Plant Profiles: Phlox
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Creeping phlox (P. stolonifera)
Woodland phlox (P. divaricata)
Moss phlox (P. subulata)
Part sun to light shade (not full shade); rich, evenly moist, well-drained soil
Plant in drifts, seas, waves -- anything but onesies
Its name comes from the Greek word for "flame", but forget that for a moment. Think instead of a dappled woodland garden in early spring.
Everything is stirring. Unfurling ferns rub their eyes and sleek Solomon's seal is rising. Ephemeral flowers make their oh-so-brief rendezvous with pollinators, while sweet young hostas are accosted by slugs.
Oops. Sorry. Take two:
Sweet young hosta leaves tussle for daylight as the last of the lemony daffodils fade, and wave upon wave of blue woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) roll by and drift away.
Now that's how I like my phlox -- not screaming bloody murder like the moss phlox (P. subulata) that is already flowing like lava down innumerable city streets. I'm not saying moss phlox isn't a good, tough plant, I'm just saying some selections are quite overwhelming. On the other hand, even at its loudest, woodland phlox still lets you listen to the soft murmur of spring.
Consider the boldest of the bunch, introduced to the Northwest by Oregon Trail Gardens in Boring, Oregon: P. stolonifera 'Variegata'. Do not for a moment confuse it with that garish hussy of a summer garden phlox, P. paniculata 'Nora Leigh'. Instead, think of 'Variegata' as Nora's Cinderella sister, inherently beautiful without hitting you over the head. This rich pink creeping phlox spreads by runners that root along the ground, but you'll wish she were invasive. 'Variegata' is even less aggressive than the forms with dark green foliage, which can be planted at a least a foot apart and won't take too long to fill the space.
P. stolonifera is an East Coast native that thrives in shade (light shade, that is; flowering will be sparse in deep shade) and looks good all year. It's represented in the trade by a number of white, mauve, and rich purple selections, all of which form prostrate mats of creeping stems with starry, open-faced flowers.
If P. stolonifera hugs, P divaricata hovers. The blue woodland phlox is nearly twice as high (to the knee when in flower) and twice as sweet; its other name is wild sweet William. Plants will cover ground more slowly than P. stolonifera, but we're still talking a creeping mound. Though each of its petals is notched at the tip for a somewhat showier flower, what really undoes me about the long-blooming P. divaricata is what it makes of the color blue: icy, subtle, rich, or startling, depending on the selection. Out of flower, it doesn't have quite the foliage presence of P. stolonifera (it's not as dense a cover); its strength is not as a specimen but as a mingler, chatting its way across the woodland floor.