Plant Profiles: Lychnis
L. x arkwrightii 'Vesuvius'
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Maltese cross (L. chalcedonica), rose campion (L. coronaria), or German catchfy (L. viscaria)
Brilliantly colored biennial or short-lived perennial
Full to afternoon sun, good drainage
Shade and mucky soil
Plan ahead for what else will be flowering when the screaming neon rose campion hits her stride
Biennial or Perennial
If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Earth laughs in flowers," then the genus Lychnis has got one hee-haw. If it were a woman, she'd be the type Seinfeld would date for her figure; then, once she opened her mouth, he'd run screaming from the room.
His loss, as always. The genus Lychnis, once in flower, can make a party. The challenge is choosing the right kind of company -- those not easily offended -- because this is one performance you don't want to waste.
The white-and-woolly-leaved L. coronaria, known familiarly as rose campion, flowers in a shade of magenta so bright it's been described as floral original sin. Its common name is thought to be derived from the word "champion" because its blossoms were used to make garlands for sporting heroes. Its genus name -- from the Greek, meaning "lamp" -- refers to the use of its leaves, in ancient times, as candle wicks (as if the flowers alone couldn't light the way).
Short-lived and self-seeding (you noticed, huh?), drought-tolerant and best in full sun, L. coronaria has a screaming presence that works with a surprising number of other colors: grays, lilacs, and purples; blues and other magentas; bright yellows if you've got a sense of humor; and silver and white variegated leaves such as those of Miscanthus 'Morning Light'. It even looks good with its tamer twin, the cultivar 'Alba', which has the same strong upright habit and Verbascum-like rosettes of fuzzy leaves.
L. chalcedonica, the Maltese cross or Jerusalem cross, is less interesting in leaf and habit than rose campion but has a zinging color and is just as hot to trot. Named after the symbol used by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, an eleventh- and twelfth-century charitable order, the flowers make a dense head of bright scarlet atop upright, hairy stems. Some say the plant's nondescript foliage is a lot to put up with for a relatively small flower, but it's an old-fashioned favorite that continues to outlast its critics and enchant lovers of red.
The German catchfly, L. viscaria, offers a better balance of foliage and flowers, forming clumps of dark green, grassy foliage and late-spring flower spikes with magenta blossoms. Its common name refers to its sticky stems. I've read about quite a large selection of double-flowered cultivars (including the bright pink 'Flore Pleno'), but I can't say I've seen them in the trade. Admittedly, I haven't knocked myself out trying.
And for the trendiest lychnis making the rounds today: L. x arkwrightii 'Vesuvius', a recent pinup in Horticulture magazine, with chocolatey purple-stained leaves and loud orange flowers. I've maligned this plant for its temperamental, less-than-exuberant habit, but watching its foliage emerge this spring, I got the point. Seeing 'Vesuvius' mixed with the bronze-leaved Crocosmia 'Solfaterre' and the Coleus 'Rustic Orange' is well worth the price of admission, even if the performance doesn't last.