I love Foxtail lilies (Eremurus) which bloom in early summer and shimmer in the sunlight. NOW is the time to plant.
They come in various colours – so take your pick but they are a relatively short-lived delight so mix them with plants which will take over the show for the rest of the summer.
Here’s the low down from garden star Matthew Wilson writing for the Telegraph – which by the way always has a brilliant garden page on Saturday.
A great garden needs a varied cast of plants; the solid, reliable performers that change little but always offer something whatever the season, and the shooting stars that dominate for the briefest of moments before exiting stage right for another year.
Into the latter category falls the foxtail lily Eremurus robustus, a herbaceous colossus. A member of the lily family (Liliaceae), it comes from the semi-desert and dry grassland of the desolately beautiful Tien Shan and Pamir Mountain ranges of Central Asia.
As a result it needs three key conditions: good drainage, full sun and, in order to induce flowering, a cold snap in winter.
The root system of E. robustus is fascinating in itself, consisting of the central growing point, the crown, which is encircled by fleshy, finger-thick tapering roots. The overall impression is of a cartoon of a very large starfish. The plant grows away quickly in spring, forming a rosette of bluish-green strap-shaped leaves up to 4ft high, from which the flower spike -invariably one per crown – begins to rise during late April.
By late May the spike will have risen as high as 9ft high, more typically 7ft or so, topped with densely packed buds that gradually relax into flower from the bottom upwards. Taken singly the flowers are quite small, the petals a pale almost peachy pink eventually bleaching to white, with contrasting orangey stamens and a yellow central boss. The overall effect is quite stunning, with hundreds of lightly scented flowers – much loved by honey bees – arrayed around the top 3ft of each spike.
It is the flower spike that gives the plant its common name of foxtail lily as it is usual for the spike to wander around rather than grow straight and true.
The foxtail lily has a number of notable cousins, including the smaller, earlier flowering E. himalaicus and the compact (3ft-4ft), zingy-yellow E. stenophyllus. There are also a number of cultivars, mostly of Eremurus x isabellinus, including the bright pink ‘Rosalind’ and the orange ‘Cleopatra’.
Eremurus robustus only flowers for three weeks or so, but for that brief period it is every bit the leading player; the long wait between flowering only adds to the anticipation.
Given its provenance it should come as no surprise that Eremurus robustus needs well-drained – but not dry – soil. To help achieve this lay the crown and fleshy roots over a 1in- to 2in-deep layer of horticultural grit or sharp sand. When planted the crown should show above the surface of the soil and should never be mulched over, although the roots will benefit from the protection of mulch that stays fairly dry, such as shingle or bark.
The early growth is prone to frost damage and, although established plants will grow away without difficulty after a frost it is usually at the expense of great size. That said, the foxtail lily is a pretty tough plant and, while it will benefit from a sheltered site, it is not essential.
If the foxtail lily is happy it will produce seedlings at a healthy rate. At Hyde Hall, six Eremurus robustus planted in the late 1960s have multiplied to almost 600, and that doesn’t include the many that have been given away.
To enable the plant to self-seed leave the flower spike standing into autumn so that the seeds can ripen and drop.
Seed can also be sown in a cold frame or cool greenhouse in autumn. After flowering the plant can be divided by carefully finding the root system and gently teasing the plant free of the surrounding soil.
Because of its fleeting nature, and the fact that it stands tall using little ground space, E. robustus is easy to use in most planting schemes. It looks best growing through other plants, particularly deciduous flowering shrubs and grasses. It can also look sensational with shrub and species roses – Rosa ‘Fantin Latour’ and Rosa glauca for example – and associates well with the low-growing metallic purple Allium christophii which flowers at the same time. I have also used it effectively with the light-pink flowered Phlomis italicum and the more solid Euphorbia characias wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold’. However, my favourite combination is with the dark-cerise flower of the mid-sized Geranium psilostemon.