The Gardener's Apprentice

Cliff Maids

Lewisias are beautiful plants that I include, along with ornamental sweet peas, in my litany of horticultural failure.  A few years ago, I was smitten by a lovely little pink-flowered lewisia that I saw at a plant sale.  I thought I understood its needs, so I brought it home and planted it in a reasonably sunny raised bed, just behind a rock wall.  The drainage in the spot seemed perfect and since I never watered anything in that bed, I figured the plant would be immune from the most frequent cause of lewisia death—too much wetness.

My little lewisia flourished in the first year and even bloomed in the second year. Then, with no warning, it died.  I planted a hardy geranium in its place and thought no more about it.

But plant failures have a habit of coming back to haunt you and this one returned last week when I got a “sneak peak” e-mail from Terra Nova, the innovative breeder and wholesale nursery in Canby, Oregon.  Terra Nova is famous for adding color to the garden, having introduced countless varieties of heuchera with leaves in just about every shade of the foliar rainbow.  They also specialize in extending the color range of well-loved garden stalwarts, and the Terra Nova catalog features myriad echinacea and coreopsis, to name a few, in new, vibrant shades and forms.

Now, Terra Nova has turned its attention to lewisia, sometimes also known by the evocative nickname “cliff maid”.  This is probably a natural fit, since the genus Lewisia is native to the northwestern United States.  The genus name comes courtesy of Captain Meriwether Lewis, friend of Thomas Jefferson and co-leader of the Lewis and Clark team that explored portions of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest from 1804 to 1806.  It was Lewis who discovered the first of the 20 or so lewisia species, bitterroot or Lewisia rediviva, in 1806.  The Bitterroot Mountain range that runs between Montana and Idaho is named after the plant, which is also the state flower of Montana.

Terra Nova’s new lewisia, trademarked under the name Constant, is, like all new plants these days, part of a series.  It is sold under the name Constant Coral, for its coral-shaded petals edged in white or palest peach.  Like most commercially available lewisias, it is a cultivar of Lewisia cotyledon, a species native from Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains to northern California.  Rising from a rosette of long, vaguely spoon-shaped, succulent leaves, the plants are eight to 12 inches tall when in flower and equally wide.  The blooms appear on branched stems in shades of white, pink and yellow, with petals featuring color gradations that make them seem to shine.  Breeders have taken the cotyledons to new heights, broadening their color ranges to include orange and peach shades, like Constant Coral.

The flowers are so luminous that the plants practically beg to be cultivated, but that’s the rub.  I am not the only one to have problems growing lewisia successfully.  Over the millennia, the plants have adapted to a very specific set of conditions.  As mountain dwellers they tend to set up housekeeping in rock crevices, where they thrive in soil of low fertility and very good drainage.  They like sunshine, but don’t always care for afternoon sun.  Winters must be relatively dry to suit them, because they are prone to stem rot.  It is no wonder that some of the best specimens are grown in cool greenhouses where moisture can be tightly controlled.

But what of the average gardener who believes the Terra Nova promotional copy and buys one of their new Constant Coral lewisias?  The company promises “excellent survival in pots and soil.”  Presumably that means that the Constant series has been bred to be a bit more tolerant of normal garden conditions than some earlier varieties and hybrids.  Ashwood Nurseries, an English firm that specializes in lewisias, shows a gorgeous photo of a rock wall with healthy, blooming plants bursting out of all the crevices.  This gives me hope.  Maybe instead of planting my next lewisia in back of the rock wall, I should enlarge one of the crevices and plant it in the rock wall.  It’s worth a try.  Some authorities also recommend siting lewisia on north facing slopes, as this ensures both great drainage and the kind of light conditions the plants favor.

As with all promotional copy, the Terra Nova lewisia blurb promises that it “blooms and reblooms from spring to fall”.   I hope that is true, because Constant Coral is a thing of great beauty.

Occasionally when I catch myself in the garden center gazing longingly at a package of ornamental sweet pea seeds, I have to remind myself about past failures with the sweet-smelling lathyrus clan.  The jury is still out on lewisia.  I have only failed with it once and that might have been an anomaly.  I also hate garden failure and am willing to risk money on another chance at a difficult but lovely plant.

Of course, I could just move to Oregon, buy a mountain cabin and plant lots of lewisias on the north-facing slopes around my new home.  But that does seem a bit extreme.  Maybe I’ll just install a test plant in the rock wall out back.  If you want to try your own lewisia experiment, you will probably find Constant Coral at better garden centers and nurseries this spring.  Look for the Terra Nova plant tag.   ForestFarm at Pacifica also carries two lewisia varieties, both of them beautiful.  They are at PO Box 1, 14643 Watergap Road, Williams, Oregon 97544; www.forestfarm.com.  Free print catalog for U.S. customers.