Light, airy and lovely perennials

By Andy McIndoe

Perennials which add that light, airy, ethereal touch to a planting scheme are a magic ingredient.

By adding a light veil around heavier subjects they add depth and another dimension which will give any border a lift. Among those strong spikes and bold blooms these light and airy characters hold their own and become firm favourites in their own right.

When it comes to cut flowers Gypsophila paniculata is the obvious choice when a light, airy bloom is needed. Gypsophila has long been one of the most popular cut flowers for arrangement and decoration. It is extensively used in wedding flowers for its light, lacy innocence. Traditionally it was grown alongside sweet peas in the cottage garden for cutting as an accompaniment to our favourite, fragrant summer flowers. On fertile alkaline soils gypsophila is easy to grow, long lived and blooms for many weeks each summer. Give it space; it forms a cloud of finely branched stems up to 90cm (3ft) across.

Gypsophila paniculata

Cow parsley is the ultimate light, airy wildflower. Its frothy presence along verges is a sure sign that summer is underway. Although a little bolder in bloom Orlaya grandiflora is perhaps a more sophisticated alternative for the garden. A native of Mediterranean vineyards and orchards this annual will seed freely in light, well-drained soils. The pure white lace flower heads are a perfect addition among lavenders and low silver shrubs. It is always at its best in full sun.

Orlaya grandiflora

The perennial honesty, Lunaria rediviva is a shadier character, perfect beneath deciduous trees and amongst shrubs with hellebores and spring flowering bulbs. It is lighter and more delicate than its annual cousin with fragile flowers in the palest shade of lilac against light green leaves. The flat green, oval seed pods that follow are equally delicate in character and remain as shining silver parchment through winter.

Lunaria rediviva

A truly lovely perennial which always attracts attention, Gillenia trifoliata is relatively seldom seen.The neat, pleated, trifoliate leaves are carried on wiry red stems. Above these a cloud of tiny butterflies with pointed wings emerge in midsummer. The petals translucent white and of silky texture; the overall effect is superb. An excellent choice with roses, herbaceous geraniums and stronger subjects such as penstemons.

Gillenia trifoliata

Although the individual blooms are larger, the gauras provide a similar effect later in the season. There are many shorter and more compact varieties, but these lack the grace and impact of the tall growing cultivars. They are mostly white, some pink. Gaura linheimeri ‘Rosy Jane’ is a unique variety with long spikes of pink edged white butterfly blooms. The tall, slender stems move in the most gently breeze and continue to flower freely well into autumn. Gauras contribute most when planted further forward in a bed or border where their light height gives the planting more depth.

Chaemerion angustifolium Album

Similar in bloom, but with stronger spikes, the white willow-herb Chaemerion angustifolium ‘Album’ is a sought after subject that is notoriously difficult to establish. Unlike the pink form it produces few fertile seeds, if any and is propagated by division and root cutting. Putting science aside it succeeds where it likes the garden! Few perennials have such pure white blooms combined with silver buds and pale green leaves; wonderful against a dark background.

Chaemerion angustifolium Album

Red is not always the easiest colour to use in a garden, however the dark red pincushion blooms of Knautia macedonica rarely look out of place. These dainty, dark flowers are carried high on wiry stems above clumps of low green leaves. Attractive to bees and butterflies they dance on the breeze and have a wonderfully light and airy character. The flowering season is long and the plants will usually seed and spread.

Knautia macedonica

Light and dainty flowers are also valuable amongst the lower panting at the front of a bed or border.The South African tulbaghias, members of the allium family, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Many flower for months and love hot dry summers. Tulbaghia ‘Purple Eye’ has fine green leaves and slender stems with tiny, sparkling, dark-eyed lilac flowers.It’s perfect to add a light touch in a container or gravel bed. The narrow leaves can be chopped and used as chives; the mild garlic flavour is delicious.

Tulbaghia 'Purple Eye'

The flowers of heucheras are often overlooked in favour of the attractive foliage.However those delicate airy spikes have a beauty of their own and some almost outshine the leaves. Heuchera ‘Paris’ is definitely one to grow for the flowers. The upright straight stems carry fireworks of tiny coral red flowers of great vibrancy. The soft green, brown etched leaves are attractive but certainly take second place.

Heuchera 'Paris'

The bluestar is true to its name, producing dainty heads of pale blue starry flowers on straight stems clothed in mid-green leaves. Amsonia orientalis only grows to around 60cm (2ft) and is a delightful front of border plant. Clumps of amsonia erupt in clouds of sparkling. Palest-blue foam in midsummer, delightful amongst the feathery fronds of grasses studded with orange geums.

Amsonia orientalis

Andy McIndoe

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