Often in gardening there are plants that are overlooked, too common, too easy, too hardworking, too ordinary. I sing the praises of these plants because all too often the gardening community has a nearly fatalistic obsession with newness, rareness, hard-to-find-ness. Aside from the eye rolling sameness of a lot of the tropical/ exotic gardens we see lots of today there’s a real overlooking of their short season of interest and the difficulty in getting that all-singing, all- dancing exotic carnival on the road every summer. So here’s a plant for all who despair of ever having borders like those in Great Dixter or who can’t imagine stuffing banana plants into the hot press for the winter. A celebration of the ordinary heroes of the plant world.
Brunnera macrophylla is common, yep, really common, also known as Siberian bugloss and is an easy, hardworking and really beautiful plant with lots to offer any gardener.
Hailing from Eastern European forests it is a tough plant growing from a mat of rhizomes and has heart shaped leaves in a range of greens, silver or speckled silver depending on the variety. As it is from the Borage family it’s easy to see the resemblance in growth habit and leaf structure. The eventual height of the plant is around 45cm and it spreads slowly into nice, neat clumps. It is fully frost hardy and even in the roughest of weather it puts forth its flowers.
The flowers and foliage are the reason I grow this plant and although I have several favourites including ‘Jack Frost’ ‘Langtrees’ and ‘Looking Glass’ my top pick is Brunnera macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’ presents us with a rosette of soft green heart shaped leaves topped in April and May by airy clusters of pure white flowers. Each plant produces lots of flowers so the effect of a few clumps in a planting is magical. It makes a perfect combination to white Narcissus such as N. ‘Thalia’ is fantastic with tulips particularly the burnt orange ‘Ballerina’ where it provides a cool foil to the strong primary orange.
Brunnera is tough, get it started with a little watering in its first few months and it will dig deep and get a foothold, it will survive drought, frost, snow and all manner of weather related insults and still will produce in April and May the beautiful veil of flowers, in white as is the case with ‘Betty Bowring’ or in the other cultivars wonderful forget-me-not blue with a tiny white eye. All of the named varieties above are worth growing.
The best plantings of Brunnera are away from sun, in a little shade, ideally with moist soil but this is not essential. The variegated forms such as ‘Jack Frost’ definitely do better on a moisture retentive soil but a tidy up and a water after a period of drought will spur them to produce new fresh foliage. The dappled shade under deciduous trees and shrubs is ideal for Brunnera. In the wild it grows in the mountain forests of the Caucasus, where it revels in the loamy, leaf mold of the forest floor. In winter the only job to do is to remove the spent foliage and in early spring, usually January, you can divide and replant before it flowers in April and May. In my garden, where I grow all of the forms above it self seeds gently, each a gift to go into a tricky area under shrubs or on on tough bank.
So, before you go bananas for bananas or start to covet some Schlefferas take a moment to consider Brunnera, ordinary, uncool but real workhorses, looking good always and making your garden better, more beautiful for very little effort. True heroes don’t always shout from the rooftops.