August Lilies

August Lilies by Elisabeth Ginsburg


When people think of hostas, they imagine mounds of lush green or variegated leaves that bring style and substance to shady areas.

They do not think of flowers.

That’s because hosta flowers are typically smallish, purplish trumpets that appear in early summer atop gawky, nearly-naked stems that generally seem too tall for the plants.  Fastidious gardeners often clip off the stems, choosing to glory in the leaves and forget about the flowers.

But those gardeners have never met Hosta plantaginea, commonly known as “August lily”.

Why is this hosta, sometimes also know as Corfu lily, white plantain lily, white daylily, or Japan lily, a star among the hundreds of varieties in the hosta universe?  An average plant is medium-sized, with a maximum height and spread of about 18 inches.  The flower stalks grow taller, soaring to 30 inches.  While the heart-shaped, medium green leaves are attractive, other species and hybrids boast more notable leaf color or texture.

The one feature that truly defines the August lily is the species’ large, trumpet-shaped flowers—The waxy, white trumpets, which are three to four inches long flare in all directions atop the stalks, projecting a divine, honeyed fragrance.  If the breeze is coming from the right direction, you can pick up the scent of an established clump from many feet away.

The blooms are so beautiful and substantive that they are worthy of cutting for indoor arrangements.  They also attract hummingbirds.

August lilies set themselves apart by producing this magnificent show during the dog days of summer, much later than other species.  They can also stand a bit more sunlight than other hostas.

Unlike most traditional hostas, which are descended from plants native to Japan, members of the plantaginea species descend from Chinese natives.  They arrived in England back in 1790 and sailed across the Atlantic to the newly formed United States after that.  The compelling scent of the flowers made them garden favorites and they are sometimes still billed as heirloom or old-fashioned plants.  Though the name “August lily” describes the time of bloom, plantagineas are not and never have been true lilies, which belong to a different plant family.

Modern gardeners have rediscovered plantagineas because they are as ridiculously easy to grow as any other hostas, but have a little something extra–the ability to produce new leaves during the growing season.  Most other hostas sprout only one crop of leaves annually.  If those leaves are damaged by slugs or deer, you are out of foliar luck for the season.  If you have August lilies, you can get out the repellant spray and apply it to the fresh young leaves in the hopes of a better outcome the second time around.

The plantaginea breeding picture has historically been complicated by the fact that the plants do not flower at the same time as other hosta species.  Still, breeders have persevered and plantaginea hybrids, complete with the intoxicating fragrance, are commercially available. ‘Royal Standard’, one of the best, is a giant among its peers, featuring glamorous white trumpets atop green foliage that may spread to over five feet.

If you are paging through catalog offerings in search of sweet-smelling hostas or trolling the nursery sniffing out bargain plantagineas, look for variety names that start with the word “fragrant”.  Like other hostas, plantaginea varieties and hybrids may bear variegated leaves, which add interest in months other than August.  The large-leafed variety, ‘Fragrant Bouquet’, is an award winner with medium green leaves edged in cream   Left to its own devices, it may grow up to forty-eight inches wide.  The tasty sounding ‘Fried Bananas’ features the same fragrant white flowers as its plantaginea relatives, but also boasts golden-green leaves.

If you are a small-space or container gardener, take heart.  ‘Sugar Babe’ a fragrant-flowered, variegated variety descended from plantagineas and other species, grows only 10 inches tall and 16 inches wide.

No matter which August lily you choose, position the plants where they can be appreciated for their beautiful flowers and divine scent.  They are perfect for path edges, areas under frequently- opened windows, or near sitting areas.  Give them rich soil amended with a quality product like Fafard Natural and Organic Compost, and light to medium shade.  The plants will do the rest.

August lilies and their hybrids are, like most other hostas, good investment plants.  After the first two or three years, you can divide them and increase your stock.  That means more fragrance, most gorgeous flowers and possibly more hummingbirds zipping around.  The dog days don’t get much better than that.




Border Carnations


Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus and hybrids), with their ragged, “pinked” edges, lovely colors and long vase life, are staples of the cut flower trade.  They also have a lengthy and celebrated history in gardens, going in and out of fashion many times over the centuries.  The plants are having a renaissance right now, as flower lovers have come to appreciate their tried and true virtues.

