Gardeners the world over have long suffered from a common ailment—we covet plants, climate conditions, and time that we don’t have. This is especially true of gardeners with shady landscapes. Our gardens may support all kinds of ferns, but we want roses. Hostas the size of small houses sprout without any help at all while we pine for sunflowers. The list of “wants” versus realities goes on and on.
Fortunately some plants will flower abundantly in shade and even more, fortunately, not all of them are impatiens. Wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri), a tender perennial commonly grown as an annual, likes partly shaded spots and blooms throughout the growing season. Its needs are few. People and bees gravitate to the “wishbones”, while deer and other varmints generally ignore them. Even hardened shade-plant complainers can’t argue with those attributes.
Descended from plants that are native to Southeast Asia, wishbone flower is also sometimes known as bluewings and clown flower. The genus used to make its botanical home in the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae), alongside other familiar garden plants like snapdragon and foxglove, to which individual wishbone flowers bear a certain resemblance. Not long ago, plant taxonomists assigned it to a new family, the false pimpernel family (Linderniaceae). Fortunately for those of us with more dirt under our fingernails than taxonomy in our brains, the name change makes no difference to anyone except taxonomists.
What does make a difference is the appearance of the low-growing plants, which rise no more than six to twelve inches off the ground, with a nearly equal spread. The branching growth habit can be further encouraged by pinching back the growth shoots. Small, toothed leaves are oval-shaped, framing individual flowers that feature two lips, joined into a tube at the base. Each upper lip has a single lobe, while the lower lip is generally divided into three distinct lobes.
Why the name wishbone flower? Because each flower features a pair of anthers fused into a wishbone-like shape. Visiting bees, intent on pollination, break through the wishbone as they go about their business.
In their uncultivated state, wishbone flowers are blue and blue-purple (hence the “blue wings” nickname), but breeders have improved on that by perfecting varieties that feature pink, dark red, white or yellow petals as well. Some yellow-petaled varieties are adorned with a purple blotch at each flower’s throat, making them look almost pansy-like, at least from a distance.
Wishbone Flower Varieties
There are several exceptional cultivars worth growing. The most common are bushy, everbloomers in the Clown Series, which come in pretty shades of pink, purple and white. The purple and near-black flowers of ‘Purple Moon’ are striking and pair well with lighter-flowered varieties. Even more hot on the market are the ground-covering hybrid Torenia (crosses between T. fournieri and T. concolor), which bloom effortlessly and withstand hot weather better than common wishbone flowers. The plants in the Summer Wave® series are exceptional and look great trailing from containers or spreading along the edges of garden beds.
Growing Wishbone Flower
Position wishbone flowers in masses or clumps at the fronts of beds and borders, in shady rock gardens, or in containers or window boxes. Container-grown specimens should be planted in pots filled with Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed. It holds lots of moisture and has the benefit of added fertilizer. Garden plants also require consistently moist soil enriched with a nutritious soil amendment, like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost. wishbones are heavy feeders, so use an all-purpose, water-soluble fertilize and apply it according to the package directions.
Torenia gets along nicely with many other shade lovers. The purple and blue-purple varieties work especially well with small, lime green hostas, ornamental sedges, or colorful coleus. Position them at the feet of taller plants like ferns. They can also fill empty spaces left by spring bulbs, like crocuses, hyacinths, and daffodils.
Most gardeners treat wishbone flower as an annual, letting the plants bloom their hearts out during the growing season before sending their remains to the compost pile when they are killed by frost. A few thrifty gardeners overwinter choice specimens indoors. If you want to try this, move the plants inside as the weather cools in the fall. Remember that even shady situations outdoors are brighter than indoor windowsills, so position them in diffused bright light. Like all summer-flowering plants, they will probably sulk through the winter, requiring less water and no fertilizer. If your wishbone flowers make it through the dark months, acclimate them to outdoor light and temperatures gradually by relocating them to a sheltered porch or an unheated garage windowsill for a week or so before returning them to their places in the garden. Plant them after the threat of frost has passed.
Many garden centers begin carrying flats of wishbone flowers about the time that they stock other annuals like snapdragons and marigolds. Some seed vendors also carry seed mixes for those who like to grow annuals from seed. Either way, winsome “wishbones” bring good luck and great color to shade gardeners everywhere.