Amazing Anemones

Credit: John Glover

As a child growing up in the U.K., I always took great joy in buying little bunches of tight anemones at the local market every February to early March. These short-stemmed flowers were commercially grown in the temperate meadows of Scilly Isles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall. Much later in my charmed life I have also been fortunate to walk in springtime through great drifts of these wonderful flowers in the Greek Peloponnese and on Crete – sheer heaven.

Anemones are among the grand and showy members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), which includes 50 genera and around 800 species. The Anemone genus alone has 120 species, ranging from early-flowering woodland perennials to hardy autumn bloomers native to China. Perhaps the best known are the so-called florist anemones (sold in flower shops during the spring months) that come in such beautiful shades of magenta, blue, vivid reds and pure white.

In the gardening world cultivars of florist anemones fall into two categories. Those in the De Caen Group, which were originally hybridized in France, have single blooms, while those in the Saint Brigid Group have double to semi-double flowers.

These hybrids originate from Anemone coronaria and possibly Anemone pavonina. The former is often referred to as the poppy anemone and occurs widely throughout Greece in the cultivated land around olive groves. The flowers are a vivid poppy red or sometimes purple, with five to eight tepals and black stamens and centres borne on solitary 30-centimetre stems that rise up from a basal rosette of three finely lobed leaflets. Occasionally it is possible to find the odd white flower among a clump, as well as some paler pinks that generally have white stamens and centres. A. pavonina is similar, except its basal leaves are three-palmate, deeply lobed and sparsely toothed around the edges. The flowers are a little larger and often white at the base of the tepals, making their black stamens and centre even more dramatic.

The tubers of these garden hybrids are available in garden centres in fall when other spring bulbs are for sale. To get the very best tubers, go as soon as the shipment comes in and choose the largest ones. When dry these tubers look a bit like giant raisins or small prunes.

To assure success plant them in a sunny well-drained spot, such as a hot pocket in front of a south-facing rock in a rock garden, or in a narrow bed at the base of a south- or west-facing wall. As with all spring bulbs, they are much more effective in clumps of 10 or more. Plant the tubers about 15 centimetres deep and spread a five-centimetre layer of compost in the bottom of the hole, adding a gentle sprinkling of bone meal. Keep in mind that these plants don’t like poorly drained clay soils. And take note that it is virtually impossible to tell the top or bottom of these slightly elongated tubers. Simply plant them on their side and they will work out which way the top shoots and which way the roots should go.

These anemone hybrids need to be grown in zones 8 to 10, making them only suitable for the coastal regions of our province and southern Vancouver Island.

For a hardier choice, try pure-white Anemone sylvestris, which comes to us from the less temperate regions of eastern Europe to the Caucasus Mountains. It has the lovely common name of snowdrop anemone and blooms early in the spring. Those of you who already have this plant are probably throwing your hands up in horror as you read this, as it is quite an aggressive spreader, especially in a well-cultivated border. However, it is extremely hardy (zones 4 to 9), and its vigorous nature can be curtailed if you plant it like mint, using an old plastic or tin bucket with the bottom removed. Dig a hole in your border deep enough to accommodate the bucket. Push the bucket in so that the rim is just a few centimetres above the surrounding soil surface. Then fill the bucket with compost-enriched soil and insert one small plant of this anemone. The plant should remain happy and contained for up to three seasons before requiring lifting and dividing.

While florist anemones grow from tubers, the snowdrop anemone has a woody-based perennial rootstock, and its basal and stem foliage is mid-green. Its basal leaves grow on stems up to 25 centimetres in length and are deeply divided into five lobes. Its flowers consist of five or more tepals and are borne on solitary stems (several per plant). They are bright white, gently nodding, with golden stamens in their centres.

Another species of anemone I can’t live without is Anemone blanda. This should come as no surprise to those who know of my passion for blue flowers, since these blooms are predominantly blue in colour. They come to us from Greece and Turkey and in fact are sometimes referred to as Grecian windflower. They can become a happily spreading perennial in the right location, and their knobby tubers are sold in the fall. This anemone can be tricky from tubers, sometimes. If you see plants potted up in the spring, grab them!

There used to be a wonderful drift of these anemones in the magnolia collection at VanDusen Botanical Garden. However, now the magnolias and rhododendrons have matured, blocking out the light, and the drift has become much less floriferous.

A. blanda is native to scrubby woodlands and thickets of deciduous trees and shrubs. Its foliage consists of one or two broadly ovate to triangular three-palmate leaves, along with some leaflets on the flower stem, which are dark green and irregularly lobed. In spring, solitary flowers appear just above the leaves with 10 to 15 tepals that are either blue or pink. They look like little ballet dancers with green skirts. If you are particularly fond of the blue look, the cultivars ‘Blue Star’ and ‘Atrocaerulea’ are both winners.

When planting A. blanda, choose a spot that gets good morning sun and afternoon shade, and where the flowers can be left undisturbed to naturalize. They also love a leafy woodland soil, so compost at planting time is essential. Its other advantage is that it comes from higher, cooler elevations in its native home, which makes it hardy to zones 4 to 9.

The extraordinary thing about anemones is that they don’t all flower in spring. Among the most useful late-summer or early-fall blooming perennials are the hybrids of Anemone hupehensis, a species native to China. For historic reasons, these beauties are usually called Japanese anemones. They are best planted in spring and need space as they reach up to a metre in height at maturity. Their basal leaves are a familiar anemone shape, but they have long stalks supporting three-palmate leaves 10 to 20 centimetres in size. Their smaller stem leaves are sharply toothed and slightly hairy. The branched stems bear clusters of up to 15 or more flowers, usually ranging from white through pink to deep magenta. Each bloom is exquisite, measuring up to six centimetres across with five rounded tepals. Their bright-green centres are surrounded by golden stamens.

There are numerous Japanese anemone cultivars out there. I have always been fond of Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert,’ which has brilliant white flowers. And recently, A. hupehensis ‘Hadspen Abundance’ has become another favourite. Hardy to zone 4, both are tough perennials able to tolerate summer drought and cold winters.

Whether you crave early spring colour or hardy autumn blooms, you should have no trouble finding the perfect anemone to suit your needs. After all, you can take your pick from 10 dozen species!

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Anemone blanda (Grecian windflower) – zone 4 • A. coronaria (poppy anemone) – zone 8 • A. hupehensis (Chinese anemone) – zone 4 • A. pavonina – zone 8 • A. sylvestris (snowdrop anemone) – zone 4

David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Canadian Gardener on CBC television.