The dianthus family is large, with over 300 species, and contains carnations of all sizes, not to mention sweet Williams and the short-statured plants known in this country as “pinks”.  In Europe, especially in Great Britain, the term “pinks” is used more generally to include just about all dianthus.  Given the amount of interbreeding among species over the years, this may be the best informal way to categorize the whole group.

The flowers that you buy in bunches at the local florist or supermarket are generally referred to as “florists’ carnations”.  They are specific varieties grown under greenhouse or controlled field conditions and sold in bulk to the floral trade.  Cultivars that grow outdoors in home gardens are categorized as “border” or “garden” carnations.  Between the two categories, the world of beautiful carnations is wide.

Garden carnations are generally short-lived perennials, hardy in USDA Zones 6 through 10.  The stems can grow as tall as 3 feet, though many varieties, especially those developed in the last few decades, are considerably shorter.  The stems are erect, but tend to arch.  Depending on height, some garden types may need staking or other means of corralling.  The blue-green to gray-green leaves are long, narrow and attractive in their own right.

The singular look of the flowers is a combination of the distinctive ragged or ruffled edges, and the opulent, semi-double or double petal array of each flower.  Most bear a characteristic spicy scent reminiscent of cloves, sometimes with other sweet fragrance notes mixed in.  Available colors range from purest white to near-black, with bi-colored or even tri-colored varieties available from specialty merchants.  While there are no true blue carnations (unless you put a cut stem in a container of water mixed with blue dye), the color and pattern range is still impressive.

Modern large-flowered garden carnations are the result of hybridization of several different species.  English author and gardener Vita Sackville West wrote admiringly about the Chabaud carnations, developed by a French hybridizer in the eighteen seventies.  Some Chabaud types, like the pink-flowered ‘La France’ and ‘Benigna’, with white petals laced with red, are still in commerce today.  Another antique variety, ‘Mrs. Sinkins’, combines shorter stature—about 12 inches tall—with big white flowers.

Modern varieties tend to be more compact than some older ones and come in an array of arresting colors and color combinations.  As with many commercial hybrid plants, they are often marketed in named series protected by trademarks.  Each series shares common features, like short stature and unusual coloration.    Scent First™ ‘Tickled Pink’ bears bright cerise flowers on 10 inch stems. ‘Horatio’, a hybrid splashed with dark red and white, grows to 12 inches.  Little Sunflor™ ‘Amber’, at six to eight inches, is shorter still, with bright yellow petals.  Flow® ‘Grace Bay’ is creamy yellow with narrow red edges, and dimensions similar to those of ‘Amber’.  Super Trouper™ ‘Orange’ may be closer to peach than tangerine, but its unusual coloration stands out.

Like other members of the dianthus family, carnations are relatively easy to grow if you give them full sun and well-drained soil on the alkaline side of the pH spectrum.  If you have acid soil, it may be best to install your carnations in medium to large containers, or add lime to your garden soil according to package directions.  Gardeners with heavy clay can amend the soil with organic material like Fafard® Natural and Organic Compost.

Humans may love carnations, but garden varmints, like rabbits and deer, generally do not.  If you have cats who roam the garden and are prone to sampling plants, take care, as the flowers can be irritating to feline mouths and stomachs.

At different times and places, carnations have been known by evocative names like “sops-in-wine,” “gillyflowers” and clove pinks.  Whatever you call them, they add both beauty and drama to the summer landscape.


Vines for Hanging Baskets

Nothing flatters a hanging basket like a “spiller” – a plant that cascades from its container in waves of foliage and flowers. Vines might seem an odd choice to fill the bill; after all, they’re geared to grow up, not down. Yet, many make first-rate “spillers” in the absence of anything on which to climb. Rather than draping directly down in bead-curtain fashion, most hanging-basket vines form a knitted skirt of undulating stems that repeatedly dip and ascend as they try to find their direction, sans support. Add one of the following annual vines to your hanging basket planting, and you’ll have a spiller that doubles as a thriller.


