23 February 2010

jodi's gotta-have plants: Eryngium, the holly of the sea

Although I haven't said a great deal about this, I signed a contract a few weeks ago to produce a book on great plants for Atlantic Canadian gardeners. Although I had been working on it intermittently for some time prior to signing the contract with my publisher, the work has begun in earnest as the manuscript is due in July. Thus I'm going to be somewhat spotty in blogging in the common weeks and months, and may on occasion offer up some archival articles. For today, however, let me share a bit from a conversation I had the other day with a friend who asked me which perennial I absolutely had to have in my garden. Naturally, I couldn't offer just one, so I rattled off about ten. In the top five, however, or even the top three, is Eryngium, also known as sea-holly.

What’s not to love about eryngiums? They have terrific texture and structure in their leaves, all spiny and bristling with fierceness. They have really cool flowerheads, cones of small flowers in shades of blue, silver, green and amythest, depending on the cultivar and species. And to really accent the flowers, sea hollies have these gorgeous ruffled bracts around the cones. You’ll see them described as looking like the ruffled collar of an Elizabethan costume, and that’s about the most apt description there is.

Sea hollies besotted me before I ever saw one for real—I came across a photo of one in a book on perennials. I think it was E. alpinum, or one of the others with really blue flowers, and I was instantly smitten.

We have a garden that I refer to as the sunset garden, because for much of the season, the colours red, gold, orange and yellow predominate. Daylilies, Asiatic and oriental lilies, rudbeckia, evening primrose, euphorbia ‘Fireglow’, a striking red rose, ‘Robusta’, the big yellow Macrocephala centaurea, and a host of jubilant red lettuce poppies hold court in this garden. What cools it slightly, or perhaps sets it off more, are a few things in cooler colours; Echinacea purpurea, Centaurea montana (purple-blue flowers), C. dealbata (pink flowers), blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica), Rosa ‘Souvenir de Philomen Cochet’ (a pristine white rugosa similar to Blanc de Coubert) and a wash of flat sea holly, Eryngium planum.

This faithfully, year after year, produces sprays of flowers, masses of them, shimmering blue, and lasting for a long, long time. They get quite tall, nearly four feet in some spots in the garden, so they make quite a presence. I leave them standing all fall and winter until they are finally worn down, seeds long gone (some back into the garden), and I wait eagerly for the next batch to begin. Occasionally I cut a few stems and bring them indoors to use as dried flowers, and they hold their colour for months on end.

There was a new cultivar released several years ago to great fanfare, E. planum 'Jade Frost.' The excitement with this plant was the variegated leaves, green edged in cream with pink highlights during spring and autumn, and of course the lovely blue flowers. I have one which was given to me last year by a nursery (I don't want to mention the nursery because they appear not to be carrying it this year), and it settled in well, but of course didn't flower. I can't tell if it's survived until the two feet of snow still covering it finally melts away. But I know Nan Ondra had this and had it bloom for her several years ago, so I'm optimistic.

One of the most famous of sea hollies is the delightfully named ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost.’ Ellen Willmott was a Victorian or Edwardian (born 1858) British gardener with a reputedly eccentric and prickly personality. Her legacy includes a number of plants, but the most famous is Eryngium gigantium; Miss Willmott, in her younger years, would carry seeds of this plant in her pocket, and casually cast them in the gardens of friends and acquaintances. Being of a biennial habit, the plant would germinate and grow quietly, then suddenly in the second year it would erupt into an amazing plant, covered in ghostly silver-green flowers.

I've said this before, on a regular basis, but I'll say it again: If you get a chance to visit The Rock Garden at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in mid-late summer, go. This marvelous garden includes a splendid expanse of Miss Willmott’s Ghost, which in autumn turns to a handsome tan colour.

