The Gardener's Apprentice

Blue Stars

Unless you are a teenager, it is generally a good thing to be “grounded.” For non-teens, the word implies common sense and a focus on reality, as opposed to flights of fantasy. People who are grounded are reliable—the kind you want as friends or neighbors. The kind you rarely get as relatives.
More and more plants are “grounded” these days. Many of them are reliable, but in this case, the “grounding” is more literal. Modern plants are much more likely to be relatively short, compared to the garden plants of even a few decades ago. The reasons for this are many. Compact plants are easier for growers to pack and ship. Retailers prize them because they take up less shelf or pallet space. Modern home gardeners are less likely to have the kind of large spreads that can accommodate big ornamental plants like the truly impressive giant rhubarb or Gunnera manicata, which grows up to 10 feet tall and spreads to 14 feet. For those of us who garden in containers, small plants provide just the right amount of excitement and color for our limited spaces.
The other day I got a press release from Terra Nova Nurseries, the Oregon-based plant breeder and wholesaler that has given the world a kaleidoscopic array of heucheras, not to mention plenty of colorful new coneflowers and coreopsis. One of Terra Nova’s most recent introductions is a new lithodora or blue lithospermum, ‘Crystal Blue.’ Not surprisingly, it tops out at about 6 inches tall. A bee, sitting atop a giant rhubarb plant probably wouldn’t even notice a lithodora on the ground nearby.
People who have studied Latin, or Latin word roots, know that “litho” means stone. A lithograph, for example, is a print made from a design incised or otherwise fixed to a flat surface, like stone. If you are in excruciating pain from kidney stones, you may undergo the medical procedure known as lithotripsy.
Fortunately, lithodora is pain free. The plants are members of the borage or Boraginaceae family, which is distinguished by the true blue color of many of the flowers borne by various species and varieties. In keeping with its stony botanical name, lithodora is found in the wild, growing in sunny spots among rocks. It is a bit shrubby or woody at the base and has a prostrate habit, with each 6 inch plant able to sprawl 18 to 30 inches, depending on variety, covering the ground—or nearby stones—with blue blossoms that appear in mid to late spring.
Lithodora has been in commerce for some time, though it has mostly been available through independent garden centers and online retailers, rather than big-box stores. The best-known variety is Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue,’ featuring small, somewhat hairy gray-green leaves and masses of flowers that resemble tiny blue or blue-purple trumpets. Another variety, ‘Grace Ward,’ is similar to ‘Heavenly Blue,’ with flowers of a somewhat deeper color.
Terra Nova is currently trumpeting the trumpets on its new introduction, ‘Crystal Blue.’ By the looks of the pictures, ‘Crystal Blue’s flowers are lighter than those of the other available varieties. The company also claims they are much larger, for a better show, especially in containers. The foliage appears to be similar.
All of this leads me to the unsurprising conclusion that ‘Crystal Blue’ is a selected variety, or possibly a hybrid of one or more of the other lithodora varieties. This is good, because the older varieties are tried and true, with many winning qualities. As with mousetraps, if you build a better lithodora, there is a chance that the world will beat a path to your door. Terra Nova is betting on it.
Lithodoras are hearty in a wide range of locations, from USDA plant hardiness zone 5 through zone 7, but they are a bit picky about their situations. With requirements similar to those of alpine plants, the most important thing is good drainage. If you have clay soil, like I do, grow lithodora in pots, amending the potting mix generously with grit, fine crushed stone or sand. Water only when the surface of the soil is dry and position the plants in a sunny spot for best bloom production. If you run into trouble and your lithodora is failing, the culprit is probably compacted soil and/or too much water. Repot right away and refrain from killing your lithodora with kindness in the form of excess moisture.
If your soil is free-draining, lithodora can be planted in the garden, where it works especially well as an edging plant, ground cover or rock garden specimen. The plants also fit in quite naturally adjacent to low rock walls. Container-grown specimens can be plunked, container and all, in bare garden spots.
With Terra Nova’s marketing power behind it, lithodora may find itself quite fashionable. If you have good drainage and want to be fashion forward, order ‘Crystal Blue’ now or in the spring from Wayside Gardens, One Garden Lane, Hodges, SC 29653, (800) 845-1124, www.waysidegardens.com. Free catalog.