Delicate Geum Flowers for Summer
Over the years, American gardeners have somewhat overlooked geums, also called avens or Grecian roses (Geum spp.), but recently some stunning new cultivars have been introduced. Traditionally, single flowers came in strong, maybe even garish, colors: blazing yellows, reds, and oranges. Modern hybrids, however, may have frilly semi-double or double blooms in softer shades of apricot, lemon, and peach, as well as appealing names such as the Cocktail Series, which includes ‘Mai Tai’ and ‘Banana Daiquiri’.
The name “geum” possibly comes from the Greek “geno,” which means to “produce a pleasant fragrance,” perhaps referring to the clovelike scent of the freshly dug roots. These underused but easy-to-grow perennials with roselike blooms do belong to the rose family (Rosaceae) along with closely related cinquefoils (Potentilla). The genus contains about 50 species, but only a few are cultivated as ornamentals. They are native to temperate and Arctic regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres, where they grow along streams and in damp meadows, as well as in wooded or even mountainous habitats. Thick, tough roots or rhizomes give rise to compact, sturdy clumps of fuzzy, variously lobed leaves with a larger terminal lobe. These remain attractive throughout the season; some are evergreen or semi-evergreen in mild climates, such as Chilean avens (Geum chiloense, syn. G. quellyon). The five-petaled, cup- or saucer-shape flowers—some a half-inch to 11/2 inches or more across—may be solitary or held in loose clusters on sturdy, branched stems. Flowers may be nodding (prairie smoke, G. triflorum), outward-facing (‘Fuzzy Navel’), or up-facing (‘Blazing Sunset’).
CULTIVATION: While not fussy about soil and its pH, geums prefer well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. Except for purple or water avens, aka chocolate root (G. rivale), few species tolerate wet feet. If soil is poor, add plenty of organic matter (such as well-rotted compost) at planting time and a winter mulch annually, leaving the crowns of the plants open. Soils that dry out in hot climates are seldom satisfactory; the heat and humidity of Southern climates are usually unacceptable. Locate plants in a sunny spot in the North, but protect from intense noonday heat farther South; part-day shade, or semi- but not deep shade, is another option. Geums remain mostly free of pests and diseases except for slugs (spider mites and mildews too may be a problem), and are even ignored by deer and rabbits. Insects and bees are the primary pollinators, attracted by the wide-open flowers and copious pollen.
Routine deadheading extends bloom time and encourages sporadic rebloom into fall. The exception to this is for prairie smoke; interesting fuzzy fruiting heads follow the flowers.
PROPAGATION: Some, including semi-double yellow G. chiloense ‘Lady Stratheden’ and orange G. coccineum ‘Cooky’, come true from seed sown fresh as it becomes ripe; increase most other cultivars and hybrids by division in fall or spring. As plants outgrow their allotted spaces or lose vigor, probably every 2–4 years, it is advisable to divide them anyway.
WHERE TO GROW: Most gardens can spare a place for geums in beds, borders, and native plant gardens, along pathways, in rock gardens, as groundcovers, as cut flowers, and even in herb gardens. Those with smaller, more compact mounds of foliage such as 6-inch orange ‘Koi’, 8-inch pale-yellow ‘Beech House Apricot’, and 13-inch ‘Leonard’s Variety’ (‘Leonardii’) are perfect for rock gardens, beside steps, or along pathways. Plant with attractive companions such as low speedwells Veronica ‘Waterperry Blue’ or harebell speedwell, V. prostrata. Coralbells (Heuchera) and foamy bells (x Heucherella) are fine buddies to create a groundcover, especially cultivars without overly large leaves that could overwhelm the geums. Try small iris for contrast as well, especially deep lilac-purple Japanese roof iris, Iris tectorum. At mid-border, partner geums with Penstemon ‘Husker Red’ (24–36 inches), taller catmints, Nepeta Junior Walker (18 inches) or ‘Cat’s Meow’ (to 20 inches), or hybrid sage ‘Caradonna’ (24 inches). Columbines (Aquilegia) with their dancing flowers also make good partners. Choose shades to create your own color scheme. Long-stemmed geums are valued as cut flowers; cut the flowers before they are fully open. Cut-flower candidates include 24-inch yellowish-orange ‘Fireball’; scarlet-red ‘Sangria’, which may reach 30 inches; and 30-inch orange ‘Totally Tangerine’. In native plant gardens, prairie smoke and water or purple avens, or chocolate root, both with nodding flowers, are appropriate. Several other species are native to this continent, but they are unassuming and poorly suited for ornamental gardens. Surely there is a place for these spice-toned and often overlooked flowers in your garden. There certainly is in mine.
GEUMS: PLANT AT A GLANCE
COMMON NAME: Geums, avens, or Grecian rose
BOTANICAL NAME: Geum spp., selections, cultivars, and hybrids
HARDINESS: Zones 4–7
CONDITIONS: Best in full sun to part shade with well-drained, fertile soils that remain damp in summer. Good drainage is essential except for water avens. Geums do not care for the summer heat and humidity of Southeastern gardens.
BLOOM TIME: Late spring to summer; many rebloom later if deadheaded.
HEIGHT: 6–24 inches tall, 12–18 inches across
BEST FEATURE: Geums display cup- or saucer-shape single, semi-double, or double flowers predominantly in bright red, yellows, and oranges. These may be nodding, outfacing, or up-facing, and are carried singly or in loose sprays well above the basal rosette of foliage. Mounds of scalloped leaves remain attractive and are evergreen in mild climates. Geums are deer- and rabbit-resistant.
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