Phlomis

Phlomis is a versatile genus, including numerous hardy shrubs and herbaceous perennial types that make it a popular garden plant.

Phlomia Russelliana - image: Floramedia
Phlomia Russelliana - image: Floramedia
They produce whorls of flowers in shades of yellow and lilac often spaced at intervals along the upright stems, which is an attractive feature. The seed heads can be left on in winter to add extra interest in the frost.

Phlomis also have interesting foliage. Many have sage-green coloured leaves, but there are also some towards to green end of the spectrum. There are several with a white woolly coating, such as P. lanata Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and P. italica, whose leaves are also aromatic.
Others are more rough, such as P. russeliana AGM.

They have great form, which makes them very popular with garden designers. P. russeliana, with its robust clump of heart-shaped foliage and stiff stems of lemon- yellow flowers, is a firm favourite with Chelsea Gold medallist Tom Stuart Smith. P. tuberosa ‘Amazone’, which has those striking dark stems and contrasting lilac flowers, is a often used by Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf in his schemes.

Because the shrubby types — including the robust P. fruticosa AGM — hail from the Mediterranean region and neighbouring countries and are found in dry and rocky habitats, they prefer a position in the sun with excellent drainage. They can even tolerate poor, gravelly soils.
Cut them back after flowering to maintain their shape.

The herbaceous species also like sun and well-drained soil. The species P. samia and P. russeliana, with their larger leaves, can tolerate light shade. Tidy gardeners can cut the spent stems down in the autumn but those who like creating elegant shapes in the winter frosts would do better to leave them until the spring.

Phlomis, particularly the silver/sage-green leaved varieties, look great in a mixed border alongside other drought-tolerant, silver foliage plants and against blue, purple or black tones such as Salvia guaranitica, Actaea ‘James Compton’ and Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’. The herbaceous types work in settings from cottage gardens to late summer borders with a mix of perennials and grasses. Both P. russeliana and P. samia form effective ground cover.

Shrubby Phlomis can be propagated by softwood cuttings in the summer or by semi ripe cuttings in a sandy compost mix in the autumn. Perennial Phlomis can be divided in autumn or spring. Be careful with P. tuberosa because it has brittle tubers.

What the specialists say

? Matthew Tanton Brown, plant centre manager, The Place for Plants, Suffolk

"Phlomis is a tough plant, generally ideal for the garden, where its felted silver/grey leaves help to protect it from the harsh rays of the sun. It thrives well on any but the heaviest soils and does not mind being cut back as long as it is only to young growth because cutting into old wood often kills it. They are short-lived, usually 10 to 12 years, and then need replacing.

"They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. P. fruticosa is usually the easiest to obtain and most often the hardiest, with masses of bright-yellow flowers that some people find too garish. P. italica is softer/weaker and generally less hardy, but is my favourite for its subtlety — it has attractive pale-pink flowers and silver felted leaves that make a lovely combination. It is a good contrast plant in the border, complementing mauve/purple and blue flowers especially — for example, alliums and geraniums.

"Phlomis have not enjoyed the past three winters. They are quite brittle and so need to be shaken regularly to remove the weight of snow. They dislike wet soil and rot very quickly if kept too wet in pots.

"This spring has been a challenge. While young, they can be leggy and often flop over so it is a good idea to sacrifice the flowers for the first year to create a good strong base to the plant by regularly tipping out."

? David Ward, nursery manager, Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex

"The genus Phlomis is widely known as a group of evergreen Mediterranean shrubs valuable for dry, sunny sites. Slightly lesser known but still excellent garden plants are the herbaceous Phlomis. They all have distinct whorls of flowers and are long lived plants once established.

"Of the shrubby forms, P. italica from the Balearic Islands with its narrow, woolly-white leaves and lilac-pink flowers is always a feature in our dry, gravelly soil as is P. chrysophylla AGM, a taller more rounded shrub with a yellowish tinge to its felty-grey foliage and strong yellow flowers during early summer.

"The herbaceous forms are our favourites, with P. russeliana such a useful, easily-grown plant — its leaves forming a dense ground cover in all but the poorest of soils. It bears stout stems with whorls of creamy-yellow flowers that are charming alongside pink and blue hardy geraniums. We always leave some spent flower stems as a winter feature.

"P. tuberosa ‘Amazone’ is also an amazing feature plant, forming a leafy clump with stiff upright dark-stained stems and distinct whorls of lilac flowers, again left standing after flowering as an autumn feature."

In practice

? Daniel Leighton, head gardener, the Old Vicarage, Upottery, Devon

"I couldn’t do without P. russelliana in the garden. It looks great 365 days of the year and pretty much takes care of itself. It seeds around nicely, fits into any gap and doesn’t crowd out its neighbours. Its herbaceous so never turns into an unruly sub-shrub that is impossible to prune.

"Something to be aware of is that Phlomis can cause irritation to the nose and throat, so it is a good idea to wear masks when pruning. This is usually carried out in early spring and often again after flowering."

Species and varieties

? P. cashmeriana is an herbaceous perennial that has a basal growth of rough textured leaves and erect stems that carry whorls of soft-lilac/mauve flowers between June and July. Height: 1m. Spread: 60cm.
? P. chrysophylla AGM (H3) is a small, rounded evergreen shrub with sage-like ovate leaves that become yellow-green in summer. Clusters of claw-shaped golden yellow flowers are produced in midsummer. Height and spread: 1.25m.
? P. ‘Edward Bowles’ is probably a cross between P. russeliana and P. fruticosa. Its a robust, small sub-shrub with large, downy heart-shaped leaves and whorls of pale-yellow flowers in summer. Height: 100-120cm.
? P. fruticosa AGM (H4) is a spreading evergreen shrub with whorls of bright-yellow flowers on erect shoots, above sage-like, grey-green ovate leaves. Flowers in June and July. Height: 1.3m. Spread: 1.5m.
? P. italica is a small evergreen shrub with white, woolly, aromatic leaves and upright stems encircled at intervals with whorls of hooded, lilac-pink flowers. It flowers in late summer. Height: 30cm. Spread: 60cm.
? P. lanata AGM (H3-4) is a compact evergreen shrub with woolly, grey-green leaves, with whorls of deep-yellow flowers in summer. Height: 50cm. Spread: 1m.
? P. longifolia is an evergreen shrub with dark-green leaves and rich- yellow flowers from June to August. Has a tendency to get leggy. Height: Up to 90cm.
? P. russeliana AGM (H4) is a vigorous, spreading, herbaceous perennial. The broad rough-textured grey-green leaves form a dense mound from which rise tall, erect stems bearing whorls of hooded, soft- yellow flowers. Flowers are produced from late spring to early autumn. Height: 90cm. Spread: 75cm.
? P. tuberosa ‘Amazone’ is a herbaceous perennial type growing from tuberous roots. It features tall, dark, upright stems that bear whorls of lilac-pink flowers at intervals throughout July and August. The leaves are large and downy. Height: 120cm. Spread: 90cm.
? P. tuberosa ‘Bronze Flamingo’ is a shorter version of ‘Amazone’. It produces ruby-red stems clothed in whorls of lilac flowers above dark- green woolly foliage. Height and spread: 90cm.

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