I can't believe that I've become enchanted by a plant described by many as a vigorous grower and by some as being downright invasive. There is no doubt about it, though, yellow loosestrife and its cousins are welcome in my garden. Of course, they are not to be confused with the extremely invasive and noxious purple loosestrife, with whom they share a common name. The loosestrife in my garden (Lysimachia) belongs to the primrose family (Primulaceae) and is unrelated to purple loosestrife (Lythrum), which is a member of the loosestrife family (Lythraceae).
Lysimachias (li-si-mak-ee-a) comprise a group of rather wild and weedy perennials, but there are a few among them that make wonderful additions to the garden landscape. They were named by Dioscorides, a Greek botanist and physician, after King Lysimachos of Thrace (c. 360 - 281 BC), one of Alexander the Great's generals who was said to have discovered it. The name Lysimachos itself is derived from the Greek lusi, from luein, "to loose," and mache, "strife," and can be loosely translated as "causing strife to cease." During Roman times, loosestrife was placed under the yokes of oxen to prevent them from fighting with each other; it was also used to staunch war wounds.
The loosestrifes that deserve a home in our gardens, yellow loosestrife, gooseneck loosestrife, and the groundcover creeping Jenny, are all adorned with attractive foliage and colourful yellow or white flowers. The flowers may be arrayed in dense, elongated terminal clusters or bloom singly in whorls above the foliage. The leaves themselves are also whorled, or opposite each other across the stem.
Yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata) is a cheerful plant that grows to a height of 90 cm (36 in.). Its starry, bright yellow flowers nestle in the leaf axils, hugging erect stems, and gaze out cheekily in all directions, opening gradually from the bottom up for a long season of bloom. The deep green lance-shaped leaves, up to 10 cm in length, are crinkled and opposite each other or in tiered whorls around the stem.
Folklore has it that creeping Jenny, also called moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), is so effective at healing wounds that injured snakes seek it out to curl up on its leaves and thereby heal themselves. It is likely that moneywort's serpentine way of creeping along the ground accounts for this folk belief.
Moneywort is a rambunctious low-lying groundcover that is quick to clothe the ground, wherever it is planted, with a carpet of gold and green. It is a rapid spreader with its 1.5 metre stems capable of rooting along their entire length; the stems are covered all season long with the same jaunty bright yellow star-shaped flowers as yellow loosestrife, growing singly at the leaf axils. Its common name, moneywort, and its species name, nummularia, from the Latin word for coin, refer to its round, 2.5-cm coin-shaped leaves.
Creeping Jenny makes an excellent groundcover under shrubs or small spring bulbs such as scilla and species tulips. It can also be used effectively in rock gardens, to soften the lines of retaining walls, or to trail over the angular edges of a newly installed pond, but is best excluded from the perennial border. Should creeping Jenny overstep its bounds, however, and invade the corner of a favourite flowerbed, don't be too concerned. It can be easily removed simply by digging and ripping it out by hand. This only needs doing once; it does not constantly reappear, seemingly out of nowhere, the way some invasive plants do (I speak from experience). A golden yellow version, L. nummularia 'Aurea', will light up any shady corner with its chartreuse leaves in the spring that darken to lime green in the summer.
Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), also called Japanese loosestrife or shepherd's crook, is my favourite of the lysimachias. It is a late summer bloomer and, as it turns out, it is also late to show any sign of survival after the winter snows have retreated. I planted this for the first time amidst a chorus of 'good luck - I don't think that's hardy here' and immediately fell in love with the graceful arching white terminal flower spikes that, when viewed in a cluster, bring to mind a friendly gaggle of geese. They made a perfect backdrop to my small woodland pool, blooming the first year on upright 90 cm (36 in.) stems, and at the time I promised myself that I would grow it every year, even as an annual if that was what it took. However, being a born optimist, I was confident that they would make it through the winter. That confidence faded when spring arrived. Everything else was up and growing and still no sign of life. I had scraped away and replaced a good inch of soil in search of the tell-tale red growth pips by the time I had to leave for an expedition to Regina, to no avail. Still no sign of growth, so I gave up on them and wondered what I would plant to replace them. Upon my return, during the first ritual daily inspection of the garden, I decided to check one last time for the return of my gooseneck loosestrife and much to my delight, there they were, just breaking the surface of the earth. And it isn’t spreading as fast as I would like it to!
Plant lysimachias in evenly moist, humus-rich soil in full sun, or in partial shade where the climate is hot. They are at home beside a pond, a stream, or at the edge of a woodland garden and although they do best in such moist locations, they will also tolerate ordinary growing conditions. However, periods of dryness will slow their growth and extended drought can kill them. Perhaps the warm dry Calgary summers explain, at least in part, why the yellow and gooseneck loosestrifes in my garden do not exhibit the rampant and unruly growth habit that is reputedly theirs. To date they have displayed nothing but good manners. They are also not susceptible to insect or disease damage and require minimal attention once established.
New Book Out March 2002
(Perfect Partners - Beautiful Plant Combinations for Prairie Gardens)