Commonly known as poor-man’s orchids these pretty flowers are no inferior choice
Flirting on the edge of the Solanum family, the beautiful schizanthus has flowers that are quite unlike the rest of the brood. Solanum flowers are usually easy to recognise, with five, fused petals and a central clump of stamens. The flowers of potatoes, tomatoes and peppers are recognisably similar and even petunias and nicotiana have obvious similarities but when we get to schizanthus any family resemblance is hard to see. The name itself means ‘split flower’ and the five, finely dissected petals and the strongly zygomorphic shape, with a distinct upper and lower part of the flower, is quite unlike most of the family.
These are annuals or biennials, native to Argentina and Chile and there are a dozen species, many of which have remarkable colouring, reminiscent of some of the species alstroemerias, native to similar habitats. Few are cultivated but S. pinnatus and S. grahamii were hybridised to create S. x wisetonensis which is the plant that is most commonly cultivated.
Robinson wrote ‘Pretty annuals of elegant growth, which bear in summer many showy and curiously-shaped flowers.’ He also wrote that they can be sown in spring or in August, comparing their cultivation to cinerarias (Perricallis).
We tend to treat them as half hardy annuals but, if you have a cool greenhouse, they are definitely worth treating as tender biennials to bloom in late spring under cover. Schizanthus dislike extreme heat and here is an annual that will actually prefer cool summer conditions – hurray!
Most varieties available these days are bred for the small commercial market of plants in flower for short-term display and they are dwarf. This is a great shame because the dwarf kinds only reach about 20cm high and though their flowers are large and often brightly coloured, less intensively bred seeds produce larger, looser plants up to 45cm high. I prefer these so my photos are of ‘Dr. Badgers’ which has smaller flowers in paler colours than more modern kinds. Flowers usually have gold or purple patterns on the upper petal and flowers can be white, pink, red and shades of purple.
Seeds can be sown in spring, at 20c, and they germinate in a few weeks. Either transplant into cell trays or transplant three or four into a 8-10cm pot (above) and grow them as a small clump. They are not hardy so need protection from frost. They grow rapidly and pinching out the growing tip can be beneficial. There are no special problems but aphids can infest young shoots. Plants usually bloom quite quickly and will be flowering by July. Unfortunately plants do not bloom for very long, a month to six weeks is normal, though if you pinch out the seedlings a lot to build up a strong plant and delay flowering, it could be longer. Unless grown hard, in good light and with little water and feed, which you are unlikely to do, they can be a bit floppy. A few twigs among them as they grow, will give them the support they need or you can just let them flop if they are growing in containers or wall planters.
Schizanthus are not a classic bedding plant and will not flower all summer. But they are easy to grow and adaptable. They are at their glorious best when sown in late summer, grown slowly over winter to fill a conservatory with colour in spring. But even grown simply for a burst of summer colour this is a delightful and exotic flower.