Near the beginning of the alphabet you will likely encounter a reliable and colourful native, the sea-pink, or thrift (Armeria maritima).
This mat-forming sub-shrub is our only representative of the largely warm-climate leadwort, or plumbago, family (Plumbaginaceae), known for its adaptability to salty and alkaline conditions. Thrift plants grow as clusters of leaves from a branching taproot. The leafy masses reach about 10 cm (4 in.) high but flower stalks can rise to half a metre (20 in.). The 5- to 10-cm-long (2- to 4-in.) leaves are narrow and grass-like, ranging from smooth to fringed and hairy. They are more or less evergreen, persisting for several years even in cold climates and withstanding summer heat. Naked flower stalks rise from the leafy mass, each bearing a tight 1.5- to 3-cm-wide (1⁄2 to 1 in.) cluster of small flowers at the summit. The tiny flowers are arranged in groups of three. Each flower consists of five mostly separate, delicate petals and five largely fused sepals. Inside the flower tube hide five stamens and five separate pistils. Two transparent bracts (highly modified leaves) cuddle each cluster of three blooms and papery bracts also cup the base of each flower head. In the wild, sea-pink flowers, as expected, are pink to purplish.
The horticultural colour choice, however, ranges from white to dark purple. Flowers appear as early as May and continue often well into July. The native habitat is limited mostly to beaches and coastal bluffs, an indication of its tolerance to salt spray. Thrift is particularly fond of pockets of shallow soil on coastal rocky outcrops. Scattered populations occur inland along the banks of rivers and even in grassy meadows. In our province, thrift is an uncommon plant restricted mostly to southern Vancouver Island, with a few populations farther up the coast. The full range, however, extends from southern California to Alaska in the northwest and includes locations on the Arctic coast all the way to Newfoundland.
It occurs widely in Europe and Asia. In my experience thrift is a reliable garden subject and in our garden, a white-flowered thrift grows along the path to the front door next to patches of harebells (Campanula) and heather. It is frequently used in narrow, low borders, and I have seen brilliant pink beds of thrift planted in the space between the sidewalk and a brick wall. In Victoria gardens it is a favourite in rockeries. Sea-pink is particularly well suited to wind-blown, wave-dashed seaside gardens and is notably hardy, as testified by its Arctic distribution. The great French seed merchants Vilmorin- Andrieux devoted much space to thrift as a groundcover in their massive, century-old tome Fleurs de Pleine Terre. They extolled its virtues as a flowering turf for embankments, capable to a limited extent of preventing erosion, and suggested it as ideal flowering lawn material for small areas, such as we see in today’s restricted urban lots and condominium complexes. Vilmorin-Andrieux also recommended thrift as a cut flower for making delightful bouquets.
Wherever you choose to grow Armeria there must be full sun and well-drained, sandy to gritty soil. It is relatively easy to propagate from fall-sown seed and especially from cuttings and crown divisions. These should be taken from August to September or in March, when they root and increase readily. Divide plants that are widely spaced in borders every three to four years; more closely spaced patches, such as continuous borders, should be divided and replanted every two years. Regular division encourages a continuous green turf and abundant blooms. There are no known uses of thrift by B.C. First Nations and no significant non-horticultural uses elsewhere. Some sources warn of the possibility of getting contact dermatitis from handling plants. Next time you visit the perennial section of the neighbourhood garden centre, stop at the A section and consider our native thrift.
Tough and inexpensive, as the common name unintentionally suggests, its versatility lends it to many pleasant experiments where an easy-care, low-growing perennial might do the trick. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Armeria maritima (sea-pink or thrift) – zones 3-4 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.