Attractive foliage and colourful flowers on wiry stems make these plants ideal for use in borders, says Miranda Kimberley.

S. obtusa - image: Floramedia
S. obtusa - image: Floramedia

The lovely sounding genus Sanguisorba provides some real gems because they are plants with both attractive foliage and colourful catkin flowers atop wiry stems. There are varieties in a range of heights for the front and back of the border and they look excellent in front of grasses. The barely-there nature of the stems means you can look through to the plants behind and the flowers look as though they are floating.

There are around 30 species of Sanguisorba in the Rosaceae family. They are all hardy perennials, forming clumps of pinnate leaves with serrated edges, some with a glaucous colour. Their heights range from 30cm to 1.8m.

The flowers are generally bottlebrush-like, often compared to catkins, but a few such as S. minor have small knobbly heads made up of a cluster of flowers. Flower colour ranges from white through to pink or red, including lovely light-lavender pinks and richest maroons.

S. minor is the salad burnet, an edible plant whose young leaves are used in salads or dressings and have a light cucumber scent. It was one of the plants taken to America by the first English colonists. A somewhat taller species is S. hakusanensis, a plantsman’s favourite for the fluffy pendulous pink catkins. There is a highly rated variety called ‘Lilac Squirrel’, for obvious reasons.

Taller species include S. menziesii, which has nice glaucous, scalloped foliage, and S. officinalis — the great burnet — both reaching around 1.5m in stature.

Most sources state that Sanguisorba need a moist soil. However, National Collection holder Brian Ellis insists that any good fertile soil in full sun will do very nicely. His other tip is that plants should always be divided in spring, not autumn. The taller varieties can flop over so either stake or plant them against stronger-stemmed plants.

In terms of design, Sanguisorba come highly recommended for schemes with grasses and/or prairie plants. Knoll Gardens owner Neil Lucas suggests some nice combinations with grasses, such as the tall S. tenuifolia up against Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’, or the shorter S. ‘Pink Tanna’ up against Molinia or Deschampsia. The shorter forms such as the nicely compact
S. ‘Tanna’, which has lovely dark-red flowers on short stems, can be used as ground cover or even as an edging plant next to paving.

What the specialists say

Brian Ellis, owner, Avondale Nursery, Coventry

"We grow around 80 varieties of Sanguisorba and are the National Collection holder for the genus. They have interesting foliage and amusing names such as ‘Stand Up Comedian’ and ‘Pink Tickler’.

"But their main feature is the flowers, from white through shades of pink to rich maroon. They are held above tidy mounds of foliage and resemble tiny drumsticks, catkins or fluffy squirrel tails.

"Perhaps the best of all of them is S. hakusanensis ‘Lilac Squirrel’, which has the largest catkins. They are trying to be pink with a lavender overlay. I also like S. ‘Stand Up Comedian’, whose leaves are so shiny that they look like they’ve been sprayed with hair lacquer and have interesting red stems and white bottlebrush flowers. S. ‘Red Thunder’ is one that designers use a lot for its deep black/red drumstick heads. I also recommend S. ‘Ivory Towers’, which flowers for months and dies well — its white flowers turning a greeny white.

"With heights varying from 30cm to 180cm, they are useful for both the front and back of the border.

But I generally plant them at the front as the foliage clump is low and you can see through the stems and flowers to the plants behind."

Neil Lucas, owner, Knoll Gardens, Dorset

"Sanguisorba are really great plants that are easy to grow and long-lived. They provide a delicate touch of colour and form in a variety of colour shades and, very usefully, at a variety of different heights. When seen up close, the flowers are quite amazingly beautiful.

"They have a lighter overall effect than the more heavy perennials, such as Eupatorium, and are valued exactly for this reason. They associate particularly with grasses where their lightness of touch can provide a hint of colour and at a variety of heights.

"S. tenuifolia, for example, contrasts really well with fluffy panicums such as P. ‘Heavy Metal’, whereas shorter forms like ‘Pink Tanna’ work very effectively at the front of plantings in association with pennisetums, Molinia and Deschampsia.

"A possible drawback is that the taller forms especially can fall over — at least while young and establishing — and while they can be staked we don’t stake in the garden here so have learnt to plant them next to more solid-stemmed companions that will hold them up."

Claire Austin, owner, Claire Austin Hardy Plants, Newtown

"As a border plant, I highly rate Sanguisorba. They are easy to grow in soils that do not dry out entirely, long-lived and very hardy.

"There are lots of varieties to choose from, the tallest of which provide a see-through effect wherever they are grown in a border. The shortest are great for ground cover. Of the many I grow, I particularly like S. ‘Pink Tanna’, S. officinalis ‘Tanna’ and S. menziesii.

"Grow them in a soil that does not dry out. Beware, they cross pollinate easily so are unlikely to come true from seed unless you are sure of your source. Do not grow S. dodecandra — it spreads like wildfire."

In practice

John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS Plant Centres
"Wisley Plant Centre holds a range of just under 20 different species and cultivars throughout the season. These can be found in the A-Z section, with the main emphasis at flowering time, using them as impulse displays — but keep the tall plants down low so your customers can appreciate the flowers.

"Our customers love tall flowering perennials and S. officinalis ‘Arnhem’ is one of their favourites. It’s a selection from the Netherlands with clear red button-like flowers on wiry stems carried above neat divided foliage. Our biggest seller is S. ‘Tanna’, followed by S. tenuifolia var. alba."

Species and varieties

S. canadensis is a tall,
clump-forming perennial with pinnate leaves composed of narrowly oblong leaflets and bottlebrush-like white flower spikes in the summer and early autumn. Height: 2m.

S. ‘Cangshan Cranberry’ produces rich burgundy flowers on thin reddish stems between August and October. Height: 1.5m.

S. hakusanensis produces pendulous pink catkin-like flowers on upright stems in midsummer. Height: 90cm-1.2m.

S. menziesii has glaucous, scalloped foliage and tall stems bearing dense, oval, crimson/maroon flower spikes in summer and early autumn. Height: 1.5m.

S. minor, or the salad burnet, is an edible perennial that forms a rosette of toothed leaflets and produces knobbly clusters of crimson flowers, blooming from early summer through to autumn, followed by burred fruit. The foliage gives out a cucumber scent when crushed. Height: 60cm.

S. obtusa forms low mounds of lacy grey/green leaves bearing bottlebrush spikes of soft-pink flowers in the summer months. Height: 70-90cm.

S. officinalis, great burnet, forms a compact clump of pinnate leaves with rounded or oblong leaflets and maroon flower spikes in summer and early autumn. Height: 1.5m.
S. officinalis ‘Shiro-fukurin’ produces broad serrated leaves with a sparkling white edge and burgundy flowers between June and September. Height: 90cm-1.2m.
S. officinalis ‘Red Thunder’ is a designer favourite with deep-red bobble-like flowers on wiry stems and attractive foliage. Height: 1.5m.
S. officinalis ‘Arnhem’ produces clumps of divided leaves and tall wiry stems topped with open heads of brick-red bobble-like flowers in summer. Height: 1.8m.

S. ‘Pink Tanna’ has erect stems topped with densely packed, dark-pink flower heads with pale-pink stamens in midsummer. Forms nice mounds of attractive fern-like foliage. Height: 90cm.

S. ‘Tanna’ is a lovely compact form that produces spires of dark-red blooms above crimped, blue/grey foliage from summer through to autumn. Height: 50cm.

S. tenuifolia ‘Pink Elephant’ produces long rich-pink flowers on long stems above nicely divided grey/green leaves. Tall enough to be planted at the back of a border. Height: 1.2m.

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


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