For summer only: Kochia
As well as growing ‘new’ plants I like to revisit old friends from time to time so this year I have grown Kochia, commonly called burning bush or summer cypress. We used to grow it when I was a child and it was used as a ‘dot’ plant among smaller bedding plants and it is perfectly suited to use among gnomes and painted concrete wishing wells. It is grown not for flowers but the neat, ‘busby’ shape of the plant, covered in fine, narrow, pale green foliage.
The ‘burning’ bit comes from the way the foliage turns crimson in autumn, just before the plant dies and it is not related to dictamnus, which actually can be set on fire.
Grown as a half-hardy annual, it presents no trouble at all, though seedlings are a bit spindly and a slight worry. But once planted out they grow up, and out, to make neat plants that contrast with other plants. They are often recommended as an annual hedge – if anyone wants such a thing.
In the wild, Kochia scoparia is a tumbleweed species, the plants breaking off at the roots and rolling around, spreading the seeds. Related to fat hen and spinach, the foliage is very nutritious and has been used as stock food but it also contains chemicals that can be poisonous if it forms the major parts of an animals diet. It was introduced to the USA for this reason and in Western Australia in the 1990s for the same reason because the plant can tolerate slightly saline soil. It began to spread and was subsequently eradicated.
It is also used to eliminate heavy metals from contaminated soils since it is very effective at absorbing them, but that also makes it less than ideal for eating – you can’t have it both ways!
In some areas this is considered a weed but the seeds do not last long in the soil, unlike some of its kin, which is probably just as well since a single plant can produce 15,000 seeds. The seeds themselves are apparently eaten in Japan and the whole plant can be used as a broom – the name scoparia means broom.
I am not sure exactly where it originated. One common name is Mexican fireweed but other references say it is Asian or Eurasian, which seems more likely.
Like everything else, it seems, kochia has been renamed and it is now Bassia scoparia. Whatever its name, I have an affection for this strange plant. The pale green leaves set off other plants perfectly and while I have no wish to recreate the effect in my garden at present I have a nostalgic hankering for beds of scarlet salvia and blue lobelia dotted with kochia, all around a neatly mown lawn. Looking at old catalogues suggests that a century ago it was lightly clipped to make it even neater – not something that is really necessary. I am in no rush to wish the summer away but it is good to know that there is an even more spectacular display to come in October.
We used to make fun of this one when we were in school, because the only pictures we had of it looked so silly. No one actually knew what it was or had encountered it anywhere. I still have never met it. It is intriguing though, because foliar color in autumn is limited here.
I will make sure I post a pic of it in its autumn finery!