PLANT OF THE WEEK #41: Verbena bonariensis

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.

Website www.hopeandheart.com.au  | Instagram @jacquiechirgwin 

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.

Website www.pkphotogrpahy.com.au  | Instagram @pk____photography 

Discussion

  1. Hi Jackie, what a great article and choice of plant. Verbena bonariensis is my first plant “love”, for many of the reasons you describe. I like that it seems to pop up out of nowhere and all of a sudden its purple flowers are right there at eye level. That said, my intention was to have it as an accent (much like in your photos) but of late it’s been seeding around a bit too freely. It copes well with our frosts and so I now have a hedge of Verbena bonariensis! Not a big problem – the height is quite handy – but I’ll have to rein it in.

    1. Thanks Richard. Interesting that yours is geeting a bit prolific – I wonder if it is because of the good rain we have had all year? I actualy notice that I have more this year than I usually do. Interesting re it being fine with frost – I think the amount of water may be the main determining factor for its success.

  2. Thanks for a lovely wrap on Verbena bonariensis. In Perth it is even more ephemeral than in Victoria as its tropical origins make want more water than we can provide. I totally agree that it is random in its self sowing habit!

    1. So does that mean that, if I give mine more water, it will grow better?

    2. IHi Valerie – it does seem form the various comments and my own observations that th amount of water will influence its growth. I recently saw some that was over 2m tall in a clients garden where an irrigation system had been installed over te winter – and the VB really took off!

  3. Hi Jacquie. It’s a stellar plant, undoubtably. If you’ve ever driven the Hume between Melbourne and Sydney at this time of year, boy howdy you see a lot of it on the roadside. But in all the years I worked in bushland management here in Melbourne I never once came across it in the bush. I confound other bushland managers with my thoughts on plants like this, because although its weediness is undeniable in some climates, it’s a plant that skites the boundaries of an ‘acceptable weed’ for me.

    Blue banded bees and other native insects flock to it in the summer months like no other plant I use and given its tall, lanky stature, it’s a plant that can persist in an ecosystem without muscling out indigenous native vegetation the way other weeds can and most certainly do. It doesn’t tend to displace other species so readily, though of course in some areas there are exceptions. It’s certainly not the worst weed to call the bush home, in my often-questioned opinion!

    1. Thanks James. Your observations make a lot of sense. It really doesn’t have the ability to be a thug does it – and as you point out bees and butterflies adore it. I shall look out for it on the Hume (haven’t done that trip for a long while…….

  4. I do love purple flowers and a wild effect but am a bit tired of hearing it raved about___probably only because it wouldnt suit my garden—toowindy and soil probably too heavy & wet.

  5. Mind you I’m never sick of hearing about gardenia or frangipani-or oriental lilies–all of which I also have no hope of growing.

    1. Hi Helen – just as well we don’t all have the same favourites I reckon!

  6. When I studies Horticulture this Verbena was an environmental weed.
    We found rogues along the Murrumbidgee River . So don’t let it escape your garden ,

    1. Hi Lindsay
      Interesting about finding it along the Murrumbidgee. Was it in quite a high rainfall area? I think we have to be thoughtful about ‘weeds’ and not automatically assume that weed characteristics in one place mean that the plant is a weed everywhere. It certainly makes sense that if you see a plant (or it has been documented) spreading prolifically in your area it is best not to plant it in your garden. But if we avoided plants found to be invasive somewhere in the world and didn’t use them in our gardens, I think we would be much poorer for it.

  7. The ‘airy, floating’ quality of this verbena and its ability to enliven a garden with colour and the subtle movement of insect life are what draw me to it too. It is quite ephemeral in my garden— I haven’t had it for years— maybe it’s time to reintroduce it. Thanks for your lovely words and photographs.

    1. It’s unique characteristics are very appealing I agree Matt – maybe I can give you a few seedlings to get you going again!

  8. Wonderful photos. I have seen this plant on my walks here in Perth, admittedly only this year so I have no idea how successful it is year after year. A gorgeous plant and, if only I had more sun in my garden I would be sussing it out to plant. I have never seen it in a nursery here, so I suspect it has to be gleaned from a garden where already growing.

    1. Hi Sharman – I must say I don’t often see it in retail nurseries here in Melbourne either, although I recently bought about 25 in 7cm pots from a wholsale supplier, so it is around …….. Yes – I think it does like to sun itself! I don’t think I’ve seen it seed in my garden in a spot that is not sunny.

  9. I have grown up with V. bonariensis being widely used in summer parterres in European cities, and was happy to see it available here, but discovered like Jacquie that, contrary to temperate Europe it behaves here as a perennial. I feel bad after having posted a few days ago on Insta a photo of the “hedge” of V. bonariensis growing along my back fence :-(. I love how its flowers doddle in the wind and last for ages. Although I find many seedlings on the gravel paths, I have found that very few seeds make it past their early stage in other areas covered with mulch. Being a bit concerned with what may happen outside my garden I decided to sacrifice the winter interest element and cut them down once the flowers are finished. I was wondering if there are out there other less “weedy” alternatives that would provide the same airy effect ?

    1. I do find that interesting about the different behaviour of VB in Europe – explains why the binennial idea cam with my sister from the UK…. Where is your garden Gilles? Maybe it isn’t really a weed problem in your area? See James’ comments above and Jane’s below. An alternative? I have thought about this a bit and not really come up with anything. Its that angular structure that I can’t replicate. I wonder if Michael has any suggestions?

  10. All you say is true. I personally love this plant and have not found it weedy in my garden. It rather begs the question whether environmental weeds should be designated by postcode rather than state boundaries. Thanks for the lovely photos and article. Long live serendipity and a more accurate way of classifying ‘weeds’

    1. I so agree with you Jane.
      Postcode weed list needed!!

  11. I had a garden bed of heavy poorly draining clay in the Adelaide Hills and the only plant that survived the first winter was my 3 Verbena bonariensis. Over the next year I dug up the surviving plants, fixed the drainage, raised the soil, and turned my 3 plants into about 25 (they easily strike from cuttings).
    They occasionally get broken in the wind, but they grow back quickly. The bees and butterflies love them. They’re in full sun all day and only get an occasional water (important when the garden needs to survive only on rainwater).
    They look fantastic in my perennial border of Echinops, Echinacea, Perovksia, Achillea and Agastache.

    1. Your combination there sounds gorgeous. Interesting too that they survived wet feet 🙂

  12. Some really nice shots, especially the close-ups. Surprised to see you mention it coming from Brazil though – it’s commonly called Argentinian vervain here in the UK.

    1. I think I read the Brazil things somewhere on the internet – just goes to show you don’t want to beleive all that you read! Atleast they are next door to each other geographically!

  13. Verbena bonariensis is from my country Argentina, in fact, bonariensis comes from the zone, called the province of Buenos Aires (bonariensis….) although it is natural to the south of South America, it is typically from here. There are several hibrids Lolly pop that are more compact or species with different sized flowers, they are all butterfly lovers…..

  14. Thank you Trixie – I hadn’t realised the link of Buenos Aires and bonariensis.

  15. Such a pretty plant! I discovered Verbena Bonariensis this year while looking online for inspiration for our garden. I went everywhere looking for it. I was so disappointed to find out none of the nurseries sold it… and just when I was about to give up it started popping up everywhere on the side of the roads here in NSW! I’ve planted a few and had no problems growing more from cuttings.

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