How would you respond if told there was a new deep purple/blue salvia on the market, that absolutely laughed at root-ridden soil and flowered brilliantly in quite deep shade? First, I’d be skeptical. Then, once my skepticism was addressed, I’d be thrilled.
But there is such a plant, and it’s largely ignored except in the oldest of gardens. Admittedly it’s not a salvia, but you’d assume it was until told otherwise. I grew to know and love Plectranthus ecklonii at Rippon Lea, while there as an apprentice in the mid-80’s. Even then, before I knew how few late-flowering, shade-loving plants there are, I loved the way the driveway at Rippers (as we knew it) was super-enriched in mid to late autumn by a hovering cloud of purple flowers at about chest height. The conditions it coped with were discouraging to say the least, being deeply shaded by overhead oaks, and absolutely ridden with competitive roots. Granted, oaks are amongst the more sociably of trees when it comes to underplanting, and the area did get some irrigation, but it’s still a very tricky context for good planting.
Plectranthus ecklonii is a soft-wooded shrub, very like the shrubby/sub-shrubby salvias in its inherent sappiness of growth, but, despite that, is incredibly long-lived. The only place that it really loses points is in its demand for a heavy pruning following flowering, some time in winter, to keep its growth attractively dense, and the flowering at about 1.5m. The pruning results in awkward, twiggy stumps and semi-leaflessness for a couple of months, but it’s a small price to pay for such a generous display, just when everything else is giving the impression that the seasonal party has been pooped.
When it comes to purples, I’m of the opinion that the richer they are, the better. And as for a white form of a normally purple flower, I usually wonder why you’d bother. But yesterday, wandering round the grand old garden of Cranlana, my vision was grabbed by a glowing, crystalline white under deep shade in the distance. I didn’t wonder what it could be. It couldn’t be anything but a white form of Plectranthus ecklonii. But I did wonder at its visual power, even from a great distance.
Unfortunately, like most soft-wooded shrubs of this kind (including all those fabulous mexican salvias), Plectranthus ecklonii is very frost tender, and I don’t have a hope of growing it here in Woodend. But in my next life, which I’ve devoted entirely to frost-free gardening, it’s going to loom large.
Do you grow Plectranthus ecklonii? Where? Very keen to get a clearer idea of its frost tolerance, and how (maybe) this could be managed