Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Why you’ll love larkspur and Confederate star jasmine

pink and blue larkspurs
pink and blue larkspurs

I’m often asked which flowers make my list of favorites, and there are a good many, but two little spring beauties come to mind when May arrives on the calendar.

Just in case the warm weather has sent you to the local nursery on a quest to find something new or pleasingly familiar, here are two that I’ve enjoyed for years — plus some tips for how to use them in your garden.

Reseeding larkspurs

Your grandma probably grew larkspurs in her garden. If she didn’t, somebody on her block certainly did. They were popular old Texas garden flowers because you’d plant them one year and you’d have them forever.

They aren’t actually perennials, but they reseed each spring, then germinate and start growing over the winter. They were (and still are) great pass-along plants, handed off from friend to friend and generation to generation. And if nobody throws you a pass, gather your courage and go ask for some seeds.

Larkspurs are botanically Consolida ambigua. They’re upright growers with fine, ferny foliage and vertical flower spikes that grow to 18 to 24 inches tall. Their blooms are in shades of blue, lavender, pink and white. Blue hues seem to be dominant, so old plantings may swing toward that direction over a period of years.

They grow well in sun or part sun, and you’ll get the best size and flowers if you keep them modestly moist during winter dry spells.

Perhaps the biggest “issue” in growing reseeding larkspurs is the fact that they will over-germinate. That is, you’ll have too many seedlings. Transplant some while they’re small, then thin out the rest. Leave a few of the “runts,” just in case they’re the pink or white types.

Confederate star jasmine

This vine came into the market when I was a teenager. It and its sister, our most popular ground cover, Asian jasmine, were introduced to Texas landscaping, and within just a few years they were commonplace in our gardens.

Back then, that was from Houston and South Texas north to where I lived in College Station. Almost immediately, they were all over the Texas A&M campus.

Asian jasmine made its way to North Texas nurseries pretty quickly as well, and for the past 45 or 50 years, it’s been the go-to ground cover for sun and part sun. Purple wintercreeper euonymus has made a few inroads, but there still are many of us out there who call on Asian jasmine regularly.

However, my space here today is reserved for the sister — that sweet-smelling, twining and tumbling evergreen vine with the glossy, dark green leaves — Confederate star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides. It’s a glorious climber to 15 or 20 feet, and it covers itself with intoxicating white, pinwheel-shaped flowers each late April into mid-May.

Confederate star jasmine grows well in sun or part sun. However, it won’t tolerate our normal winter cold. Living here for 45 years, and having tried them outdoors on several occasions, I’ve seen them survive for a couple of years at the most before winter killed them out entirely.

If you live in what is known as an “urban heat pocket” (near one of the major downtown areas), or if you have an ultra-protected courtyard or atrium, you might be able to pull it through, especially if you’re willing to put frost cloth securely over it should temperatures drop below 20 degrees.

Since I don’t live in one of the aforementioned pockets, the option I’ve taken is to grow it on a trellis in a 24-inch (very large) pot. The plant in my pot goes into the greenhouse over the winter, and it comes out for seven or more months during the spring, summer and fall. Note: I trim it judiciously immediately after it blooms to keep it compact.

This has gone on for 15 years or longer, and it and I are both very satisfied with our working arrangements.

A truth about cuttings and seedlings

Talking about larkspur and its seedlings reminds me that we gardeners are hardheaded people. When we’re determined to find a way to get seeds or plants that we like, we beg, borrow or occasionally steal — cuttings or seeds, but never entire plants.

This makes me think fondly about a story about my friend, the late Ralph Pinkus of North Haven Gardens in Dallas. Ralph was one of our state’s finest “plant men,” and someone I looked up to for my entire career. I told this story at his 80th birthday party, and no one laughed any harder than Ralph.

Back in the early 70s, I was asked by Texas A&M Horticulture to get 100 foliage plants that could be used as table centerpieces for an annual nursery banquet in College Station. I knew that North Haven had a great collection of odd foliage plants at that time, so that’s where I headed.

After I’d finished making my choices — 25 each of four different varieties, I casually mentioned to the clerk that A&M would be really happy with my choices. He seemed shaken by the news. When I inquired why, he had a question of his own.

“These are going to A&M?” he asked. “That’s where they came from. I was Mr. Pinkus’ decoy when he took the cuttings.”

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens Magazine” and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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