Effusive, late-season displays of color become harder to come by as the days become cooler, which is why I enjoy growing the bright, carefree wands of windflower in my garden, and always make room for their clumping foliage between other spring and summer flowering perennials.
Paired with berried shrubs, reddening foliage, maturing tropicals, and other bright flowering sparks like dahlias or zinnias, windflower blossoms signal the last days of summer and those precious weeks when it doesn’t take all of your willpower to go outside and get something done.
If you’re shopping, Anemone hupehensis, A. tomentosa or A. x hybrida are the names you’re looking for — also Japanese anemone or windflower. Windflower is an excellent common name for these wispy yet vigorous flowers which top tall wiry stems held well above the lovely, low masses of lobed or dissected foliage.
They are part-shade lovers, and therefore not only brighten parts of the garden that might feel a little dreary, but do so at a time when other better-known perennials have already come and gone.
Because windflower blooms are very summer-esque and come in many colors commonly associated with the high summer season, you’re likely to get a few “What are THOSE?!?” remarks from visitors. Such remarks shouldn’t be so satisfying, but sadly they are, so let’s explore windflowers and how you can grow them in your garden.
How to grow windflowers
First, pick a spot that is sheltered from heavy winds. Windflowers may dance attractively in a breeze, but they’re not going to be happy after a severe storm. They appreciate a moisture retentive soil that is rich in organic matter, and once they are planted they would really rather that you left them alone to take over that bit of the garden.
Each time I have divided windflowers I have regretted it, but then, each time I have done so I have sent the divisions off to live somewhere they have no business living – such as dry, silty soil or full sun in sand. Divisions are always slow to recover, so take some time to site them well or you’ll end up with an ex-plant.
If you give them organically rich soil, you will be rewarded with exceptionally vigorous plants whose foliage will emerge early in spring and could almost be classified as a ground cover throughout the growing season. They will quickly spread – I didn’t say ‘vigorous’ for nothing.
Note: In rich, partially shaded soil you’ll be digging them out within three years to stop them smothering other plants. I keep them on the hungrier, drier side and don’t need to do very much weeding.
Windflowers prefer shelter from burning afternoon sun. Hence they are very popular with gardeners trying to extend the season in their lightly shaded spots. One of my absolute favorite combinations is the pairing of pure white ‘Honorine Jobert’ blooms (A. x hybrida) with low-lying branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) before the leaves have dropped on the winterberry yet the branches are laden with red fruit.
This combination relies on the ability of the ilex to cope with slightly shadier conditions than it would prefer, and the anemone to take more sun than it would like — but some of the best things in life require compromise.
Which windflowers should you grow?
‘Honorine Jobert’ was the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial of the Year a few years back, but I am equally fond of the slightly shorter ‘Andrea Atkinson’ and the lovely pink ‘September Charm.’ The pure white of Honorine is so wonderfully brightening in the late summer and early fall garden, and contrasts so well with other plants that it’s tough to go wrong with it.
Often times it is really about what I can get hold of easily during the spring planting season and as a grower friend always tells me, it’s tough to sell something that doesn’t bloom until fall. After a quick local nursery scan, anemone collectors are probably better off searching the internet to find those rarer cultivars.
Flowers can be single, double or semi-double and most often are found in deepening shades of pink or white. The sepals are most often contrasted with striking orange stamens, but some are quite delicate, like A. tomentosa ‘Robustissima’ a cultivar that almost has a blueish cast to the sepals.
If you play your cards right and mix your cultivars, you can have windflowers blooming from late July through late October.
In fact, you can have them blooming even earlier than that – ‘Wild Swan,’ an exciting cultivar selected by Scottish nursery owner Elizabeth MacGregor, starts blooming in late spring and features white sepals with lilac-blue backsides. It’s absolutely stunning. I’ve killed it twice, but one lives in hope – I will no doubt try it again.
Other great pairings to try with Japanese anemones? Aster, Sheffield mums, pennisetum, panicum, aconitum, hosta, ligularia and just about anything else that can stand up to it and through which it can send those lovely wiry flowers.
Give it try next year if you haven’t already. Meanwhile, look out for it in the gardens of others this month and into October.