Attention-getting ‘Caradonna’ perennial sage

Judith Adam

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'Caradonna' salvia (Photo courtesy of How Sweet It Is,
'Caradonna' salvia (Photo courtesy of How Sweet It Is,
‘Caradonna’ salvia (Photo courtesy of How Sweet It Is,

Among the new plants I put in this spring is perennial sage ‘Caradonna’ (Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’, also listed as S. x sylvestris ‘Caradonna’, Zone 4, 24 x 18 in / 60 x 45 cm). The intensely dark violet-blue spikes are highlighted with a slight copper inflorescence at the base of each flower and always draw the attention of anyone passing it along the front walkway. The deep colouring extends to the purple-black stems, and each spike is exceptionally thin and streamlined, making a strong vertical presence in the bed. ‘Caradonna’ is a lovely companion beside pink and white peonies, and becomes almost electric in the presence of yellow daylilies.

The flower spikes were already blooming when I purchased the plants in spring and have just finished, so I’ve cut them off just below the bottom flower to encourage new flower spikes from leaf axils lower on the stem. The narrow grey-green foliage has a pleasantly pebbly texture, and in full sun with good drainage the plants should have another flush of flower spikes to last through summer. I’ve had other perennial sages, such as May Night (‘Mainacht’) and Blue Queen (‘Blaukonigin’), and they also have deep violet-blue flowers, but the dark stems of ‘Caradonna’ really make an impression. This sage would be gorgeous next to a clump of silver-grey Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ (also known as S. byzantina ‘Countess Helen von Stein’, Zone 4), which I had last season and ripped out. What was I thinking?

Where does the water go?

With frequent heavy rain keeping the garden lush and encouraging rapid plant growth, it’s easy to assume there’s sufficient water in the soil, but a few minutes spent grooming plants this morning revealed surprising dry areas. Plants have grown strongly and produced so much foliage that their leaves are deflecting rainwater and shielding the soil; in some sections, it’s running off to the drain at the bottom of the driveway. What a strange circumstance. It seems a bit ridiculous to get out the hose after a huge downpour just two days ago, but that’s what I did to deliver water to dry areas under trees and shrubs, and to some perennials. Vigilance is a large part of gardening.

This morning, I thinned out thick clumps of peonies that have grown so full that their stems and leaves have spread to cover 48 inches (1.2 m), shielding the soil from falling rain. I also thinned the robust perennial pea plants (Lathyrus vernus), removing stems from the outside, to reduce their girth. The soil around the base of these plants was dry, and I hope the thinning will help rain get through.

I’m fond of oversize hostas, and have several clumps of these big and boisterous plants, including ‘Sum and Substance’, ‘Krossa Regal’, and ‘Blue Umbrellas’. Despite the size of their large leaves and expansive growth, I don’t need to remove any foliage. If you take a look at hostas during a rain shower, you’ll see that they’re a clever piece of plumbing. Their broad leaves catch rainwater like the roof on a house, channeling it down their veined leaf surface to the hollow central stem, which acts as a drain pipe and delivers the water directly to the plant’s crown. Just like the downspouts on a roof, the stems are sometimes clogged with accumulated falling plant debris that must be cleared to allow water to flow down. What a perfectly designed plant!

Alpine strawberries: small treasures

The moist soil has brought a terrific display of alpine strawberries this spring and early summer. I use them as a groundcover in a small pocket garden I have at the side of the house, and they’ve made cheerful fat clumps of foliage with bouncing white flowers, turning to charming red berries. They’re almost too perfect to be real, and the berries are really delicious. I have ‘Alexandria’, which I grew from seed last year, and it produces larger berries than some of the other alpine cultivars, but still has the charming appearance of a wild fruit.

The strawberries are growing with some clumps of the giant blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica, Zone 5), a moisture-intensive plant I thought had perished from drought. My garden has been bedeviled by a neighbour’s construction project that’s now stretching into its second summer, and I haven’t always been able to water that little bed. Last year it was bone dry and the lobelia completely disappeared. The roots must have been waiting for a better day, and this year’s moisture has stimulated the lobelia’s return. Good things come from rain!


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