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Southeast Regional Reports

Southeast: How to Satisfy Your Zone Envy

Fallen in love with a plant from a colder zone? Try growing one of these instead.

Rocket larkspur grows well in the Southeast, unlike the more famous garden delphinium. Photo: Paula Gross

Why is it that I’m bound to fall the hardest for a plant that can’t grow in my zone? I call this feeling “zone envy.” When zone envy begins, so begins the internal bargaining: “I’ve got a spot that’s 5 degrees cooler than everywhere else with rich, well-drained soil. I’ll build this plant a removable shade umbrella and check on it every day. I’m special. It will grow for me.” But when the reckoning comes that plants really don’t change, I don’t despair. Instead, I allow my desire some space to roam, and consider looking for a closely related species that’s more tolerant of our climate.

Below I offer examples of three of my previous plant obsessions—all of which thrive in zones with cooler summers or different soil types than my southeastern Zone 8 garden—along with the plants that I turned to instead to satisfy the craving.

garden delphinium
This picture of garden delphinium growing on tall, plump stalks was taken in Maine, where it grows much better than in our climate. Photo: Paula Gross

What sparked my zone envy: Garden delphinium

Garden delphiniums (Delphinum elatum and cvs., Zones 3–7), or candle larkspur, are seriously big, seriously romantic, and seriously blue. The tall hybrid delphiniums are the poster children for everything magical that we can’t grow in the South. One day someone will breed a giant summer snapdragon (Angelonia spp. and cvs., Zones 9–11), and then I’ll have fun re-creating an English cottage garden in the Southeast.

Dwarf larkspur rocket larkspur
Dwarf larkspur (left) and rocket larkspur (right) mimic the distinctive blue flowers on long flower stalks that garden delphinium is known for. Photos: Paula Gross

What I grow instead: Dwarf larkspur and rocket larkspur

Dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne, Zones 4–8) and rocket larkspur (Consolida ajacis, annual) are less beefy but equally as charming as garden delphinium. The spurred purplish-blue flowers with whitish centers that are characteristic of garden delphinium are present in both, if smaller. Dwarf larkspur is a spring ephemeral native to the lower Midwest. It’s a partial-shade lover suited for a special spot in the garden. Growing 12 to 18 inches tall (most of that height made up of the flower spike), dwarf larkspur shows up suddenly like a garden sprite, charms the heck out of you, and then disappears by June. About the time it is beginning to fade, over in the sunny border rocket larkspur is popping into bloom. Capable of making quite a show, this reseeding larkspur blooms on loose racemes that grow up to 3 feet tall, surrounded by airy, ferny foliage. I love the classic blue shades, but there are also pink and white varieties. To add rocket larkspur to your garden, begin by choosing a sunny, weeded, but unmulched area and spread seed in August or September, then top with a very thin layer of a fine-textured bark mulch.

Hybrid primroses
Hybrid primroses are a classic harbinger of spring, although they don’t perennialize well in our region. Photo: Daniela Baloi

What sparked my zone envy: Primroses

Primrose hybrids (Primula spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) are another classic English garden staple. Cheery primroses with neat rosettes of leaves burst into bloom with circular flowers in bright, clear colors with contrasting eyes. Every spring the large flowered hybrids are sold in Southeastern garden centers despite the fact that they finish blooming in less than a month and don’t make it through the heat of our summers. And yet they still fly off the shelves. (Believe me, I get it!)

hybrid primroses Sibthrop primrose
Sibthrop primrose (left) resembles the hybrid primroses that flood nurseries in spring, and cowslip (right) is a larger species with the same flower shape as other primroses. Photos: Paula Gross

What I grow instead: Sibthorp primrose and cowslip

Because so many primroses don’t grow in our Southern soils and heat, it takes a little poking around to find nurseries carrying these two beauties that do. Sibthorp primroses (Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii, Zones 4–8) look a lot like the larger hybrids, just a bit more modest. They grow in the same 5-inch-high rosettes with classic primrose-shaped flowers in rich shades of red, pink, and white—all with some degree of a contrasting yellow eye. Give them a spot in morning sun and afternoon shade or high shade in rich, well-drained soil. Do the same for the 8-inch-tall cowslip (Primula veris, Zones 3–8) with its clusters of clear, sweet yellow flowers that bloom in spring.

Checkered lilies
Checkered lilies come in charming shades of white and maroon with a distinctive checkered pattern. Photo: Richard Hartlage

What sparked my zone envy: Checkered lilies

I’ve always wanted to grow checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris, Zones 3–7). Truth be told, I was obsessed with the entire genus Fritillaria and tried half a dozen species before my hard reckoning that they don’t grow here. There was something about those nodding flowers with their fascinating checkerboard pattern that I just had to grow to believe. The pictures of these flowers blooming in meadows in parts of England did not help me tame my obsession one bit.

Thunberg fritillary
The small bell-shaped yellow-tan flowers of Thunberg fritillary have the classic fritillary checkered pattern on the inside of their petals. Photo: Paula Gross

What I grow instead: Thunberg fritillary

I eventually had to look away from fritillaries. That is, until one March a few years back. While I was walking a friend’s garden, something caught my eye and caused my head to whip around. Apparently an obsession gone dormant takes only a spark to reignite. There grew a tall yet delicately beautiful fritillary! I barraged my friend with questions until it was clear that the best course of action for everyone was to share a bulb or two. Thunberg fritillary (Fritillaria thunbergii, Zones 6b–9) is now growing happily in partial sun and afternoon shade in two spots in my garden. Its strappy, sage green foliage grows up to 2 feet tall and bears nodding, pale yellow flowers with a hint of green. They’ve even got a checkerboard of maroon inside that I happily squat down and look up into to appreciate. And they have unique elegant curling leaf tips that act as tendrils. The plant goes dormant by June, but the foliage dries in place, so then I have a vase full of fritillary foliage to admire year-round.

I’ve still got zone envy from time to time, but it’s OK because I know there are plenty of plants out there that will stir my desires AND love me back.

—Paula Gross is the former assistant director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Botanical Gardens.

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