Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Bulbs

Hot Color: Crocosmia

by Eileen Murray

In her book The Flamboyant Garden, award-winning author Elizabeth Sheldon comments on the tendency of many gardeners to shy away from gaudy colors in the garden in favor of classier color schemes in gray, blue, mauve, and silver. "It seems to me that...[we] have been taught that Cool is Better -- more refined," she writes. And then she devotes her book to making a convincing case for the bright appeal of hot orange, flame red, and gleaming yellow flowers in the garden. One flashy plant she singles out is crocosmia, a graceful and prolific option for gardeners who want a little sizzle in their landscape palette during mid to late summer when other plants brown out and the sunlight makes bright flowers glow.

Crocosmia has funnel-shaped or starry, 1-1/2 to 2 inch red, salmon, maroon, orange, and yellow flowers and long blade-shaped leaves that grow in fans much like gladiolus foliage. The flowers grow above the leaves, usually in two rows along simple or branching, arching spikes. The slender blossoms sometimes arch downward, rather like freesia flowers. A cousin of freesia and gladioli, it has similar growing requirements. The plants range in height from 2 to 4 feet tall, depending on variety and growing conditions, and they generally sprawl politely, but not always.

Most crocosmias are hardy in USDA Zones 6 through 10, but if you live in the colder regions of the range, you should mulch them with pine boughs over the winter. Crocosmia doesn't overwinter outdoors in cold-winter zones (colder than zone 5), where you have to dig the corms in the fall and replant them in spring (for details, see below).

Crocosmia has many selling points: The flamboyant colors add vivid visual interest to the garden for three to four weeks in mid to late summer (some varieties flower into fall); they make lovely, lasting cut flowers and border or container plants; they are rarely troubled by pests or diseases; and the plant is often listed among flora that deer don't find particularly appetizing. Just imagine -- a long border of brilliantly colored, stately plants that are low on the deer menu in your garden next year.

Crocosmia takes its name from the Greek krokos, for saffron and osme for smell, due to a saffronlike fragrance allegedly emitted when the dried flowers are immersed in water (though why anyone would soak dried flowers is mystifying). It's also known as montbretia, coppertip, and falling stars. Crocosmia shares the common name montbretia with a similar Iridaceae family member, Tritonia, and confusion surrounding the botanical names for the plants has been rectified in recent years, though montbretia is still used informally for Tritonia and Crocosmia in catalogs. To add to the muddle, synonymous names also used for some crocosmias include Antholyza and Curtonus.

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