Borage

Borage may be the prettiest herb you’ve never seen. It’s a mystery why this carefree edible isn’t more common in gardens, as it offers beauty and practicality all season long. Clusters of bright blue five-petaled flowers, nodding on dramatic reddish stems, appear in early summer and last into fall. Bristles that cover the stems and leaves give the whole plant a silvery sheen. Leaves and flowers are edible. Bees love borage too; so much so that one of its nicknames is “bee’s bread.” Borage is an annual, but it reseeds prolifically—plant it once, and you’ll most likely see it every year. It can grow 3 feet tall and wide, so be sure to give it plenty of space.

Common name: Borage, cool tankard, talewort, tailwort, starflower

Botanical name: Borago officinalis

Plant type: Annual

Zones: Annual in all zones

Height: 1 to 3 feet

Family: Boraginaceae

Growing conditions:

Sun: Full sun to part shade

Soil: Average, well drained

Moisture: Average to dry

Care:

Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil.

Pruning: None needed.

Fertiliser: None needed.

Propagation:

By seed.

Pests and diseases:

Vulnerable to powdery mildew and crown rot.

May attract blackfly and flea beetles.

Cultivars:

Borago officinalis ‘Alba’ has white flowers and a slightly earlier bloom time.

Garden notes:

Deadhead spent blooms for a lush display of flowers, but don’t compost the flower heads.

They may survive the composting process, and you’ll wind up with borage all over your yard.

As a companion plant, borage is said to give tomatoes a better flavor and to control tomato worms. Gardeners also use it near strawberries—it attracts bees, which improve the pollination rate and thus the harvest.

The fresh leaves add a cucumber flavor to salads, yogurt, and summer drinks. Be sure to chop them, as they’re unpleasantly hairy when whole. Also use leaves in soups, sauces, and teas. Use flowers as a garnish in salads, or to add color to potpourri. Leaves don’t dry or freeze well.

People have used borage for centuries as an herbal remedy and an edible herb. Be aware, though, that it does contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, so it is toxic in very large quantities.

All in the family:

Borage most likely originated in Syria. It was first cultivated almost 1,000 years ago and has since naturalized across the Mediterranean, Europe, Iran, and north Africa.

Other members of the Boraginaceae family commonly found in gardens include forget-me-not, heliotrope, and lungwort.

(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Borago officinalis courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)

Scented Geraniums

When you’re thinking about your spring containers and considering petunias, impatiens, osteospermum, and liquorice vine, don’t forget about fragrance. Give those big red geraniums a pass this year and find a scented geranium instead. The aromatic leaves come in all flavours, from rose to coconut to lemon to peppermint, which will add another dimension to your patio experience. Scented geranium foliage comes in a range of shapes—some rounded, some like maple leaves, some ferny and finely cut. The flowers are pretty, too, though smaller, paler, and more delicate than the blossoms on more traditional bedding geraniums.

Common name: Scented geraniums

Botanical name: Pelargonium spp. (see below)
Plant type: Typically grown as annual
Zones: Annual in most zones
Height: 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on species
Family: Geraniaceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average to rich, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline
• Moisture: Average

Care

• Mulch: Mulch to help preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Deadhead to encourage more blooms; pinch to encourage a bushy form.
• Fertiliser: None needed.

Propagation

• By seed and cuttings

Pests and diseases

• In poorly drained soil, vulnerable to stem and root rot.
• May attract mealybugs, spider mites, whiteflies, or other pests.

Garden notes

• The point of having scented geraniums is their fragrance, so plant them near a patio or walkway where you’ll brush by them often.
• Though the flowers of scented geraniums aren’t as striking as those of other geranium groups, the plants are still valuable in containers, window boxes, and hanging baskets, where they provide a lush green backdrop and the surprise of strongly aromatic foliage.
• Use dried leaves in potpourris.

Species and cultivars

• The leaves of P. ‘Attar of Roses’ have such a strong rose scent that they’re often used to supplement actual rose petals in perfumes.
• P. ‘Clorinda’ has cedar-scented leaves and dark pink flowers.
• P. crispum has lemon-scented leaves and pale purple flowers.
• P. grossularoides has coconut-scented leaves and magenta flowers.
• P. ‘Mabel Grey’ has lemon-scented leaves and purple flowers.
• P. odoratissimum has apple-scented leaves and white flowers.
• P. tomentosum has peppermint-scented leaves and white flowers.

All in the family

• The genus Pelargonium contains about 280 species, mostly from South Africa.
• The annuals we call geraniums are in the Pelargonium genus, and the perennials that we call cranesbills are in the Geranium genus. Both genera are in the geranium family, Geraniaceae, along with several other genera.

Strawflowers

November is not typically a time when you’re surrounded by clusters of red, orange, yellow, and pink flowers. But if you grew strawflower this year and dried it, that’s exactly what would be blooming in vases all around your house. Bracteantha bracteata, beloved in cutting gardens and among dried-flower fiends, comes in a rainbow of colours and a range of heights. It fills the garden with beads of color all summer long. Fun fact: What look like papery petals are actually bracts, surrounding a central corolla.

