Veronica makes a statement

Tony Post

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Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ (Photo by Joanne Young)
Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ (Photo by Joanne Young)
Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ (Photo by Joanne Young)

Maybe it’s their bluer than blue flowers or their dramatic vertical blooms that first grab your attention. Then they continue to delight you with their ease and long-lasting beauty. With more than 500 species and countless cultivars available, there’s a veronica to suit every taste. Some have tall, upright spikes of flowers perfect for cutting. Others are low-growing evergreen plants ideal to use as a groundcover with multi-season interest. To me, a garden without veronicas seems somehow incomplete.

The genus name Veronica was officially chosen by famed botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s, although some species were already being called “veronica” in England some 200 years before this. The most widely used common name is speedwell, which comes from the archaic for farewell or Godspeed. While many veronicas are beautiful in their natural form, breeding work has contributed improved garden performance and less floppy stems, as well as shades of white, purple and pink to the palette.

The most popular veronicas are grouped by height below. With so much variety, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend that all these plants belong to the same genus. Fortunately for the gardener, they’re all easy to grow and rewarding. Unless noted otherwise, all are hardy to Zone 4.

Groundcovers and low-growing mounding forms
(under 8 in./20 cm)

Groundcover and low-mounding veronicas include many absolutely fantastic plants. The selections listed are just a tiny glimpse into this diverse genus, but most should be available at good independent garden centres. Some of the most striking blue flowers you’ll ever see are found in this group. The groundcover forms listed below are evergreen in all but the coldest areas, except as indicated.

Veronica allionii

Veronica allionii is a later-blooming species, bearing chubby spikes of deep violet-blue flowers during the summer. Use it along with one of the spring-blooming types to extend your season of colour. Height: 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm); Zone 2.

V. austriaca ‘Ionian Skies’

V. austriaca ‘Ionian Skies’ is more of a mounding form than groundcover. It’s well suited for rock gardens or walls, or for edging perennial borders. This semi-evergreen bears spikes of soft china-blue flowers in early summer. Height: 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm); Zone 2.

V. ‘Crystal River’

V. ‘Crystal River’ is an exceptionally good hybrid, combining the best qualities of its parents, V. liwanensis and V. pectinata. It forms a very low-spreading mat of glossy evergreen leaves. Tiny sky-blue flowers smother the plant in mid- to late spring, and appear now and again through the summer. Try this between flagstones or along a path. Height: 1 to 2.7 inches (5 to 7 cm) tall; Zone 3.

Both parents of ‘Crystal River’ make striking plants in their own right. V. liwanensis, a.k.a. Turkish speedwell, can’t be beat for drought tolerance. This evergreen groundcover forms a flat mat studded with exceptionally blue flowers in spring. The dense habit also makes it worth considering as a lawn substitute. Height: 2 inches (5 cm); Zone 3.

V. pectinata’s carpet of grey-green foliage is studded with tiny, true blue flowers with a white eye. This one is extremely drought tolerant as well, and ideal in rock gardens or as a groundcover in small areas. For a real show of spring colour, try underplanting with dwarf daffodils. Height: 2 inches (5 cm); Zone 3.

V.  prostrata

V.  prostrata is a popular semi-evergreen selection with several good cultivars now available. They carry very short spikes of flowers in late spring and early summer. Clip plants back after flowering to tidy for summer, if desired. Some of the best ones are Blue Mirror (V. ‘Blauspiegel’), a German selection noted for its clear blue flowers; Goldwell, with its unique golden-edged foliage, contrasts beautifully with violet-blue flowers and is great mass planted or grown in the rock garden; Glacier Blue, which stands out with pale blue flowers that smother mounding grey-green foliage; and Blue Sheen’, whose beautiful white flowers are flushed with blue over glossy foliage. The species and cultivars are four to six inches(10 to 15 cm) tall.

V. repens

V. repens is the most compact species. The semi-evergreen foliage is adorned with tiny white flowers in spring. Best used for massing as a groundcover over a small area. The selection Sunshine adds brightness with golden-yellow foliage. In spring, it’s covered with small near-white flowers. Both are wonderful between flagstones, or take advantage of their trailing habit in pots or alpine troughs. Height: ½ inch (1 cm).

V. spicata ssp. incana ‘Silbersee’

V. spicata ssp. incana ‘Silbersee’ is grown for its silver leaves as well as its deep violet-blue flowers that bloom in June and July. It’s excellent for massing as a groundcover, edging a sunny border or combining with dark-leaved plants in containers. Height: 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm); Zone 3.

V. umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ (syn. V. peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ or ‘Oxford Blue’)

V. umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’ (syn. V. peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ or ‘Oxford Blue’) has proven to be an outstanding selection. Small sapphire-blue flowers emerge all over during the spring, and sometimes again in late summer. The evergreen foliage turns bronze-coloured in the colder months. This also looks great with some spring bulbs planted underneath. Height: 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm).

V. ‘Waterperry Blue’

V. ‘Waterperry Blue’ stands out from the others with a very long bloom period. Named after the Waterperry School of Horticulture in England, where it was discovered, it produces soft blue flowers from late spring into fall. New foliage is often bronzy purple. Veronica ‘Whitewater’ is a pure white flowering form and is equally hardy and easy to grow with a similar bloom period. Both are just 1.2 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm) tall.

