In the world of gardening, it sometimes seems as though everyone wants every plant to make a ‘statement’. Homeowners want hostas with chartreuse leaves three feet across. Landscapers specify exotic Ligularia with stems as black as night and floral sprays as bright as the noon-day sun.
Why does every ‘statement’ need to have an exclamation point? Whatever became of the plant that draws your eye not with unabashed size contrasts, but with subtlety?
Eryngium, better known as ‘sea holly’ is one such plant. A native of European mountainous regions and the Balkan peninsula, you’ll find it in dry, sunny gardens where it is most noticeable for its pincushion-type flowers and spiky foliage. This is not your cute, fuzzy plant. While it won’t draw blood if you touch it, ‘pincushion’ is an apt description of the flower’s center. Brush by one and you’ll know you’ve done so. Older varieties of Eryngium tend toward the blue-gray. With its dark green leaves, the plant can seem almost monochromatic.
In the Bressingham Garden, there’s a newer cultivar of Eryngium now coming into bloom: ‘Big Blue’. You’ll recognize it the moment you see it. The reason is that Eryngium ‘Big Blue’ is a startling, iridescent blue. Not just the flowers… the stems, too.
‘Big Blue’ grows to thirty inches and the plant shape is akin to that of a candelabra. The four-inch wide flowers grow in profusion atop the plant, all in that haunting color, but not all at once. At the beginning of the season, the plant is gray-green. Then, in early June, the flowers emerge. The petals are a chalky white and the centers are green. But then the transformation begins… that incredible, electric blue. In a few weeks, the flowers have transformed themselves into an iridescence and the color is making its way down the stalk. This is horticulture as drama.
Eryngium ‘Big Blue’ also adds an architectural element to the garden. The stalks and flowers last until well into autumn (Eryngium is a staple of dried flower arrangements) and the ‘bones’ can remain in place long after the perennials around it are memories. It’s hardy to Zone 4, so it thrives in Eastern Massachusetts. Butterflies flock to it and deer that make the mistake of chewing in it get what they deserve. If there is one cautionary note about Eryngium, it is that it does best in well-drained locations (e.g., sandy loam) and doesn’t want to be over-watered.