Get Growing: Wallflowers take the dance floor

Orange Erysimum with blue Lithodora.

Orange Erysimum with blue Lithodora.
Erica Browne Grivas

It always seemed to me wallflowers couldn’t catch a break. Their Latin name, Erysimum, sounds stuffed with the wrong number of syllables. If said without confidence, or to the non-horticulturally inclined, there’s a decent chance of sounding like you’re under the influence. The common name, “wallflower,” made me think of my parents’ generation. To them, a wallflower was someone, typically female, who was clinging to the walls of a ballroom or high school gym because they hadn’t been asked to dance. (Because the onus was on them to be desired, but that’s a topic for another day.) Adding to the confusion is that related Cherianthus were also called wall flowers, but now they all are called Erysimum.

However, in that assumption I was, not for the first time, mistaken. The name more likely means literally a flower that will grow in walls, which is kind of a superpower when you think about it. 

Like many English cottage garden favorites, I read about Erysimum long before I met them IRL, probably in books by Gertrude Jekyll and Louise Beebe Wilder when I first became a gardener. E. ‘Bowle’s Mauve’, the longtime standard, was imprinted on me as a long-blooming stalwart, but I found the watery violet color uninspiring, so I subconsciously filed it under “non-essential plants” for me.

Fast forward to life in the Pacific Northwest, where I had to retrieve that name out of the dusty mental file when I met new cultivars beyond “Bowles’s Mauve” — and they bowled me over.

Suddenly there were new colors — reds, yellows, tangerine orange, and all kinds of blends combining all my favorite hot colors in sundae swirls of orange/red, yellow/peach/purple, raspberry/purple. And the clincher? Not all, but most, had a delightful, honeyed floral fragrance.

I planted some E. “Apricot Twist” (because orange is my kryptonite) early on in my first years of gardening at our house in what would prove to be some really tough neighborhoods — spots choked by hawthorn and bay laurel roots, shaded by our house. 

They bloomed. I cut them. They bloomed more. For weeks. Finally, they waned, and I cut them back fairly hard. They made it through summer and in September, bloomed again — and returned next March to do it all over again!

I can hear you saying, “What’s the catch?” The catch is that then they disappeared.

It turns out there are several reasons for this. Wallflowers are some of the bloomingest perennials in the garden — even better than yarrows and perennial salvia, which give a whisper of a second show after being cut back. Many are sterile, not setting seed, so that prolongs their blooming. However, they burn so fast and bright, they just can’t keep it up indefinitely. Some are biennial, dying after flowering in their second season. They also prefer gritty, well-drained soil rather than the clay against my fence (wall-flower, remember?).

Nonetheless, their attributes make them more than earn their place in my garden. They offer such delight blooming in our gray time of need (March-Mayish, sometimes longer), and those mixed colors are fabulous at bridging color combinations in the garden, pot, or vase. (Lime, red, or purple foliage looks great with any of them.) Here in Seattle, they may be evergreen.

Gardens Illustrated magazine from the UK suggests regular cutting back to refresh the foliage and keep them from growing in the loosey-goosey way they can and taking insurance cuttings in July just in case. Erysimum are so popular in England they are apparently sold bare-root in the fall, which I’ve never seen here — but would like to!

Some varieties to look for:

“Bowles’ Mauve” — this classic is readily available, and can flower for up to nine months, says Gardens illustrated, but unfortunately, has no fragrance.

“Walberton’s Fragrant Star” — lemon yellow/plum flowers with knockout variegated foliage

“Apricot Twist” — eggplant buds open to orange flowers, nice scent.

“Winter Orchid” — the Winter series is touted for larger flowers and a long bloom time. Orchid’s flowers emerge red, turning purple for a delicious bicolor effect. Lightly scented.

Erysimum × marshallii “Orange Bedder” — groundcover biennial from Siberia that often self-sows for years.

There are new choices coming out every year, so pick your favorite, and hit the dance floor.