I first became acquainted with and thoroughly fell for Verbena bonariensis (tall verbena) around 20 years ago, when my sister came from the UK to live outside Canberra. She planted it in her paddock-turned-garden in large swathes amongst grasses and it stole the show that first summer. At the time we understood it to be biennial, and certainly after the first year it seemed to decline. By the time she returned to the UK a few years later, there were only a few scattered specimens left. Now that I know it is perennial, I wonder whether perhaps it struggled with the frosts that were common where she lived.
Although I have had it growing in my garden in Melbourne ever since, it has also been rather ephemeral. It pops up in new places by self-seeding quite readily, but often does not persist in the one spot for more than a season. However, it grows rapidly, its flowering season is long and a cut back or a dead-head results in flowers all the way through to autumn. Even its spent flowers add texture and interest. I do enjoy its randomness from a little self-seeding and its long season. Self-seeding plants have grown on me of late; I especially love the natural feel they engender and the new serendipitous combinations that result year on year.
I was surprised to find, when preparing this article, that I had few good photos of Verbena bonariensis. I started to think about why that might be. Largely I concluded it is because its role is more often as a ‘support plant’ and not a focal ‘look at me’ plant. Nevertheless it has many wonderful features and many roles in a garden. Its stiffly upright and somewhat gangly angular character, combined with its height and see-through effect, make it a great candidate for a naturalistic planting palette, especially with grasses. But it also can look amazing in a mass planting, providing an airy, floating, gauzy screen with lovely purple flowers, usually covered in bees and butterflies. I have also seen it as a good companion to roses and other flowers in a wide range of colours. It’s good in a vase too. For me, it is an important plant in my planting design options.
So, when I heard horticultural people I have high regard for saying it “should be banned” – that it’s “taking over Victoria and NSW” – I was both surprised and a little concerned. I do not find it an invasive weed in my area, and I have not personally seen it going gangbusters elsewhere either. I have thought this is probably because they like a little more moisture and humidity than Melbourne’s climate (and my garden) provides, which may also explain why my own plants don’t last very long. They do come from Brazil after all. Perhaps the NSW and Queensland climate is more conducive to their escape from the garden. Or is that just wishful thinking on my part?
The other characteristic I am less than happy with its tendency to fall over in wind. When this happens I usually cut it off, and fortunately more flower stems typically appear. Having said that, I don’t always mind it developing a gently reclining position when it’s included in a full and mixed planting, contributing to a relaxing and natural aesthetic.
Jacquie has developed her small business ‘Hope & Heart Garden Design’ over the last ten years, overlapping with her career as a medical oncologist from which she retired last year. She inherited her love of gardens from both her parents who were avid gardeners in the UK, so her primary love has always been perennials and flowers. However, during her study at Burnley, she concentrated on expanding her knowledge of Australian natives and is now happy designing gardens in any style and with any sort of plant palette whether it be natives, perennials, grasses or foliage plants. Her aim is to create beauty in the garden in line with her client’s vision.
Most of the photos were taken by Jacquie’s husband Paul Kertes who is a freelance photographer with a particular interest in garden and flower photography.