The Casual Gardener: Remember forget-me-nots?
Its diminutive flowers are barely noticeable on their own but put hundreds of forget-me-nots together and the effect is entirely different
THE flower of the forget-me-not (Myosotis) is arguably the smallest ever to feature in this column – it’s barely 5mm in diameter. It’s an insubstantial plant too, which in isolation takes on a straggly appearance and other characteristics associated with weeds, meaning in most gardens it’s duly dug up and destroyed.
Cultivated and planted in abundance, however, the forget-me-not's appeal grows exponentially. Whether gathered formally in bedding patterns or in naturalised clumps, collectively, its flowers create a floating mass of blue – the colour of a cloudless spring sky.
The genus myosotis, of which there are around 70 varieties, is a member of the Boraginaceae family and takes its name from the Greek for ‘mouse’s ear’, which is what the leaves are said to resemble.
But the common name by which it is known across much of Europe is more interesting and evocative. The term ‘forget-me-not’ relating to various forms of myosotis, was first recorded 800 years ago in Germany, where it is known as ‘Vergiszmeinnicht’ – the translation of which becomes more obvious when it’s broken up: (adopts German accent) vergisz-mein-nicht.
According to the mythology around the name, it originated when a Teutonic knight gave his young lover a bunch of wild flowers, only to be swept away soon after by the swollen waters of the Danube. Legend has it that as he disappeared downstream, he shouted “Vergisz mein nicht”. His appeal appears to have worked posthumously, sort of.
Like the poppy, the forget-me-not is used to symbolise remembrance. It is the symbol of the Armenian genocide, which saw more than a million people slaughtered by the Turks in the early years of the 20th century, and it has been adopted by the Alzheimer's Society.
Despite these rather sombre associations, it is a flower – the plant itself is quite unruly and ugly – that brings only joy. Up close in detail it is also delightful, an uncomplicated five lavender-to-lilac-coloured petals, with smaller yellow petals around a tiny black eye at the centre.
The haze effect the bee-friendly flowers create when planted en masse make the plant a great foil for spring flowering bulbs, especially tulips.
There are perennial varieties out there and related plants that deliver the same effect but my experience of myosotis is largely confined to the biennial variety – Myosotis sylvatica or wood forget-me-not – which has established itself in my garden. This variety is found wild across Ireland and Britain, and as it’s not especially fussy about where it grows, which means it’s very common.
Other common wild varieties include Myosotis scorpioides (water forget-me-not) and Myosotis arvensis (field forget-me-not).
Flowering from April through to July, Myosotis sylvatica seeds and germinates freely. It can also tolerate being uprooted and moved, which allows you to relocate it early in the season to where it’ll look its best in flower. Experience will teach you where you can leave it to flourish.
If all this sounds too taxing, then you’ll likely favour the false forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla) AKA Siberian bugloss. This shade-tolerant plant is no relation to Myosotis but mimics it perfectly. It’s not regarded as an obvious choice for the spring garden and deserves greater recognition.
‘Jack Frost’ rates among the best cultivars, flowering in blue through April and May. If anything, the silver-grey, heart-shaped foliage is better on the false forget-me-not than on its original namesake. It thrives best in a rich soil and will spread itself out as ground cover over time.