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Ligularia: A Shade Garden Staple
by Lesley Reynolds
September 23, 2001

Bold, colorful, and dramatic, ligularias never fail to impress with their large, ornamental leaves and bright yellow or orange blooms. Although not suited to hot, dry, open gardens, these magnificent summer-blooming perennials are undemanding and generally pest-free when properly located. 
Native to China and Japan, ligularias derive their botanical name from the Latin word for strap, ligula, in reference to the strap-like ray florets of the flowers. Also known as rayflower, ragwort, and golden groundsel, ligularias are becoming increasingly popular in gardens where "big impact" plants and striking foliage are desired. Most prairie nurseries stock two or three species; others may need to be ordered from specialty perennial catalogues.
One of the most popular ligularias for prairie gardens is Ligularia stenocephala 'The Rocket', and no wonder. This notable perennial has large clumps of finely toothed, triangular leaves and tall, bright yellow flower spikes with contrasting black stems. It can reach an impressive 1.5 m in height. Ligularia przewalski is equally statuesque with tall yellow flower spikes above deeply toothed and lobed dark green leaves on purple-black stems. 
In the spring the leaves of Ligularia dentata 'Othello' emerge a deep mahogany red, deepening to dark purple as they grow. The glossy, heart-shaped leaves are toothed and borne on long stems. Appearing in mid to late summer are rounded clusters of yellow-orange daisy-like flowers composed of ray florets around a dark brown disk. 'Othello', which will grow to 1.2 m with a similar spread, has a companion, 'Desdemona', which is very similar in appearance. 'Moorblut' is another purple-leaved cultivar. Ligularia hodgsonii resembles Ligularia dentata, but is smaller. 
Ligularia 'Gregynog Gold', a hybrid between Ligularia dentata and Ligularia veitchiana, has round, toothed foliage and rich orange-yellow conical clusters of flowers. This beauty can grow as tall as 1.8 m with a spread of 2 m.
Ligularias prefer fertile soil high in organic matter. While some gardeners claim that ligularias grow well in full sun provided the soil is kept moist, adequate watering is not usually enough to keep the large leaves from flagging when exposed to the full heat of the afternoon sun. Although the wilted leaves quickly recover once the sun has passed, try planting them in dappled or light shade to avoid the problem. A layer of deep organic mulch around the plant will help keep the roots cool, conserve moisture, and add nutrients to the soil.
If slugs frequent your garden check the leaves of all ligularias regularly or use your favourite slug barrier methods in the neighbourhood of the plant. Ligularias do not require frequent division, but should you wish to do so, plants may be split or moved in the spring. All ligularia can be propagated from seed; even purple-leafed forms will come true. 
Grow ligularias near the back of partly shaded perennial borders or as a striking feature plant in woodland gardens. This moisture-loving plant is at home in low-lying areas and around pond margins. Although they expand slowly, the plants will eventually become large, so allow adequate growing room. Like most impressive large-leafed plants, ligularias are quickly damaged by hail, so a sheltered location is preferable.
Plants that thrive in moist soil and light shade are good companions for ligularia, particularly those with delicate or airy foliage and blooms that contrast with the large, solid-looking leaves. Astilbe, meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium), ferns, spiderwort (Tradescantia hybrids), 'Flore Pleno' meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), and goose-necked lysimachia (Lysimachia clethroides) will all work well. 

Lesley is now living on Salt Spring Island!

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