Certain plants have a habit of defining moments in the year for me. In spring it’s one particular kind of flowering cherry (the black cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’) – which is always the first tree to flower, bringing sheets of joy-giving papery pale pink blossom weeks ahead of the rest.
At this point of summer it’s the turn of a South African immigrant to mark the passage of the seasons. Gone are the safe pastel colours of early summer: the peachy hues of foxgloves and the tasteful mauves of alliums have long faded. Now it’s time for a jolt of fizzing, spitting yellows, oranges and reds, exploding forth from sword-like leaves. It’s Crocosmia time!
Crocosmias are a group of plants related (distantly) to irises. Although generally referred to as bulbs, strictly speaking they’re corms (like crocuses and gladioli) rather than true bulbs like tulips. This matters not a jot to most gardeners, although it does help explain how they grow. They form strings of corms, with the newest at the top. If you want to propagate them, divide clumps in early spring just as they start to re-grow, taking care to discard only the oldest corms. It’s worth dividing every few years as clumps can become congested and their flower power diminishes.
Despite their exotic origins in sunny South Africa, crocosmias (or montbretias, to use their old name) are definitely not drought lovers. One kind, Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora grows wild by the coast in the wetter, western half of Britain and can even be a touch invasive in these areas (the varieties available in shops tend to be much better behaved). As gardeners we can take our cue from this – keep them well-watered over summer to get the best out of them.
With their fiery flowers in shades of red, orange, gold and yellow, crocosmias combine particularly well with flowers in shades of blue, such as Salvia uliginosa and Clematis integrifolia. Their bold leaves work well with grasses too.
And finally – don’t automatically cut them back after flowering, as many have attractive seedpods which will look good through the autumn and into winter.