Sow seed for your vine indoors in Fafard® Ultra Container Mix several weeks before the final spring frost date, or buy seedlings in spring. Transplant seedlings to hanging baskets and move them outdoors after danger of frost. Be sure to prune any growth that gets out of bounds.


Snapdragon vine

(Asarina scandens, now known as Maurandya scandens)

The blue to purple flowers do indeed resemble little snapdragons, on twining vines that prosper in sun or light shade. The cultivar ‘Joan Lorraine’ has velvety deep purple-blue flowers that are several degrees darker than those of the aptly named ‘Sky Blue’. Trumpet-shaped flowers in the pink to rosy-purple range deck the stems of another former Asarina, creeping gloxinia (Lophospermum erubescens). White forms such as ‘Bridal Bouquet’ are also occasionally available.


Malabar spinach (Basella alba)

A highly ornamental vine that doubles as a vegetable, Malabar spinach clothes its twining stems with heavy-textured, heart-shaped, rich-green leaves that make a tasty addition to salads, stir-fries, and other dishes. What’s more, the leaves maintain their toothsomeness in hot humid weather, unlike those of many other leaf vegetables. The foliage is beautifully complemented by summer clusters of pearly white flowers, and in the variety ‘Rubra’ by burgundy stems and veining.


Moonflower (Ipomaea alba)

Large, saucer-shaped white flowers unfurl in the afternoon and remain open at night, adding mystery (and an intoxicating fragrance) to the evening garden. Moonflower loves warm, humid weather, rapidly extending its twining stems during the dog days of summer.


Sweetpotato vine (Ipomaea batatus)

The purple- and chartreuse-leaved forms of this rambling annual vine are rightfully popular as container plants. Leaf shape varies from heart-like to hand-like, with some cultivars (such as ‘Midnight Lace’) possessing strikingly narrow-lobed leaves. Thriving in many garden habitats including hot sunny sites, sweetpotato vines are effective as solo subjects or in combination with fiery-flowered annuals such as zinnias, Mexican daisies (Tithonia spp.), and dahlias. Store the tuberous roots in a dry cool place over winter, for replanting in spring. The tubers of ornamental varieties lack the appealing flavor of culinary forms of the species.


Lablab vine (Lablab purpureus)

Purple summer pea-flowers give rise to large showy maroon seedpods that glow in the sun. The white-flowered variety ‘Silver Moon’ produces white flowers and ghostly chalky-green seedpods. Hummingbirds find both forms irresistible. This large twiner typically needs some pruning to keep it in scale with a container.


Mandevilla (Mandevilla spp.)

Compact, “mounding” forms of this typically large, showy-flowered twiner make splendid hanging basket subjects. Plants in the Rio™ Series, for example, develop into 2-foot-wide hummocks with lax cascading stems. They come in several shades of pink and red, as well as white. Tropic Escape® mandevillas offer a similar range of colors, in an even more compact size.

Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata)

Spectacular tumbling from a container, this vigorous vine covers itself with yellow, black-centered saucer-flowers as long as warm weather continues. As with mandevilla and lablab, it’s a favorite of hummingbirds. Varieties include ‘Suzie Orange’, white-flowered ‘Angel Wings’, and peachy-hued ‘African Sunset’.


Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Although best known in its compact, nonsprawling forms, Tropaeolum majus is typically a climber or scrambler. Such forms are natural candidates for hanging baskets. The variety ‘Jewel of Africa’ decks its 8-foot stems with cream-splashed variegated leaves and red, yellow, or orange flowers, in bright to pastel shades. Other trailing nasturtiums include orange-red ‘Indian Chief’ and pale yellow ‘Moonlight’. Canary vine (Tropaeolum peregrinum) – a close relative of nasturtium – is also a worthy hanging basket plant, bearing feathered bright yellow flowers on twining 10-foot vines with fingered foliage.


Greater periwinkle (Vinca major)

Last but certainly not least-known, this semi-hardy woody perennial (to USDA Zone 6b) is usually grown in its variegated form, with white-edged leaves. It’s best kept to the container, as it can become a rampant nuisance in the ground. It sends forth both trailing and upright stems, with the latter producing sky-blue flowers.