Phygelius are perhaps sadly frequently overlooked for their close relatives the penstemon and the foxglove. But they offer a plant that provides a substantial presence in the border, being evergreen, or at least semi-evergreen in cooler climates. They produce masses of tubular flowers in eye-catching colours over a long period, from summer into late autumn.
They are South African natives, in their natural habitat becoming shrubs or subshrubs. Often in the UK they are treated as herbaceous perennials because they can suffer when frosts hit. It is often best to
cut them down to a short woody rootstock, as with Perovskia, or even down to ground level. They will produce vigorous new stems the following spring.
P. aequalis - image: Floramedia
There are only two species of Phygelius — aequalis and capensis.
P. aequalis is the shorter of the two, usually coming in at under a metre in height. It has larger leaves than P. capensis as well as a denser inflorescence, made up of soft coral-red flowers with a lemon throat and a mahogany lip.
P. capensis can become quite a large shrub, even in the UK. If grown up against a wall it can reach heights of 1.8m. Its flowers vary from pale orange to dark red.
There are many varieties bred from the hybrid of the two species, usually referred to as P. × rectus, including ‘Devil’s Tears’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM), with dark-red buds that open to red flowers with butter-yellow throats, as well as the deep-salmon ‘African Queen’ AGM and the paler-apricot ‘Salmon Leap’ AGM.
P. × rectus ‘Winchester Fanfare’ has a lovely pinky-red flower, contrasting well with its yellow throat. ‘Moonraker’ has pale-yellow flowers that show up well against the dark-green foliage and prove luminous in partial shade.
The plants prefer a sunny situation, although dry shade will be tolerated. This will produce leggier plants, however. They benefit from being close to a warm wall and will achieve some height then.
They can also be grown in large pots or tubs in the cool greenhouse or conservatory. Being only frost-hardy it is a good idea to give plants a heavy mulch over winter to protect them. Leave cutting back until the spring when you can either cut the woody stems back by around half or all the way to the
base if necessary.
Phygelius spread by running suckers so remove these if you do not want the plant to spread too much, but they can easily be used to create new plants, which is a bonus.
P. capensis - image: Floramedia
What the specialists say
Peter Chapman, managing director, Perryhill Nurseries, East Sussex
"There are only a few species, with rather more varieties, including some hybrids. We now only grow ‘Moonraker’ and ‘Ivory Twist’, although I do like the dusky pink colour of New Sensation.
"They went through a very popular period but are apt to sucker and may die back in winter, which does put people off. They can be cut down and treated as a perennial, and will regrow and flower continually from June/July through until they stop growing. They are generally semi-evergreen but can be cut back by hard weather. The Somerford Funfair Series is a popular choice."
Liz Hughes, events and marketing, Provender Nurseries, Kent
"Phygelius tend to go in and out of fashion with numbers requested for and sold changing on an almost annual basis. Being semi-evergreen and with a long flowering period, they deserve to be more widely used.
"A few years ago varieties such as ‘Funfair Coral’ and ‘Funfair Orange’ were really popular. With fashions and tastes changing, more subtly coloured Phygelius are tending to be requested more. With more than a passing resemblance to a penstemon and with such a wide colour range available in penstemons now, Phygelius may become the poor relative over time.
"The best way to look after a Phygelius is to cut it back hard in the spring. Other than that, they are pretty easy to grow."
P. × rectus ‘Moonraker’ - image: Floramedia
Ian Garland, owner, Grangehill Landscapes, London
"I really like Phygelius. I don’t know why they are not more widely grown. They provide good ground cover with their deep-green mass of leaves and produce showy, tubular flowers that hang down. These pendent flowers are the main reason they are known as the Cape fuchsia. There are many interesting colours from pale yellow to dusky pink and my favourite, the coral reds.
"They are easy plants to grow, certainly in London. They stay pretty much evergreen and flower for a really long time. This means that they don’t allow weeds to infiltrate over autumn and winter.
"Being halfway between a shrub and perennials, they suit an easy care scheme as with shrubs as well as more intricate perennial schemes.
"For a hot coloured scheme try the dark-red ‘Devil’s Tears’ against yellow or orange achillea, day lilies and coreopsis. For a more subtle scheme try a dusky pink Phygelius like ‘Trewidden Pink’ or New Sensation against dark-purple leaved plants like Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ or Physocarpus ‘Diabolo’."
P. aequalis ‘Yellow Trumpet’ - image: Floramedia
Species and varieties
P. aequalis is a South African species that can become shrubby if it is not knocked back by the cold. If it is, it will usually come back if cut down to the ground. Has panicles of slender trumpets of soft coral-red with a lemon throat and a mahogany lip. Height: 90cm. Spread: 45cm.
P. aequalis ‘Sani Pass’ is an upright, suckering, evergreen shrub with ovate, dark-green leaves and loose panicles of nodding, cerise-pink flowers in summer. Height and spread: 90cm.
P. aequalis ‘Trewidden Pink’ AGM (H5) is an upright, semi-evergreen shrub with toothed, ovate, dark-green leaves and large panicles of tubular dusky pink flowers in summer and early autumn. Height and spread: 1m.
P. aequalis ‘Yellow Trumpet’ AGM (H5) is an upright bushy plant that features pale-green ovate leaves along with large panicles of tubular creamy yellow flowers throughout the summer months. Height and spread: 90cm.
P. capensis is another South African species, a vigorous semi-evergreen shrub with triangular-ovate leaves and nodding, tubular, bright-red flowers with yellow throats, borne in large open terminal panicles. If planted against a wall it will grow quite large, potentially up to 2.4m. Height: 1.2-2.4m. Spread: around 60cm.
P. capensis var. coccineus is a bright, red-flowered form with a more prominent yellow throat. Flowers only hang on one side of the spike. Rarely seen in cultivation but the parent of the popular hybrid P. × rectus, with P. aequalis.
P. × rectus ‘African Queen’ AGM (H5) is an upright suckering shrub with dark-green ovate leaves and large panicles of nodding, tubular, soft red flowers, yellow in the throat, in summer and autumn. Height and spread: 1.5m.
P. × rectus ‘Devil’s Tears’ AGM (H5) is a robust suckering shrub with dark-green ovate leaves and large panicles of red buds opening to pendent, tubular, deep-reddish/pink flowers with orange lobes and yellow throats. Height and spread: 1.5m.
P. × rectus ‘Moonraker’ is a lovely variety with downward curved pale creamy yellow flowers. Height and spread: 1-1.5m.
P. × rectus ‘Salmon Leap’ AGM (H5) is a suckering shrub with ovate dark-green leaves and panicles of tubular orange-red flowers in summer and autumn. Height: 1.2m. Spread: 1.5m
P. × rectus ‘Winchester Fanfare’ is a bushy upright plant with masses of mid-green leaves. It has tubular flowers in a soft reddish-pink colour, the terminal lobes brighter red round a yellow throat, borne during a long season. Height: 90cm. Spread: 60cm.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library www.floramedia-picture-library.com