The Casual Gardener: A heads-up for heleniums
No prairie planting scheme is complete without heleniums
READERS of a certain age will have little difficulty recalling the opening titles of the 1970s children's TV series Little House on the Prairie. As a rousing orchestra strikes up, a smiling Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon) and his wife Caroline (Karen Grassle) watch from the seat of their prairie schooner as their three young daughters run gaily down a hill towards them.
The sun is shining and the tall grass is peppered with flowers. It's a vista typical of what was then – the late 1800s – a largely unspoilt landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see across two million acres of temperate North America.
Prairie is the French word for meadow and was used by the first European settlers who were unused to seeing swathes of flat, fertile grassland on such a grand scale. In many ways the prairie became a victim of its own success, as the conditions in which grass and wildflowers thrived also made it amenable to arable agriculture and specifically crops of grain such as wheat, rye and oats.
These days, around only one per cent of the original area covered by wild prairie is worthy of the name.
The spirit of the prairie lives on, however, in the New American Garden style, a landscape movement that seeks to replicate something closer to wilderness rather than the rigid, formal structures of traditional European gardens.
The plants utilised to best effect in a prairie style planting tend to be cultivated versions of those which inhabit the actual prairies of North America. Members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family are essential, as are grasses.
The idea is to make things look natural, so spurn hard edges and straight lines. Plant in sweeps and drifts, repeating a handful of plants rather than choosing too many and situating them in isolation. Avoid shrubs and opt for architectural plants, those that retain their shape after flowering or have good autumn colour – and ensure they all get as much sun as possible.
Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails' and the larger Stipa gigantea are certs for imbuing a wild, carefree atmosphere in any garden. They also make great foils, creating a hazy, dynamic backdrop against which coloured flowerheads are more pronounced. Native Molinas can be used to a similar effect and have an almost translucent quality, while it's difficult to go wrong with a nice tall Calamagrotis.
In terms of flowers, the taller the better. Echinacea purpurea is arguably the most eye-catching, its bold, bright pink flowers screaming a welcome from the border. Rudbeckia is on a similar tip, while Veronicastrum whips skywards like a rocket.
To cap them all, it's crucial you add Heleniums – AKA Sneezeweed – a prairie plant that dazzles close up and from a distance. Blooming from late July to the end of September and even onwards into October, these tall, daisy-like flowers vary in colour from one to the next with combinations of hot yellows, oranges and reds.
There are hundreds of cultivars to choose from and all will be happy in a sunny spot with their roots in well-drained soil. Heleniums are generally pest and disease free, while taller varieties will prove more sustainable with a staking.
Cultivars to watch out for are the crimson ‘Moerheim Beauty', the brown-eyed ‘Butterpat' and the copper-gold petals of ‘Waltraut'.