The Casual Gardener: Lucifer's allure is hard to resist

Crocosmia 'Lucifer' is one of Ireland's favourite summer perennials but not all members of its family are as benign

'Lucifer' boasts beguiling scarlet flowers
'Lucifer' boasts beguiling scarlet flowers

FEW plants catch the eye quite like Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’. Upright sword-like leaves provide the perfect foil for the abundance of fiery red flowers that appear at the height of summer. Even its name, a contrast to the typical nomenclature that sees plants called after spouses, nurseries, seasons and royalty, is alluring.

Despite not readily conforming to what people conventionally regard as pretty, it’s by no means a rare sight. Even the most conservative gardeners, including local authorities, will utilise ‘Lucifer’, arguably the most common of the Crocosmia cultivars.

Part of the Iris family, this group of plants are sometimes called Monbretia, taking their name from French plant collector Antoine Francois Ernest Conquebert de Montbret. However, crocosmia – from the Greek ‘krokos' meaning saffron and ‘osme' meaning smell – is more widely used these days.

Lucifer’s popularity is easily accounted for, as is the bestowing of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM). That aforementioned foliage provides plenty of volume in a summer border, retaining its colour long after the flowers have faded, and contrasting with any eudicots planted nearby. If there is one drawback, it’s that it tends to flop over, especially in a typically wet Irish summer, so some support is necessary to help it retain an upright stature.

The leaves are secondary, however, Lucifer’s key selling point being those clusters of scarlet flowers that first appear in July either side of the tips of arched branches. Each funnel-shaped flower has an orange base, with the density of the red increasing towards the tips of the half-dozen petals. The pistils and stamens extend erect from the centre of the flower, with those closest to the tip of the spike opening last. When they’re finished flowering all that remains are small green spheres lining each side of the stalk.

Cultivation is easy. Croscomia grows from corms, which are not unlike bulbs and should be planted in the autumn. Or you can pay above the odds and buy it in a pot from a garden centre – even then it’s good value, as you’d need to breathe high grade glyphosate to kill this plant.

Maintenance is minimal and essentially involves the removal of the dead leaves once a year. While untidy looking, it’s recommended leaving the leaves in place over winter as they provide a layer of insulation to guard against a hard frost. That said, this is a hardy plant that can withstand even the coldest Irish winter.

‘Lucifer’ goes well with the contrasting colours of rudbeckia, Verbena bonariensis and blue globe thistles.

Other varieties include the Co Down-bred Crocosmia masoniorum 'Rowallane Yellow’, ‘George Davison’ and ‘Emily McKenzie’.

The most common variation on this South African native, however, is Crocosmia × crocosmiiflora, which is vigorous and invasive hybrid first bred in the 19th century. It is particularly common on verges on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard, where it thrives in conditions not dissimilar to its southern hemisphere homeland.

Every would-be gardener must have dug it up at one time or another and transplanted it into their own garden. But its benignity has been called into question in recent years. In New Zealand, for example, this variety is regarded as a weed and is controlled by the sort of regulations we apply to plants such as ragweed and dockens.

In Ireland, it doesn’t yet rank alongside Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam in terms of its invasiveness but it nonetheless poses a threat to biodiversity.