Many gardeners complain that it is difficult to place colchicums in the garden because of their unusual growing cycle, in which their leaves grow in the spring, die down in the summer, and then the flowers emerge in the fall. The colchicum bed at Montrose Gardens in Hillsborough, North Carolina, pictured above, contained many colchicum design ideas that could be implemented in any garden.
A bright magenta petunia and dark purple foliage plants echo the color of the colchicums. They share the same hue but their values are quite different. The grey-green of some of the foliage plants is the opposite of the colchicum’s bluish pinks and flatters them by contrast. Similar interactions are going in this photo from my own garden:
There are white colchicums in this Montrose Gardens bed, too, but they get a different design treatment:
I am pretty sure this is black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, but again, this is another plant that is not hardy in my area. I get the same dramatic contrast by growing white colchicums with a dark leaved ajuga:
Without the dark leaves for contrast, the white flowers are not as visible, especially when there is a lot going on, as in the Montrose bed. But you know, pairing plants based on flower color is relatively easy. What stumps a lot of gardeners is how to handle colchicums in the spring, when their foliage emerges and then goes dormant. In spring when the colchicum leaves emerge, the hellebores, seen in the back in the photo above, are blooming their hearts out. I can see in my minds’ eye that the upward thrusting colchicum leaves would make a pleasing structural counterpoint to umbrella-like hellebore foliage. But what really stumps gardeners, especially the fastidious, deadhead-and-keep-everything-edged sorts, is what to do when those oversized leaves are going dormant:
Even I, the self-appointed colchicum evangelist, must concede that they are not at their best at this stage. What you may not have noticed in the Montrose photos above, but which I could see at the time, was the presence of hardy geranium foliage. Hardy geraniums are making lovely mounds of greenery, spangled with blooms, just when the colchicums are at their worst. Depending on which hardy geraniums you plant, you can easily camouflage the waning colchicum leaves with some lusty geraniums. And the geraniums are usually due for a cutback shortly before the colchicums bloom. It’s a win-win situation that I first read about in an essay by Brian Bixley in Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate. (Catchy title, yes?)
I was very happy to find these colchicums blooming at Montrose Gardens. Since so many of these southern plants were unfamiliar, stumbling across these flowering bulbs was sort of like meeting up with your next door neighbor when traveling abroad. I was pleased to see that the same siting and planting techniques that I have used to incorporate colchicums in my garden were also used at Montrose Gardens, though with a southern plant palette.
Colchicums: isn’t it time you planted some?