One of the more unusual of the sea hollies goes by the equally unusual name of Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium. As you might suspect from the botanical species name, this has yucca-like foliage, and it puts up stalks a good five feet tall, festooned at the top with greenish grey cones (they're actually umbels, but you get the point). It's a native of the tallgrass prairies, and I saw it growing in its native environment in Missouri two years ago, but it also does fine in a well-drained location in my front garden. It's come back reliably for three years, but hasn't spread unduly. Not that I'd worry about seedlings of any member of this genus.

At a talk one day, I encountered an audience member who told me, with a sour expression, that sea holly was NOT a favourite of hers because it produced seedlings and kept increasing in numbers. I was about to suggest that she just mulch quite well around hers to reduce germination, when several other members of the audience offered to come relieve her of those dratted seedlings. Problem solved. You need to dig seedlings of Eryngium early in the season, however, careful not to break too much of their tap roots, and allow them to sulk for a year to recover. There could, however, never be too many eryngiums in my garden, as they make me intensely happy.

They also make my friends the bees intensely happy—all the sea hollies are regularly awash in bees, bumble and honey, and bee-mimics too. Talk about a ‘bee-loud glade!’ Well, not a glade, perhaps, but Yeats would no doubt appreciate the song of bees in our garden.


  1. I want to add these to the grasses planted along my fence. I have marked several of them in catalogs, but I haven't ordered any yet. I need to get busy:)

  2. The texture of these architectural plants are just too much to resist. I want some so bad. I will try them. Best of luck with your book.

  3. Congratulations on your book deal!

    I especially love the photo of 'Miss Willmott's Ghost'... very tempting!

  4. I love my eryngium too! Not sure of the cultivar, but I love that even its stems are a lovely icy blue.

  5. Wonderful plant, great post. They don't thrive here, but I love reading about them, especially Miss Wilmott's Ghost.

  6. I have never seen a sea holly. Absolutely beautiful.

  7. Thanks for the introduction to Sea hollies. I may have to check out that Rattlesnake Master for my future permanent garden... it sounds so fascinating. And the story of the eccentric Miss Wilmott dropping seeds at her friends' homes was charming; if I could find a plant that would survive the treatment and still flower, I'd drop interesting native seeds into vast, unbroken expanses of suburban lawn.

    Congratulations on your book deal! Such exciting news. :)

  8. The first time I'd ever seen Sea Holly was here on your blog, jodi, and I saved that photo with the bee as a reminder of what to look for. I never did plant it (yet), but I still have the photo in My Docs. :) It's so unique...and so BLUE!

    (Check out my latest post on the Olympic bouquet -- I figured you must love them, being green, as they are. :) In fact, another commenter mentioned the same thing!)

  9. I think that many of us were smitten when we first found out about these lavender lovelies. There is something that draws you in, and keeps our attention. Gorgeous.

    Congrats on the book deal.


  10. Jodi, That's exciting news about the book; congratulations!! I figure a few months of your relative absence from blogging is a small price to pay for having your garden wisdom in a book. (I will definitely buy it; for the most part, if a plant does well in Atlantic Canada, it will also do well in Maine.) And you've convinced me that I need to add Eryngium to my garden. -Jean

  11. Congratulations on your book deal! I am so happy to hear this news but I am not surprise as you are certainly a very talented writer. The holly you posted today is lovely and I have never seen it before.

  12. I hope you have great success with your new book, Jodi!
    That is an interesting story about Miss Willmott!
    This is one plant that I need to add. I saw it at White River Gardens last year, it was covered with bees.

  13. Congratulations on the book deal! I haven't yet tried this plant but the blue color looks lovely.

  14. A book deal! How exciting, and a big congrats to you :)!

  15. Congrats Jodi!! Good luck with your book however I don't think you need luck. Keep us posted. You're right about the Eryngiums. The first time I saw a sizable clump of Miss Wilmott I about fell over. The photos don't do it justice. I will say that these photos are a delightful attempt.

  16. I love the look of eryngium too, and coneflowers... I bet Echinops (globe thistle) is also on your "top 10" list, too. All the best with your book!

