperamental.

All that was changed in the mid-1960s, however, when an exceptionally cold winter froze the ground for several weeks in the nursery of British plantsman Alan Bloom, penetrating far below the corms of two types of crocosmia thought to be quite tender. Both survived unscathed. Crossing the two resulted in 'Lucifer', the vigorous, 120-centimetre-tall, large-leafed variety with spectacular fire-engine-red flowers that now graces gardens throughout the world.

In defiance of all expectations, 'Lucifer' proved hardy to Zone 5 with snow cover or heavy mulch, causing Bloom and other growers to take another look at Crocosmia species. The happy result is the ongoing development of many equally hardy hybrids in a greatly expanded range of flower colours and sizes, leaf types and height.

Top photo: Crocosmia X Crocosmiflora (montbretia)

 

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