Amazing annuals: Limnanthes

Bright and breezy and ridiculously easy, poached-egg plants are perfect for honey bees too

Named after the pioneering Scottish plant collector, David Douglas, who (probably) died by being gored by a bull in a pit in Hawaii (there is some doubt as to the exact cause), this cheerful annual is native to N W USA. Few annuals are so easy to grow, or so likely to self seed. Robinson (in The English Flower Garden – as explained in the first of these posts) wrote of Limnanthes douglasii: ‘A vigorous though dwarf hardy annual, valuable because so early:. Few annuals are hardier, severe winters not injuring it, and it requires neither a deep nor rich soil, but thrives where the earth is poor as well as in ordinary soil. It often self sows itself on light soils, and gives no further trouble. ‘

Starting at the beginning – you can sow the large seeds in spring, from March to June. There is no need to sow in trays or in extra heat. Seedlings appear quickly and soon produce rosettes of ferny, pale green foliage. Within a few months these branch out and start to bloom. The whole plants are rather brittle and fleshy and each lax shoot produces a succession of yellow, white-edged flowers. Grown well the soil is covered in a mass of flowers and honey bees adore them. The plants grow to about 15cm high but if they find something to slump against they will reach 30cm. Each plant will fling stems in all directions to make a clump 45cm across but they usually get entangled in a carpet of stems and blooms.

Like many annuals, the display is glorious but not long-lived and after a month things go downhill fast. Sown in March or April, flowers are a memory and the leaves withered, by late August. But by then a zillion seeds will have fallen to the ground and, come the gentle autumn rains (LOL) these germinate and over winter the soil will be covered with fresh green foliage. These overwintering plants withstand the cold and then start to grow again and bloom in April. And then everything is repeated every year. The flowering period will be slightly longer from autumn-sown seeds because the plants will be bigger and stronger but the big failing of the plant is that you get bare soil in July-September.

Although I have always known this plant as poached-egg plant, which is a perfectly sensible descriptive name, in its homeland is know as meadow foam. Seeds of the closely related L. alba is the source of meadow foam oil which is very stable and has a range of uses including cosmetics. It is also said that honey from the flowers tastes of marshmallow. There is a white form of L. douglasii too, confusingly called var. rosea. I cannot say with certainty that is or is not the same as L. alba. In any case it seems less attractive than the simple yellow and white plant. There is also a white, yellow and yellow and white mixture sometimes sold – if that makes sense!

After reading that this is a plant that will leave you with a midsummer gap, you may be less enthusiastic about it than me. But it does have the very useful ability to fill the spring-to-summer gap, like many traditional biennials. In the past I have interplanted swathes of limnanthes seedlings with pansies, forget-me-nots and wallflowers and you can pop tulips between them in autumn too. While you may not want to allow limnanthes to dominate great areas of your best borders it could usefully colonise under hedges and in gravel. On the other hand, if you like a natural style of border and do not have to remove every plant that you have not carefully sited, it is useful and beautiful around herbaceous plants. It could be allowed to seed around peonies, where it will peak before the peonies are in bloom and then be covered with peony growth as it dies. It would be useful around deciduous grasses such as miscanthus, covering the ground before the grasses get into their stride, useful around hardy geraniums as they get going and even over daffodils where they will cover the dying leaves.

Even if you are not completely convinced about letting it have its head in your garden, it is worth trying at least once, knowing that you will be making the (honey) bees happy.

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3 Comments on “Amazing annuals: Limnanthes”

  1. tonytomeo
    January 3, 2021 at 7:25 am #

    ‘Midsummer gap’ is common among many chaparral and desert annuals anyway, but it does not prevent them from being grown. California poppy and sky lupine work like that.

  2. Annabel
    January 3, 2021 at 9:41 am #

    From all the annuals you’ve described so far this is the first one I really did not know anything about. There is this gap in may/june between the spring bulbs/ wallflowers and lupin and the rest of the garden which I like to bridge better, so if I’m not successful this year I’ll keep ‘poached egg’ in my head.

    • thebikinggardener
      January 4, 2021 at 3:48 pm #

      When it self-sows it is usually in bloom as the wallflowers go over so it may be useful 🙂

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