These perennials offer fantastic foliage and beautiful sprays of flowers in the springtime, writes Miranda Kimberley.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Dawson's White' - image: Floramedia
Brunnera macrophylla 'Dawson's White' - image: Floramedia

Although it may not be considered a showstopper, Brunnera is nonetheless a fantastic foliage plant throughout the growing season that provides beautiful sprays of forget-me-not-like blue or white flowers in the spring and occasionally into summer.

The genus resides in the Boraginaceae family, which explains its hairy leaves and azure-blue flowers. The plants are rhizomatous perennials and native to the woodlands of Eastern Europe and north-west Asia.

There are said to be only three species of Brunnera, of which only B. macrophylla is widely grown in the UK. B. sibirica is rarely seen but is said to be semi-rhizomatous and more vigorous than B. macrophylla.

Also known as the Siberian bugloss, B. macrophylla is an undemanding perennial that produces heart-shaped green leaves that start small. In the spring, flower stems rise above the mound of foliage and hold dainty sprays of vivid blue flowers. After flowering the leaves increase in size, providing excellent ground cover. It is a plant that copes well in dry shade, which is of course one of the holy grails of gardening.

However, if grown in more moist soil you will be rewarded with more luxuriant growth.

Many excellent cultivars have been bred. B. macrophylla ‘Langtrees’ was one of the first, in the 1960s, with its ring of metallic silvery spots. But it was a sport of this that became the out-and-out star of the genus — ‘Jack Frost’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM), a favourite to this day for its silvery-white leaves that have a green margin and veins. It is probably also the longest flowering, starting in February and going on until June. Another sport from ‘Jack Frost’ produced ‘Looking Glass’ AGM, a plant with even more silvery leaves, giving a luminous effect, especially against dark-leaved plants.

B. macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’

I recently saw quite a variety on the nursery benches of Great Comp Garden in Sevenoaks, including ‘Silver Heart’, ‘Sea Heart’ and ‘Silver Spear’ — all lovely but subtly different. It made me want to branch out and try new varieties instead of falling back on ‘Jack Frost’. There is also a white-flowered Brunnera, ‘Betty Bowring’. The flowers contrast beautifully against the dark-green foliage, and are plentifully produced and held for a long period.

Because its native habitat is the mountain forests of the Caucasus, its ideal conditions are a cool temperature, moist air and a rich soil. But B. macrophylla is known to tolerate dry conditions well once established. Full or partial shade is recommended. The variegated-leaved varieties do best in fuller shade, where their colouring stands out more strongly. They are susceptible to scorch in windy positions. Remove dying foliage in the autumn, or it remains to rot on the plant.

Plant Brunnera at the front of a border en masse, in woodland gardens, along paths, streams or ponds, or under the canopy of deciduous trees. They also do well in containers.

B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’

What the specialists say

David Ward, garden and nursery director, The Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex

"Brunnera are easily satisfied, adaptable and long-lived perennials for part or full shade. They are charming when in fresh leaf and flower but even more valuable as a summer foliage plant. All having large, heart-shaped leaves, many new forms with varying degrees of silvering.

"I love the simplicity of B. macrophylla in either blue or the less common white form, B. macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’.

Good forms of the variable silver spotted B. macrophylla ‘Langtrees’ are worth seeking out.

"The creamy yellow edged, Eric Smith-raised B. macrophylla ‘Hadspen Cream’ is the finest of
the truly variegated forms. Whilst B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has become one of our best-selling spring-flowering plants, there are many other silver-leaved forms appearing, with B. macrophylla ‘Alexanders Great’ looking an impressive sight.

"Slugs can devastate the foliage, although if they get there first then just cut all leaves off — they will soon reshoot. Foliar nematodes can cause unsightly brown spots, most visible on silver-leaved cultivars, although some new selections such as B. macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’ are reported to be resistant."

B. macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’

In practice

Maryanne Deakin, owner, The Tiny Garden Centre, Kent

"Brunnera is a staple plant for the spring display because its airy sprays of blue flowers, held on tall stems, and variegated foliage stand out beautifully on the garden centre’s planteria bench.

"The varieties can be hard for the customer to distinguish between because the silver or creamy variegations can be quite similar, but we like to offer the choice as there are some good new varieties out there, like B. macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’, which has thicker leaves making it less susceptible to scorch.

"They are like Myosotis in providing a haze of blue flowers in the springtime from which bulbs
can emerge. Later in the summer they continue to provide a lovely mat of foliage, which suppresses weeds and brightens up areas under trees and shrubs."

B. macrophylla ‘Hadspen Cream’

Species and varieties

B. macrophylla is an herbaceous perennial that forms a very attractive clump of large, mid- to deep-green heart-shaped leaves. Sprays of forget-me-not-like small blue flowers are a fantastic addition to the border in spring. Height and spread: 45cm.

B. macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’ stands out for producing sprays of pure-white forget-me-not-like flowers, instead of the usual blue, above large matt-green leaves. Height: 45 cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Dawson’s White’ has long-stemmed, heart-shaped leaves that are boldly variegated, deep-green and creamy white, some almost entirely white. Needs careful placing, protected from sun scorch or wind damage, in soil that never dries out. Height: 30 cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Diane’s Gold’ (PBR) is a new American cultivar with distinctively yellow heart-shaped foliage that holds colour well into the summertime. Pale-blue forget-me-not-like flowers are produced over a long period during mid-to-late spring. Will survive dryish shade once it has established. Height and spread: 30cm.

B. macrophylla ‘Hadspen Cream’ AGM (H6) produces large, light-green, heart-shaped leaves that are irregularly margined with yellowish cream. Gentler colouring than ‘Dawson’s White’ and easier to grow well, but needs partial shade and retentive soil. Height: 45cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ (PBR) AGM (H6) is by far the most popular Brunnera variety. Its heart-shaped leaves are almost totally silvered, enhanced with a fine network of green veins and edged with a narrow green rim, providing fantastic contrast against green-leaved plants. Height: 45cm. Spread: 60cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Langtrees’ is a variety with large, rough-textured, heart-shaped leaves that are bordered with a pattern of silvery-grey spots. Long sprays of forget-me-not blue flowers are produced for weeks in the spring. Height: 45cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ (PBR) AGM is a stunning new sport from B. macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. It features large heart-shaped silver leaves with narrow green rims and produces masses of blue forget-me-not flowers in spring. The leaves actually appear to shimmer and stand out luminously, especially against dark-leaved plants. This grows best in a well-drained soil.
B. macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’ (PBR) is a choice variety because of its dense clumps of shimmering, silvery foliage with distinct grey-green veining. Because the leaves of this variety are particularly thick, it reduces the risk of scorch. Sprays of both pale-blue and pink forget-me-not-like flowers are produced throughout spring. Height: 30cm. Spread: 60cm.
B. macrophylla ‘Silver Heart’ (PBR) is a lovely new hybrid with compact heart-shaped leaves that have silver centres and green edges. It remains a neat and tidy plant, flowering all spring and often with repeat flowers again in late summer. Easy to grow in part shade and a moist soil.

B. sibirica is a newly introduced species that is much stronger-growing and semi-rhizomatous.
It bears blue flowers from April to May. Height: 45cm.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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