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Japanese Anemones
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

October 10, 2004

Autumn storms have finally laid waste to our Japanese anemones, but what a marvelous season they had! The first of them began blooming in August, then exulted through a dry September and October and held their heads high until eventually the frosts and monsoons swamped them. As Allen Lacy writes, “No plant of autumn brings more joy than Japanese anemones.”

Long lived as well as long blooming, these slender beauties bring a carefree elegance to the fall garden, a distinctive delicacy that plays well against the stouter plants that take centre stage at this blustery time of year. The soft pinks, roses and whites of anemone flowers have a freshness and clarity we more associate with spring and early summer. They seem almost to dance through the garden, like clusters of schoolgirls passing a retirement community.

But they’re tough customers in their own right, able to withstand foul weather and the abuses of clumsy gardeners. Native to China, Japan and Nepal, they’re hardy down to zone 5, some even down to zone 3 with winter protection. They’re members of the buttercup family, along with the spring flowering anemones, including the Grecian windflower. Their name derives from the Greek for wind, anemos. Japanese anemones emerge as clumps of low foliage in spring, made up of dark green and deeply veined leaves, somewhat like maple leaves, and pleasingly coarse in texture. Late in summer the flower stems rise like thin wires a metre or more high, supporting loose sprays of smallish flowers with a vivid inner circle of yellow stamens at the centre.

Several different species get sold as Japanese anemones, sometimes under the name A. japonica. Purists prefer A. x hybrida, of which there are a number of named varieties, all of them splendid.

‘Honorine Jobert’ is a marvellous old variety with large single white flowers. Equally lovely, ‘Whirlwind’ bears semidouble white blooms. ‘Queen Charlotte’ is a semidouble pink, while ‘Prince Henry’ bears smaller deep rose semidoubles. ‘Kremhilde’ is a charming soft pink, and ‘Bressingham Glow’ a semidouble in deep magenta rose. ‘Margarete’ and ‘Max Vogel’ are lovely as well. All these varieties of A. x hybrida are listed for zones 5 - 8, perhaps surviving in zone 4 with winter protection.

Slightly shorter than these, and similarly hardy, the Chinese anemone A. hupehensis is often lumped in with its Japanese cousins. One of the most popular is ‘September Charm’ which has gorgeous silvery pink single flowers.

Hardiest of all is A. tormentosa ‘Robustissima’ which is sometimes called the grape-leaved anemone. Less than a metre tall, this cultivar is similar to other Japanese anemones, having attractive dark green foliage and brilliant metallic pink flowers. It’s hardy down to zone 3, but its robust name may also refer to its reputation as a rampant spreader.

Japanese anemones are said to dislike wind, summer drought and soil that gets soggy in winter. However they seem quite content with our coastal winter wet/summer dry regime. They do prefer rich moist soil high in humus, and good drainage is essential. They’ll tolerate full sun in cooler climates, otherwise partial shade is best.

New plants are set out in early spring and kept moist, especially through summer anemones dry spells. Once established -- and this takes a while, for they won’t be rushed or hustled along -- they require very little care. In colder locations, they’ll benefit from a loose mulch in winter (conifer branches are often used) though it’s recommended this not be applied until after the ground has frozen, to avoid trapping too much moisture around the roots.

Slow to establish, they eventually spread into the large clumps in which their flowers show to best effect. Plantings don’t need dividing other than to contain the spread. To increase plants, clumps can be divided in spring just after growth has started. Older plants don’t divide well, and often root cuttings are a better bet for propagation.

The ethereal clouds of flowers these beauties produce go wonderfully with large-leaved hostas and bergenias. We had a charming show this year with pink and white varieties played against late-flowering monkshood, and against a little dogwood tree, complementing the pink flush in its autumn leaves. As well, their airy flowering stalks sway splendidly above late asters and goldenrods or over ornamental grasses or large ferns. At their best in large drifts, they’re terrific transitional plants along the borders of woodland plantings.

Long after most other flowers have exhausted themselves, the anemones maintain a charming carefree grace, and when at last their delicate beauty collapses too, we know that the best is behind us and that dark times are at hand.



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