  17. Dear Jodi, I am absolutely delighted for you to hear the news of the forthcoming book - a certainty now that you have signed contracts. This is absolutely no more than you deserve for you write exceptionally well and clearly are also a mine of horticultural knowledge! I do wish you well with the project.

    I am so pleased too that you have highlighted the sea hollies which are invaluable plants and which, I believe, should be present in every garden.

  18. I think the sea hollies are lovely as well. Looking forward to your book coming out as I live in NS.

    By the way, you have my permission to be a spotty blogger!

  19. Dear Jodi, lovely pictures and congratulations on the book deal! Awesome! - I've never seen Sea Hollies. But, I love the story of Miss Willmot's ghost. I can just imagine her secretly dropping her seeds everywhere she went. I tried growing them one year, but they never came up. I grow echinops, globe thistle, like crazy. They too are deep blue and fun. Gloria

  20. Congratulations on your book deal Jodi, I look forward to reading it.

  21. Don't know if it would grow here. But I fell in love with a much larger than life size metal water feature at Hampton Court Flower Show. I think that stood about as tall as I do, with a (flower) head the same size too.

  22. Congratulations Jodi on the book deal. I've got a few sea hollies in the garden and I got a new one just after Christmas - name eludes me just now and I don't want to go out into the snow to check the label lol! They are lovely - your article reminds me that I need to get some Miss Wilmott Ghost seeds for these season.

  23. Congratulations! What an exciting thing to have a book deal :D

    And thank you for the lesson on sea hollies. I knew nothing about them, and I enjoyed your anecdote about the sour-faced woman lol. I could see her in my head...:D

  24. I'm going to have to rethink eryingium. I tried once and wasn't impressed, but you've given me a lot of info. One question, isn't Miss Willmott's ghost invasive? Not everyone was happy with her surprise ghost, I'm told.

  25. First off, let me offer my congrats on the book. :-) Then, I began to read your post about the Eryngium with great interest, although I believed that it was most likely well suited to your Atlantic Canadian environment and would not do well here in southern Kansas. Lo and behold, I get to the part about the Rattlesnake Master growing in Missouri~ yay! Now I must add this species to my ever-growing new garden list. :-)

  26. Excellent post. I believe
    any garden should demonstrate
    imagination in composition,
    in the collection, beyond
    the common boring places
    usually found in most gardens.

    Particularly in Puerco Rico,
    USA, where I reside.

    Good luck in your projects,
    and congratulations....

  27. I just adore Sea Holly ever since I saw it on the 1995 "Pride and Prejudice" Jane Austen adaptation.

    In one scene, the character Elizabeth is dreading a private meeting with a man that is about to propose marriage to her, and she is busy arranging a flower vase as Mr. Collins rattles on and on. In the vase is one big fat Sea Holly. It took me a while to figure out what that flower was, as I'd never seen it before.

    Once I learned the name, I began my search. Three years I looked for that plant. After multiple posts and trades through Garden Web, I finally obtained some seeds. But they were moldy and of course did not germinate.

    I always wanted the perennial blue types, but it seems they may not last in our Zone 4a. I feel all hope is lost in obtaining seeds from Sea Holly grown in, and acclimated in Canada. Think this year I'm going to mail order the annual Eryngium that a well-known Toronto nursery sells.

    I see you are writing a book about Atlantic Canada. Maybe think about mentioning Gaspe, Quebec? Gaspe is kind of like a red-headed step child of Eastern Canada. It feels far removed from the larger cities of Montreal and Quebec City, and often forgotten when Atlantic provinces are discussed. Gaspe sits in the middle with hardly anyone paying attention to it. But the Gaspe peninsula is rich in plant life just waiting to be discovered.

  28. Congrats on the book! I've been reading backwards - so now realized that your scatteredness is most justified!

    I like the sea hollies (only have one nice clump of one that someone gave me - I'm not sure of the variety) - but was not familiar with Miss Willmott’s Ghost - that one is just beautiful. I've admired the yucca-like one in Plant Delights for awhile (oh, let's face it, I lust after almost everything in that catalogue).


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