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Growing Wild Loosestrife and Willowherbs

Growing Wild Loosestrife and Willowherbs
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© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017

Wildflowers, like all other types of flowering plant, come in many shapes and sizes.  Some of the most useful plants for providing height and structure in a garden are those that are tall and stately with long spikes of colourful flowers.  In my garden plants such as lupins and foxgloves perform this function admirably, but as I prefer to include a few native plants wherever I can, even in the more formal borders, I always try to find space for wildflowers or their close relatives and varieties.  We are looking at two groups of wild plants that also have varieties or ‘cousins’ which are very suitable for garden cultivation, providing colour over a long period into the autumn, and they have great wildlife value too.

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Mention willowherbs to most gardeners and there is a chance that they will throw up their hands in horror - weedy plants that are invasively spreading, inclined to take over and with no garden merit!  But the willowherb family, the Onagraceae, actually contains a large number of very garden-worthy plants including fuchsia and evening primrose.  Neither of these is truly native, but can still be included in informal or wild borders.  However the best of the native willowherbs is a truly beautiful plant but possibly one of the most invasive.  Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) is a familiar plant of roadsides and waste ground where it may create large areas of stunning spikes of bright pink flowers which are quite capable of reaching a height of two and a half meters.  It also is an important larval food plant of the elephant hawk moth and some species of leaf-cutter bees find the leaves are just right for sealing their nest holes.  All in all then, a wonderful wildflower with good wildlife attracting potential, but of course there is a catch.  This beautiful plant can take over your whole garden.  It can be grown in a container, but the pretty fluffy seeds will still find their way into your borders.  This doesn’t stop me growing this wayward plant, and I accept the work involved in keeping it under control, but for the more sensible gardener I would recommend the white flowered version, (sometimes still found under the name of Epilobium) which is equally gorgeous and easier to confine.  If willowherbs do take your fancy, the greater willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) also has lovely spikes of large pink flowers and softly hairy leaves, but sadly it is also a very invasive plant.  Most of the other native willowherbs are rather weedy with quite insignificant flowers, but even these species have long attractive seedpods which split lengthways to release the rather lovely fluffy seeds.

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Another member of this family, the yellow flowered evening primrose, is a very familiar plant both in gardens and in the wild and we tend to assume that it is native to these shores.  In fact these are introduced and naturalised plants, but none the less valuable to the wildlife gardener for that.  They are North American plants, the most frequently encountered being the common evening primrose, Oenothera biennis.  As the name suggests this is a biennial and very easy to grow.  Once it is established in your garden it will self seed quite freely but it is easy to remove the seedlings if they become too troublesome.  All the evening primroses are gently scented at night – this is to attract the moths that pollinate them – so they are particularly lovely to position close to a door that can be left open in the evening, or beneath a open window. They have the added advantage of nutritious seeds that some birds will seek out, so all in all are excellent for a wildlife garden.  Other species that sometimes crop up in our countryside are the large flowered evening primrose (Oenothera glazoviana) and the fragrant evening primrose (Oenothera stricta) which all make pretty border plants and flower throughout the summer months until September.

Other plants in this vigorous group are rather more gentle in their habits and appearance than the rampaging willowherbs or the dazzling yellow evening primroses.  One such is the sweetly named enchanters nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) which grows sedately in shady woodland.  It produces spikes of tiny white flowers and makes good ground cover under trees or hedges where light levels are low.  It spreads gently so there is no danger of it taking over as some ground cover plants are inclined to do. 

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Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is a well-known wildflower that many people enjoy growing in the garden.  Free flowering, stately and colourful, it is the perfect wildflower for the back of a border in clay soil or beside a garden pond where the soil doesn’t dry out too much.  In the wild we expect to see it on riverbanks and other wet spots, but sadly it is much less common than it was in years gone by.  In a wildlife garden it will attract bees, some moths including the day-flying silver Y and hoverflies, as it produces both nectar and pollen, and if the weather conditions are still, butterflies especially the white and brimstone will also take the nectar.  Its pinky purple flowers appear between June and August and continue well into September so it is well worth growing if you have the right conditions.  There are excellent cultivated varieties of the purple loosestrife with denser, brighter flower spikes.  Lythrum Rosy Gem and Firecandle are both worth growing and cope well with drier soils than our wild plant is inclined to do. 

Yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) is also known to many gardeners, as it is frequently grown as a cottage garden plant.  To confuse us though, this familiar waterside plant is not related to purple loosestrife, but is actually a member of the primrose family!  This is a true native and whatever its family connections, it is easy to grow and a good bee attractant.  Unlike the purple loosestrife, which tends to spread by shedding its minute seeds around, yellow loosestrife creeps and spreads underground so expect it to expand into any available space where the conditions are right.  It prefers a damp soil but will grow pretty much anywhere.   Closely related to this plant is the dotted loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata) a well-known cottage garden plant, attracting bees to its pretty bright yellow flowers.  It is not native and where seen in the wild is a garden escape.  In the garden it will grow in almost any conditions, even where the soil is dry and impoverished, so it is a useful plant for awkward spots on the sunny side of walls or hedges.

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Our native flora is extremely rich and sometimes it is worth looking in a little more detail at some of our less showy wildflowers in order to appreciate their beauty.  The loosestrifes and willowherbs species are both showy and delicate, rampant and sedate, but all are worth a closer look and maybe even a place in your garden.

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