WE ALL delight in our dahlias, relish our roses, swoon over the salvias and pamper our petunias, not to mention those stunning sweet peas and fabulous fuchsias.
But do we find room for the exotic-looking and the unusual?
You know the score – why not save a few spaces for perennial plants that will prompt a second glance, a double take, a “whatever is that?” from friends or passers-by?
Being British, most gardeners err on the side of the tried and trusted, perhaps fearing that exotics will let them down or die on them when the winter chills blow in.
Well, panic not! My list of uncommoners are all hardy or very nearly hardy and should comfortably survive any icy blasts in the south or west.
Further north it may pay to protect some of the plants’ growing quarters with suitable material, as you would for dahlias and similar non-hardies.
So, alphabetically, here’s my Awesome Eight, all of which have fared well for me in spring and summer:
DODECATHEON: This charming little North American alpine is popularly known as Shooting Star and its acutely swept-back petals in cerise-pink is the reason for this. The two best-known species are meadia and pulchellum (10in-12in) which are not easy to tell apart, with both disappearing below ground by mid-summer. They bloom in mid and late spring.
ECHIUM: Fun plants to have at the back of the border and common in the Canaries and the Isles of Scilly. Echium pininana is the one to try – a biennial that may take two years to show its funnel-shaped blue flowers and then it will die on you. Easy to raise from seed, so simply start all over again. It can top 12ft if conditions suit it, above rough, silvery-hairy leaves.
ERYTHRONIUM: The shy Dog’s Tooth Violet, a shade-loving, head-nodding bulb of great beauty in springtime. Plenty of species and hybrids in the books, though the pair you are most likely to find are dens-canis (6in) with white or pink flowers and marbled foliage and Pagoda (12in) that bears sulphur-yellow blooms with brown central rings above mottled leaves. Try to search out Erythronium revolutum, the American Trout Lily (12in) in lilac-pink and yellow anthers. Stunning!
EUCOMIS: Another bulb, this one from South Africa (10in-30in) and with tropical overtones though, surprisingly, it will see through your average UK winter intact. Often known as Pineapple Lily and related to the hyacinth, it blooms in late summer, each stem studded with numerous stars in shades of green, white and purple-red. The one I grow is Eucomis bicolor Aloha Nani Pink.
HEDYCHIUM: The Ginger Lilies grow vigorously in my Devon garden, not least Hedychium gardnerianum (up to 6ft) that bursts forth in early autumn with its butterfly-like, fragrant lemon-yellow flowers and bright red stamens. I bought mine as a bulb from the Scillies in 2007; in the Azores they are regarded as thugs and I have seen their remorseless spread across those bewitching islands. My favourite species is densiflorum (3ft-5ft), a more slender alternative with vivid orange tubular flowers.
SCILLA PERUVIANA: A bulbous perennial (10in-12in) and often described as virtually evergreen, though mine vanishes underground by summer’s end, only to send up clusters of young leaves for the following year’s show. It’s a native of Iberia, Italy and North Africa and certainly looks exotic as it delivers conical heads of up to 100 deep purple-blue, starry flowers or, in the case of Alba, pure white in May and June.
TULBAGHIA: Deserves greater attention, this semi-evergreen gem (2ft) from southern Africa which grows from rhizomes. A couple of dozen species, most of which are similar to look at and most with a lengthy spell in flower from early summer to autumn. They are related to allium – squeeze the stems and you’ll see what I mean unless you hate garlic – and bear dainty pale or deeper purple mini-trumpets. The famous North Devon garden, Marwood Hill, holds the National Collection.
WATSONIA: A sizeable family of 60 species related to the iris and grown from corms. They hail from southern Africa and Madagascar and bear slender, almost horizontal tubes in red, orange, pink or white on ultra-slim stems around 3ft high. My moan about watsonia is that the flowers soon fade, but this summer I had to eat my words as, during a cooler spell in early August, they stayed in perfect shape for a couple of weeks.
✴ If you fail to find these special plants at the garden centre, simply check them out online for nurseries which stock them.
✴ Pictured from top: Dodecatheon pulchellum, Echium pininatum (left) and Eucomis Aloha Nani Pink, Hedychium densiflorum (left) and Scilla peruviana; Erythronium dens-canis; below – a cluster of Tulbaghia violacea (left) and the South African watsonia.