Midspring is an amazing time of year in the garden. There is so much energy, excitement, and over-the-top color. One of my favorite plant families for this season is Cistaceace, commonly known as the the cistus or rock rose family. This genus thrives in larger gardens where space is not a premium, although some smaller-scale cistuses work well in small gardens and rockeries. Their color palette is a full-blown color wheel. The flowers span from cool whites and pale pinks to warmer jewel tones of reds, oranges, hot pinks, and yellows. Some also have a beautiful maroon-to-burgundy flash at the base of the petals. The leaves range from dark green to pale, dusky gray. Most bloom in early May and continue through June, with flowers often completely covering the foliage. The flowers last only a few days, but since the blooms are so profuse, you’ll hardly notice. They typically rebloom in late summer to early fall with significantly fewer flowers.
Rock roses are perfect for the summer-dry climates of the Pacific coast. They grow well in sunny areas with lean soils and only need light pruning to keep them tidy and neat looking. These plants often do not live long, but they are worthy additions to any water-wise garden, doing well without any supplemental watering after the first year. These plants thrive in dry conditions and lean soil, so no supplemental compost or fertilizer is required. Weekly to twice-weekly watering in summer to establish these plants is sufficient. If you’re concerned about plants getting too dry, then a biweekly watering during the summer will work, but in general these plants do not like wet soil. Here are a select few that have performed well in my Seattle garden.
Golden rock rose
This dense, rounded evergreen shrub with small green-gray leaves does well in lean, well-drained soil with full sun. Golden rock rose (Halimium ocymoides, Zones 8–11) has bright yellow blooms with a dark burgundy flash at the base of the petal and flowers from May through July. While I did have some tip dieback from the late freeze and snow in February 2019, my plants have recovered well and are already flowering and putting on new growth. These will grow 2 to 3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.
‘Merrist Wood Cream’ rock rose
‘Merrist Wood Cream’ rock rose (× Halimiocistus wintonensis ‘Merrist Wood Cream’, Zones 7–10) is a cross between a Halimium and a Cistus. It has beautiful pale, creamy yellow flowers with a dark maroon flash at the base of the petal that bloom from late April through June. The small, green-gray foliage is covered in felted, wooly hairs. It does well in lean, well-drained soil with full sun. Tip prune after flowering to shape, as this plant does have a tendency to grow more prostrate. It will grow about 3 feet tall and wide.
‘Henfield Brilliant’ rock rose
‘Henfield Brilliant’ rock rose (Helianthemum ‘Henfield Brilliant’, Zones 4–9) is a low-growing sun rose that is excellent for sunny slopes. Gray foliage provides a great foil to the masses of brilliant, deep orange flowers with bright yellow centers. Flowers cover this plant from April to May. Cut back hard after flowering to ensure a more compact, tidy plant. Water lightly until new growth has started. It will grow between 6 to 12 inches tall and 18 to 30 inches wide.
‘Ben Fhada’ rock rose
This is a low-spreading evergreen shrub with small green leaves that is excellent for sunny slopes. The green foliage is a nice contrast to the bright yellow flowers with orange splash at the petal base. Flowers cover this plant from April to May. Cut it back hard after flowering to ensure a more compact, tidy plant. Provide light water until new growth has started. Expect it to get 6 to 12 inches tall and 18 to 30 inches wide.
This is only a small sampling of the color range of this wonderfully tough small shrub. I hope you’ll try them in your own garden.
Jason Jorgensen is a landscape designer in Seattle, Washington.
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