What isn't there to like about fan flowers? They're blue (OK, purple-blue), the rarest of colors among garden flowers. They're compact and refined, in a state known for the big and bold. They're not bullied by heat or (to a degree) drought. If you've not grown them before, you're about to be dazzled by some of the best plants to hit the American gardening scene in the past 25 years.
It was the early 1990s. I was standing in a retail greenhouse, and the owner was pulling down a huge hanging basket, saying, "We grew this up in the big greenhouses. It's brand new from Australia. We're told it's going to love Texas. Give it a try."
Try it I did. And for every one of the past 18 or 20 years since, I've been buying flats of fan flower annually, and you will, too, as soon as you work it once into some part of your plantings. You'll find it to be as dependable as the summer sun, whether you grow it cascading over retaining walls or massed in beds.
Jimmy Turner at the Dallas Arboretum is about the best at showcasing color, and says his prominent pots all have "thrillers" (upright, often spike-form plants), "fillers" (usually fine-textured foliar or small-flowering plants that occupy the middles of the arrangements) and "spillers" (the plants that trail over the edges of their containers). Fan flowers are especially useful as spillers in large patio pots.
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It's not uncommon to see other colors of fan flowers in nurseries. Bright white selections exist. Less commonly, you're likely to see pink and even yellow types as well. Personal opinion: There are plenty of other white, pink and yellow flowers. Unless you need those shades for the novelty or for a mixed bed of fan flowers, stick with the blue. To bypass it in favor of the others would be like casting off diamonds for pebbles.
The instructions for growing fan flowers certainly won't wear you out. They need full or nearly full sun and well-draining, loose soil. Period. They stay most compact and flower most heavily when they get at least eight hours of sunlight. Drainage is a must -- they simply won't tolerate heavy, boggy soils. They grow assertively (but not invasively) to 8-12 inches tall and 18-22 inches wide.
All types cascade, which is why they're so perfectly suited to containers, hanging baskets and retaining walls.
They tolerate drought, rebounding from occasional light wilting when it happens. However, for best growth and bloom, keep them uniformly moist. Apply a water-soluble, fairly high-nitrogen plant food in a diluted solution every couple of weeks to keep them vigorous.
You'll find fan flowers in most area nurseries, usually in 4-inch pots and hanging baskets. The potted plants tend to intertwine if they sit in their flats for more than a few days, so extracting them may become difficult. Plant them as soon as you get them home. Hanging baskets that are already full and blooming can be transplanted into large patio pots for instant show.
These plants are protected by royalty rights, so they are propagated asexually. Growers buy tiny plugs (1-inch pots and smaller) and replant them into 4-inch pots to grow on for one to two months. Don't expect to see seeds for the improved types you'll want to grow.
To this point, we've passed over this plant's scientific name, and it has been a struggle, because many of us first knew the plant simply by its genus name. Sounding more like a name fit for the villainess from a dark superhero movie, Scaevola just didn't rev people up to start planting. Several years later, the marketing people caught wind of the problem, and started using the very descriptive common name. From that moment on, fan flower has been a winner, even gaining Texas A&M certification as a Texas Superstar plant, and that doesn't come easily.
The next time a trusted plant-growing buddy steps up beside you and quietly asks, "Have you met Scaevola?" you'll now be able to say, "Yep, and she's one of the best."
It's a great plant for Texas.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening at 8-11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.