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True blue

August 10, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

In spring, blue flowers - grape hyacinths and scilla - offer a sparkling contrast to the yellow of the nodding trumpets of the daffodils. Then, as summer approaches, blue flowers soothe the eye and seem to temper the heat of the summer sun.

In our garden, the spring bulbs are followed by the clear blue, sweet pea-like blossoms of the bushy false indigo - Baptisia australis. This small shrub has lovely gray-green leaves that remain attractive all season long. As if that isn't enough, when the flowers fade they produce long, dark seed pods. Our false indigo is enhanced by the bright-yellow achillea planted close by. When the seed pods open, some drop to the ground and often sprout. So you can share this hardy beauty with your friends. Although baptisia is under investigation as a mood system stimulant, it is also potentially toxic.

In early summer, blue flag iris (Iris verisclor), the model for France's fleur de lis, comes into its own in soggy, wet spots. It can manage nicely with a little shade. Blue flag was a source of black dye for the early colonists. Although it appeared in some early herbals as a medicine, blue flag is now considered poisonous to ingest.

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Two other blues manage to soldier on, giving pleasure from June to August. One, a cranesbill, Geranium macilatum v. 'Johnson's Blue,' is a spreader that has flat, five-petaled, lavender blue flowers. This perennial shouldn't be confused with the annual "geraniums" one sees everywhere in window boxes - they are Pelargoniums. The flower catalogs now list a Geranium v. 'Brookside' as a worthy replacement for 'Johnson's.' It's hard to believe anything could be better, but next year we'll try it and see how it looks against a stand of pink primroses.

The other native North American, spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) thrives with a little shade. It has iris-like leaves and quickly develops into a large clump. Ours is lovely rising as it does from a ring of lime-green hosta. Spiderwort leaves have large-celled hairs that are used in a variety of biological tests.

Sometimes when we search for the unusual plant, we forget to look at old favorites. The bachelor's button (Centaurea cyanus) is grown in our garden as an annual but reseeds with near certainty. It adds charm to nosegays of all sorts and is a nice touch of blue, dried and added to potpourri. This tiny flower draws its botanical name from the wise, just and learned centaur Chiron, who, according to Greek myth, mentored the young Achilles (after whom the garden aquilegia was named.)

Because it is said to attract butterflies, we planted blue vervain. So far, no butterflies and the dark, purpley-blue flowers seem to be a trifle skimpy atop tall stems. Another plant that produces leaves in disproportion to the blooms is the blue star flowered borage, 'the badge of courage.' But I continue to grow it because it adds such an elegant touch to summer salads and drinks.

As August settles in, I look to the roadsides and without any work on my part, enjoy a feast of azure blue when chicory (Cichorium intybus) blooms. The roots of chicory were often used in early America as a coffee substitute.

The dog days of August heralds the arrival of another American native, the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). It likes damp ground - ours survives in some shade - sending up a single stalk around which bell shaped blooms cluster. This plant derives its name from its use by American Indians to relieve the symptoms of syphilis, a disease unknown to them before the Europeans arrived on these shores. A reliable re-seeder, it often produces plants with white flowers. Both look elegant among the calendulas.

What are your favorite blues - veronica, anchusa, nigella or Greek valerian? Perhaps you choose to soothe the eye with campanulas, sages, butterfly bushes and nepetas. Some gardeners aspire to create a whole garden of blue flowers, but I think they are best used as foils for the pinks, yellows, reds and oranges of other plants.

Think blue and relax.

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