Common name: Strawflower, everlasting, paper daisy

Botanical name: Bracteantha bracteata (also Helichrysum bracteatum)
Plant type: Typically grown as annual
Zones: Annual in Zones 3 to 8; perennial in Zones 9 to 11
Height: 3 to 4 feet tall, depending on cultivar
Family: Asteraceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Average to moist

Care

• Mulch: Mulch will help preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Deadhead to encourage continued blooms.
• Fertiliser: None needed.

Propagation

• By seed

Pests and diseases

• Vulnerable to downy mildew

Garden notes

• Tall cultivars may need staking. Or plant them next to ornamental grasses, shrubs, or other tall flowers for support. Use dwarf cultivars in the front of the bed.
• Strawflowers are favourites for drying because they retain their shape and colour for a long time. Pick the flowers on a dry, sunny day before they are fully open—they’ll continue to unfold as they dry.
• Other flowers that are great for drying include statice, globe amaranth, larkspur, baby’s breath, allium, money plant, and yarrow.

Cultivars

• Bright Bikinis Series strawflowers come in a mix of colours: red, orange, pink, yellow, and white. Blooms are 2 inches across; plants are 12 to 14 inches tall.
• Monstrosum Series cultivars are tall with large, double flowers. Many colours.
• StrawBurst Yellow (B. bracteata ‘Stabur Yel’) has large yellow flower heads. Grows 12 to 14 inches tall.

All in the family

• The genus Bracteantha contains only about seven species, all from Australia.
• Other members of the Asteraceae family include daisies, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, and, of course, asters.

Mexican sunflower

Mexican sunflower is so cheery, so big, and so orange that it has the power to convert unbelievers. People who walk by without noticing flowers, or even worse, notice them and shrug, will find their apathy shredded in the presence of this sun-loving, bloom-crazy, rough-and-tumble annual. In just one season, Mexican sunflower can grow as high as your head, with loads of red-orange flowers on bushy, sturdy branches for most of the summer. It thrives in hot, dry weather in poor soil. It’s also candy for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds—and folks who thought they didn’t care about flowers.

Common name: Mexican sunflower

Botanical name: Tithonia rotundifolia
Plant type: Typically grown as annual
Zones: Annual in most zones
Height: 4 to 6 feet tall
Family: Asteraceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Average to poor, well-drained
• Moisture: Average to dry

Care

• Mulch: Mulch will help preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Deadhead to prolong bloom time.
• Fertilizer: None needed.

Propagation

• By seed.

Pests and diseases

• May attract slugs or snails.

Garden notes

• Because it’s so tall, T. rotundifolia is best at the back of a flower bed. Plant it against a wall or fence for support.
• T. rotundifolia is great for a cutting garden.
• Use as a temporary screen in summer.

Cultivars

• ‘Torch’ has reddish orange flowers.
• ‘Goldfinger’ stays less than 3 feet tall.
• ‘Sundance’ has bright orange flowers.

All in the family

• The genus Tithonia contains only about 10 species, all from Mexico and Central America. T. rotundifolia is the most commonly grown species in the genus.
• Asteraceae, the aster or sunflower family, is neck and neck with Orchidaceae for the title of the largest family of flowering plants in the world. Both families contain more than 20,000 species.

Sweet Alyssum

If I could only buy one type of annual, I’d choose sweet alyssum. It’s tough, it stands up to heat and drought, it’s pretty, it smells good, and it covers ground at a surprising rate. Each spring when I plant the tiny plugs, I worry that they’re going to disappear in the first heavy rain. And each summer, at some point, I realise they’ve grown into flowering mats a couple feet wide, spilling their honeylike fragrance across the whole yard. You can find them in neon pink and bright white, and several shades in between. They’re available everywhere, and they’re inexpensive. There’s no other flower that says summer so reliably and so sweetly.

Common name: Alyssum, sweet alyssum

Botanical name: Lobularia maritima
Plant type: Typically grown as annual
Zones: Annual in most zones
Height: 2 to 12 inches tall, depending on cultivar
Family: Brassicaceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained
• Moisture: Average to dry

Care

• Mulch: Mulch will help preserve moisture in the soil.
• Pruning: Cut back after the first bloom and again at the peak of summer.
• Fertiliser: None needed.

Propagation

• By seed; often self-seeds.

Pests and diseases
• Vulnerable to downy mildew and white blister.
• May attract slugs or flea beetles.

Garden notes

• L. maritima looks great at the front of a flower bed. You can also weave it in between perennials to connect or highlight different colours.
• Alyssum works well in a window box or hanging basket.
• Use as an annual ground cover in a sunny spot.

Cultivars

• ‘Carpet of Snow’ is a classic white-flowered cultivar that grows about 4 inches tall.
• ‘Snow Crystals’ forms compact mounds of white blossoms to about 10 inches tall.
• Cultivars in the Basket Series come in a range of colours from red to white to peach; these look great in hanging baskets.

All in the family

• The genus Lobularia contains only a handful of species, all from the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. L. maritima, as its name suggests, does particularly well in coastal, or maritime, conditions.
• Other members of the Brassicaceae family include cabbage, kale, and radishes.