• Maureen Little

Wallflowers Take Centre Stage

Are you a selective plantophobe? You know – are there certain plants that you just can’t stand? Those that, try as you might, you just can’t bring yourself to give them garden space? I have a few like that: African marigolds come top of the list, and I just can’t appreciate the attraction of bamboo.

However, one plant that has been transferred from my nimby list to my dimby (definitely-in-my-back-yard) list are biennial wallflowers. The poor things seem to have a bit of an identity crisis - according to the RHS, the Latin name is Erysimum cheiri, but they’re also known as Cheiranthus cheiri or Erysimum suffruticosum. They are also listed as short-lived perennials, but most people grow them as biennials.

Be that as it may, I admit that I have learnt to love these little beauties. They are no longer on the side-lines - they have taken centre-stage.

I think the turning point came when new colours started to appear on the scene. It wasn’t that long ago that the best you could hope for was a rather strident yellow or a lack-lustre red with various tints and shades in between. But then along came the temptingly named ‘Sunset Apricot’, ‘Sugar Rush Purple’, ‘Giant Pink’ and ‘Ruby Gem’ to name but a few – all guaranteed to make gardeners like me rub their little soil-stained hands with glee and get the seed-sowing compost ready. But what I think really swayed me was seeing swathes of wallflowers used as underplanting with tall-growing tulips. That, and the fact that they are a good source of nectar for bees in the spring, finally won me over. Oh, and many of them have a beautiful scent, too.

As you can see, I’ve bought some seeds from Chiltern Seeds (there are other suppliers, of course). When I was browsing their selection, I also came across E. linifolium (the flax-leaved wallflower) with the cute name of ‘Little Kiss Lilac’ – I couldn’t resist.

Treating wallflowers as biennials means that you sow the seeds and they develop into sturdy, hardy plants this year, and are ready to flower next year. And now until the end of summer is a good time to sow them.

You don’t need to sow them under cover – they’re hardy after all.

If you aren’t waiting for summer bedding to finish and you already have bare patches where you want to grow your wallflowers, you can sow them direct, thinning them out as necessary, and firming the remaining plants in well.

If, however, you have summer bedding in full bloom you can sow the wallflower seeds into a nursery bed, thinning them out and growing them on until they are ready to be planted in their final position in the autumn.

If you haven’t got space, you can sow the seeds in modules or seed trays, then pot them on into 1 litre pots and hold them until the summer bedding is cleared away. Don’t leave it too late to plant them out, though: they will fare far better if the soil is still warm and they can get their roots down into the still-warm soil before the onset of winter.

Yet another alternative is to buy bare-root plants. I used to buy mine from a local nursery where they would sell ten or so plants to a bunch. They were sturdy and cheap. In fact this used to be the most popular way of getting hold them but there seem to be fewer and fewer local outlets that sell them like this now. You can still get them by mail-order or over the internet, although they tend to be much, much more than I remember paying for them. If you do buy bare-root plants, though, give them a good soak in water before you plant them out.

Whether you grow your own or buy your wallflowers, plant them fairly close together, but don’t forget to leave room so you can intersperse them with tulips for a wonderful display.

Wallflowers need a sunny spot, with free-draining moisture retentive soil.

Because they are members of the brassica family, they can be affected by club root, a fungus-like organism which can lead to swelling and distortion of the root and stunted growth. If you grow your own plants from seed it is unlikely to be a problem but if you buy plants in make sure, if you can, that they come from a club root-free source. Alkaline soil, which all brassicas prefer, will also help reduce the problem. If your wallflowers are unfortunate enough to develop this affliction, don’t be tempted to grow them or any other member of the brassica family (including Matthiola (stocks) or Aubrieta (aubretia)) in the same soil for the foreseeable future: the resting spores of the disease can lay dormant for up to 20 years, just waiting to infect the next victims.

Wallflowers, or Wall Gilliflowers, as they were once known, have been grown in Britain for ages and indeed the 17th Century poet Robert Herrick immortalised them in a verse about the Earl of March’s daughter, Elizabeth, who, against the wishes of her family, gave her heart to the young heir of a rival clan, Scott of Tushielaw. As a result, she was confined to a castle. But not to be thwarted, her young suitor, dressed as a troubadour, devised a plan so that she could escape. But, alas, alack, to no avail: she plummeted to her death as the ‘silken twist’ she was using to slide down gave way. Herrick concludes the story:

‘Love in pity of the deed,

And her loving luckless speed,

Turn’d her to this plant we call

Now the Flower of the Wall.’

The flower itself may well have inspired Herrick to write the poem since it was often seen growing on old walls and the stonework of castles, and tradition has it that minstrels and troubadours would wear a boutonniere of sweet-smelling Wall Gillyflowers.

And because of its habit of growing on or near walls, wallflower has come to imply someone who would rather stand on the sidelines, not participating in the action, as it were. Although I’m sure thoughts like those were far from Elizabeth’s mind when she embarked on her fateful exploit of derring-do.

Well, my wallflowers aren't going to be relegated to the sidelines - I have a space lined up for them, right in the spotlight.

Note: This post is not sponsored.