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P. bistorta Superba
by Liz Primeau
by Liz Primeau

Liz Primeau's second edition of Gardening for Canadians for Dummies, updated and with a new chapter on using art in your garden, plus a design and garden-care workbook section, will be released in January, 2002.

She is at present writing a new book on front-yard gardens, to be published by Firefly Books in spring, 2003.

Liz is the the founding editor of the Canadian Gardening magazine.

August 5, 2001

Somebody admired my bistort 'Superba' the other day, and I must admit to some surprise. Even though you don't see it much in gardens hereabouts, it strikes me as a rather common and unexciting plant.
I say common because I've had it in my garden a good decade, having ordered it out of a catalogue on impulse one spring, and I admit I've grown tired of it. But my visitor oohed and aahed over its (admittedly) abundant four-inch pokers of fluffy pink flowers and my cleverness in placing a wide stand of the plant exactly where I could see it from the kitchen window--which of course was pure accident, although I didn't admit to that. So I gave the matter of the bistort a little thought. Persicaria, the family to which it belongs, is commonly known as knotweed because of the swollen nodes on its stems; P. bistorta is also called snakeweed, heaven knows why, and the garden-variety names of its several cousins include fleeceflower, smartweed, mountain fleece, prince's feather and kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate. 
But Persicaria has not always been its botanical surname -- horticulturists have an odd habit of renaming plants, no doubt just to keep us all on our toes, and until a few years ago the family was known as Polygonum. A cynical horticulurist of my acquaintance says the name was changed because many Polygonums are invasive, and a new name would put gardeners off the track. Several years ago I grew the groundcover P. affine, called Himalayan fleeceflower by the man who gave it to me. He warned me it was invasive, but it was so polite in my garden it allowed itself to be swallowed up by a voracious hosta. It was pretty enough, with two-inch spikes of little pink and white flowers over a low mat of broad leaves that turned red in fall and stayed almost all winter. It reminded me of a weed that grew everywhere on my grandmother's farm, so perhaps its reputation as invasive is not entirely without cause.
But back to P. bistorta 'Superba'. In my garden it grows in sandy, fairly dry soil in sun, although the books say it prefers damp conditions and should be shaded from strong sun. It's hardy to Zone 4, maybe colder, reaches nearly three feet, and the three plants I put in have grown to a solid clump about four feet by two. Yes, I've discovered offshoots, sprouting up among a nearby patch of lilies and as far as a path six feet away, but they generally behave until I find them and dig them out. The leaves are long and wavy, like the leaves of dock -- lanceolate, the books say--and cut a fine figure among the lacier foliage of nearby plants. The plant's best features are its pale pink flowers, which last a full three weeks in late spring--sometimes longer, depending on the weather--bridging the gap between the the last of the bulbs and the peonies, alliums and iris of early summer. I've used it as a cut flower, too, and if I'm thorough about deadheading and follow-up feeding, the plant rewards me with some second bloom later in the season. 
And to think I had plans to dig it up this year and replace it with some expensive tetraploid daylilies! Gardeners can be such a snobbish lot. Would we turf out a dependable old friend because we'd had her too long or, despite some perfectly good features, she didn't measure up to prevailing fashion?

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