V. whitleyi

V. whitleyi produces some of the best blue flowers. It forms a mat of distinctly different feathery, olive-green leaves. Tiny sapphire-blue flowers decorate the plant in spring. These will often bloom again in late summer or fall, and it makes an outstanding groundcover. Height: 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm); Zone 3.

Medium mounding forms (8 to 16 in./20 to 40 cm)

While the low-growing types are generally used as groundcover, many medium varieties make attractive and long-blooming clumps that are useful in the mixed border. Their vertical spikes of flowers function as an exclamation point, standing out from the more common rounded forms. Use them to punctuate your garden. Just remember: If you really want to make a statement, three exclamation marks are better than one!!!

V. x ‘Aspire’

V. x ‘Aspire’ is a brand new hybrid that promises to be one of the longest-blooming veronicas to date. It’s not just another pink veronica, boasts the breeder: ‘Aspire’ sets itself apart with larger, deep rose flowers on compact, long-lasting spikes. This habit is ideal for both containers and the front of a border. Height: 12 inches (30 cm).

V. austriaca

V. austriaca ‘Venice Blue’ is a new introduction with the largest flowers in its class. Spikes are short but produced in great numbers, each loaded with true blue flowers in spring for a striking effect. Height: 12 inches (30 cm).

V. spicata

V. spicata, or spiked speedwell, is perhaps the most popular species. It produces attractive, slender spikes of densely arranged tiny flowers all summer long. Spiked speedwell performs best where soil is evenly moist but very well drained. Breeding is ongoing, and some of the best selections include Royal Candles, which is outstanding, bearing short spikes of bright blue flowers that are at home anywhere in the garden. Grow them as an edging plant, in the rock garden or in containers. A light shearing after blooming encourages fresh foliage, and possible repeat flowering in the fall. Height: 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm); Zone 2.

A new series of V. spicata is attracting attention, from both growers and, more importantly, consumers. First Glory’ (blue), ‘First Lady’ (white) and ‘First Love’ (pink) look especially great in combination. What really sets these apart is the number of blooms, which continue for weeks. Butterflies love them, and so will you. All three are 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) tall.

Red Fox’ is an older cultivar that forms a bushy clump of dark green leaves and bears spikes of deep pink flowers that are excellent for cutting. As with all taller types, these may be pruned hard if they get floppy. Height: 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm).

For an exceptionally vigorous selection, try ‘Tickled Pink’. Its bubble gum-pink blooms delight from July to September and are great for cutting. Height: 12 to 16 inches (30 to 40 cm); Zone 5.

One of the most compact V. spicata is ‘Baby Doll, with pink flowers on stems just eight to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) tall. Zone 3.

Veronica`Sunny Border Blue' (Photo by Joanne Young)
Veronica`Sunny Border Blue’ (Photo by Joanne Young)

Tall selections (over 40 cm)

While much of the breeding work is focused on the demand for medium-sized, long-blooming plants, taller selections are still to be found. Some new cultivars offer colours never before seen in this genus, and as with the medium-sized veronicas, some of the most exciting varieties are crosses.

V. x ‘Blue Explosion’, ‘Purple Explosion’ and ‘Pink Explosion’

V. x ‘Blue Explosion’, ‘Purple Explosion’ and ‘Pink Explosion’ are promising hybrids that display unusually dense masses of long, radiating spikes of flowers, offering a bouquet of colour. Height: 16 to 18 inches (40 to 45 cm).

V. ‘Eveline’ (syn. V. longifolia ‘Eveline’)

V. ‘Eveline’ (syn. V. longifolia ‘Eveline’) is a hybrid from the Netherlands that shows great promise. This forms a bushy, upright clump of shiny, dark green leaves, bearing vertical wands of deep magenta-purple flowers from July to September; 20 to 24 inches(50 to 60 cm) tall.

V. longifolia

V. longifolia, or long-leaved speedwells, are tall, showy plants, with a few cultivars reaching 48 inches (120 cm) in height. This makes them ideal for larger perennial borders, where they add dependable summer colour. Like other veronicas, these are at their best in a very sunny location in well-drained soil; shade or rich soil can cause the plants to become floppy.

Some exceptional new selections include Charlotte’, which stands out with green leaves with a narrow white edge and many slender spikes (24 to 30 inches / 60 to 75 cm) of pure white flowers. ‘Candied Candle’ is a late-blooming variety that shows off its lilac-pink flowers from midsummer to fall. Its 18-inch (45-cm)-tall stems are exceptional for cutting.

V. ‘Purpleicious’

V. ‘Purpleicious’ is another hybrid that stands out. This award-winning selection has intense purple flowers on compact, sturdy stems. It flowers all summer and is especially dramatic when mass planted. Height: 16 to 20 inches (40 to 50 cm); Zone 3.

V. x ‘Tranquility’

V. x ‘Tranquility’ promises lovely violet-blue flower spikes through summer and makes a great cut flower. Height: 32 to 40 inches (80 to 100 cm).

Keeping veronicas happy

Caring for veronicas couldn’t be easier. Provide a sunny location and well-drained soil. Though undemanding, some taller types may need extra water in periods of extended drought — mulching will decrease the need for this. They are naturally long bloomers, but you can extend it even more by removing flowers or stems as they fade. If you’re the tidying sort, feel free to cut back plants after frost, if you prefer. Clumps can be divided every few years in spring or fall to increase vigour. In humid climates, powdery mildew is sometimes a problem; to help reduce its likelihood, provide adequate spacing for plants.

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