Old Flame

by | Feb 1, 2014 | Native Plants

WHEN CENTRAL WISCONSIN GARDER Agnes Koehler smells summertime phlox she pictures her childhood on a dairy farm surrounded by her mother’s flowers or the purple blooms outside her grandfather’s house nearby.

“Ever since I grew up, my mom had flowers, and one of them was phlox. I close my eyes and [the smell] brings me back to when I was a little girl and the phlox were fragrant and blooming.” She offered me a vase of the miniature magenta blooms picked from her own garden, located just a few miles away from her original dairy farm home, and I inhale the memory-making sweetness.

Today, Koehler keeps a family tradition of phlox strong in her garden with garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). In a flowerbed nestled between a driveway and a garage, 2- to 3-foot stems of red, white and blue-purple phlox create a Fourth of July-inspired display. Koehler placed taller stalks in the back of the bed, with smaller petunias in front, echoing the festive color scheme. On the other side of the yard beneath purple martin birdhouses, a raised flowerbed brims with garden phlox topped with purple and white blooms, offering summertime color and disguising a septic tank.

A Phlox for Any Garden Need

Three popular species of phlox include the annual Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii), the perennial prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) and the perennial garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), each offering the gardener something unique.

one of the most versatile of phlox, at about a foot tall Drummond phlox takes center stage planted in a bed yet can also serve as a border plant. Drummond phlox does well in containers, in a hanging basket or to complement other plants.

“Drummond is an earlyto mid-spring plant and makes a nice spring-season plant combined around summer and fall perennials,” says andrea Delongamaya, director of horticulture at the Wildflower center. some good pairings with Drummond phlox include the thorn-apple (Datura wrightii) or Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides). Drummond phlox ranges in color from pure white to deep red to a peachy color. Mix Drummond phlox of different colors to create a bold statement in a garden or add white to a night garden.

The prairie phlox, with fragrant flowers, is typically a foot tall or less and comes in colors of rose, pink and lavender. With a short bloom period, prairie phlox provides good ground cover and can grow to fit a variety of spaces. its size and growth pattern make it a good filler plant. “You can squeeze them between other things,” Delongamaya said.

The 2- to 3-foot-tall garden phlox, characterized by its tall, upright stature, features colors of pink, purple and purple-blue, and sometimes white. it boasts the best fragrance of all phlox, but a drawback to this phlox is its susceptibility to powdery mildew. Water in the morning rather than the evening to allow the plant to dry off during the day.

All phlox species prefer sandy soil, but some can grow in non-sandy alkaline soils as well. The Drummond, prairie and garden phlox do well in sun or part shade. in terms of watering frequency, phlox do well on their own, although they may require extra water during times of drought. The garden phlox does well in moist soil; the Drummond and prairie phlox prefer dry conditions.

Gardeners can start phlox from seed (with the Drummond phlox in particular), but for most phlox varieties seedlings work best as plant starters.

Characterized by their five-petal flowers, Phlox spp. range in color from white to pink and red to purple. Most species are hardy plants and easy to grow, making them both practical and pleasing to the eye. The plants do well with minimal intervention. “I water them when it’s dry,” Koehler said. “In fall, I cut them back.”

In late October of last year, when the initial frosts had already arrived in Wisconsin, several of her garden’s phlox were still blooming. Garden phlox can tolerate periods of summer heat and temperatures down to minus 30.

Koehler first planted her phlox from small potted seedlings in 2007. One variety was a red garden phlox (‘Red Riding Hood’); another, a white garden phlox (‘David’). “For the first several years they stayed small, but they grew each year with additional stems,” Koehler said.

Koehler now awaits the bloom of creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) that she planted last fall. “It’s a whole different type of plant,” she said, describing the colorful carpet-like mat it can form. Gardeners also favor the plant for its resistance to deer.

Many gardeners have found phlox to be a versatile garden plant. They can choose tall, stately plants or diminutive phlox that provide ground cover. Both reap great cut flowers.

Phlox species grow throughout the country. Damon Waitt, senior botanist at the Wildflower Center, describes them as attractive, easy to care for and widespread. Vibrant examples include the brightpink, red or white annual Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii) seen on the roadsides in the Southeast and Central Texas as well as the distinctive purplepointed phlox (Phlox cuspidata) found in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

“About 50 species of phlox exist,” Waitt says. One of the most ubiquitous is perennial phlox (Phlox paniculata). While native to North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana, this phlox spread as a cultivated plant and turned wild. It is now found throughout the United States – from western states of Utah and Washington to the Midwest and the East Coast.

Certain phlox remain rooted in a specific region. Central Texans, for instance, welcome the return of the golden-eye phlox (Phlox roemeriana), a pink flower with a golden center bordered by white. Each spring, this annual blossoms on the Edwards Plateau and the high plains of Texas.

In addition to their widespread range and colorful presentation, phlox also easily attract wildlife with the excellent nectar supply they provide. “Butterflies in particular love them,” Waitt says. The fragrant scent and color of the perennial prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), for instance, attract long-tongued bees, butterflies and skippers.

Koehler finds plenty of butterflies in her summertime garden beds of phlox. But she has found that local deer leave her phlox alone.

Although spring has not yet sprung in Wisconsin, Koehler has no doubt her phlox will make a lively return later this year. “They come back every year,” she said, making fresh, fragrant displays in the family-inspired flowerbeds she’s created.

Written by Gail Folkins, a Wisconsin-based freelance and creative writer.