I have often been asked 'Why geums? Why do you like them so much and why grow so many?' Well, I love their bright colours, their diversity and the fact that they grow well in my garden - at least they did until the summer of 2006 when the heat and drought nearly did for some of them!
There are over 50 species, the majority growing between latitudes 75° and 30° in a broad band stretching from Alaska in the west to Siberia in the east. In addition there are two in Chile, three in New Zealand, and one in South Africa. On the whole, the species are not very exciting, having small insignificant flowers. One of the least interesting is Geum urbanum, which is native to this country and can become an annoying weed if it is not firmly removed whenever it appears.
For ease of description the many hybrids and cultivars that are commonly grown can be divided roughly into three groups, depending upon which species they most closely resemble. G. rivale, which is native to Europe, including Great Britain, has produced many good plants, of which G. 'Leonard's Variety' is well known. G. coccineum, with its bright orange saucer-shaped flowers, comes from the Balkans and is one of the parents of G. 'Borisii'. G. chiloense, from Chiloe Island, off the coast of Chile, is a parent of 'Mrs. J. Bradshaw' and 'Lady Stratheden', among others. There are also many alpines, but they are not easy to grow in the south of England. After many years I have at last had a few flowers on G. triflorum - exquisite tiny, pink, drooping flowers with dark red calyces and much-divided leaves, unlike most of the other geums.
Geums are members of the Rosaceae family. They form evergreen clumps with hairy mid-green divided leaves. The flowers have five petals, calyx and epicalyx, and numerous stamens, which are often quite prominent, in the centre of the flower. The fruits are achenes and prolong the interest long after the flowers have faded, covering the plants with round fluffy seedheads. Colours range from white through pale apricot, pale yellow, bright acid yellow, soft orange, clear bright orange, to pink and red. Within this overall framework there are countless variations. Plants with G. rivale in their parentage have drooping flowers, the petals being enclosed by the calyx, which is attractive in itself. They form large clumps with evergreen leaves and flower from mid-April until the end of May, depending on the season. G. coccineum relatives are low-growing and are useful for ground cover. Their flowers range in colour from pale cream with orange tints to pure orange. The biggest, showiest flowers belong to the chiloense group. These flower a little later and make a real impact in the garden; their large double flowers range from yellow, through various tones of orange, to deep red.
Geums like a fertile, moist soil: they cannot cope with drying out. My heavy wealden clay seems to suit them well. They respond well to being divided every three years or so, which is no bad thing as this produces lots of new plants. Division is the best method of propagation. They come well from seed but are very promiscuous, so unless you only have one in your garden the offspring will be very varied. This trait has produced some lovely varieties which observant gardeners have spotted and introduced into the nursery trade (see G. 'Lemon Drops'). At present the Plant Finder lists over 100 different geums, over 80 of which I grow in my garden. (Yet another patch of lawn is being dug up this winter to accommodate them all!). Space will only allow me to describe a few of them, so I have chosen those I think are the best garden plants.
Geum rivale - or water avens is native to Great Britain, where it grows in damp, shaded places. The following are some of the best hybrids available today:
Geum rivale 'Leonards Variety' dates back to 1923. It has deep pink, drooping flowers, sometimes with both single and double on the same plant. It is extremely floriferous and quickly makes a good-sized clump covered in flowers from March to May.
G. 'Lemon Drops' was spotted by Beth Chatto in her garden. The drooping flowers are very pale yellow with deep red calyces enclosing the base of the petals.
G. 'Marmalade' is similar to the above with bright, light orange petals and deep red calyces.
G. 'Bell Bank' has large, double, rose pink flowers with frilly petals and prominent yellow stamens. It is quite stunning when covered with flowers and is a 'good doer'. (Parentage unknown, but the influence of rivale can be seen.)
Geum coccineum has bright orangey-red petals with a ring of yellow anthers in the centre. One of the best hybrids is G. 'Nordek'. This has slightly larger flowers than G. coccineum and seems to flower for ever. There are several out in my garden as I write this at the end of December.
G. 'Coppertone' is another plant discovered by Beth Chatto. It has delicate, pale apricot, goblet-shaped flowers with dark red calyces. G. 'Beech House Apricot' has large saucer-shaped, warm yellow flowers with orange splashes on the edge of its frilly petals. A mass of golden yellow anthers fill the centre. Another very floriferous plant. These all grow to between 30-40 cms in my garden, but heights can vary in different conditions.
Geum chiloense has produced many excellent garden plants. The first geum I bought was G. 'Prinses Juliana' which flowered almost non-stop for a year. It has soft orange, double flowers with frilly petals, which are borne on stiff stems radiating from a central point. This plant was developed in Holland in the early 1900s and has been described as one of the best geum cultivars. G. 'Red Wings', G. 'Rubin', G. 'Blazing Sunset' and G. 'Dolly North' are all excellent garden plants with large double flowers which continue from late spring to midsummer and often beyond. They are all deep red except G. 'Dolly North' which is a deep orange with darker red markings.
Geum 'Mrs.J. Bradshaw' and G. 'Lady Stratheden' are the geums most people have heard of. I think the reason they are so readily available is that they come true from seed. Other chiloense hybrids have to be propagated by division and take several years to bulk up. They grow to approximately 60cm.
Finally, I must mention two distinct hybrids which are proving to be excellent garden plants: G. 'Herterton Primrose', which has vibrant, deep yellow saucer-shaped flowers with distinctive dark red calyces, and G. montanum 'Diana', with large golden-yellow flowers which appear on and off throughout the whole year.
First published in the Kent Group Newsletter, Spring 2007
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Sue Martin
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.