Botanical name: Lobelia erinus
Family: Lobeliaceae (Lobelia)
Origin: South America
Display period: Summer
Height: 12-inch cascade
Environment: Partial shade
Lobelia was a sleeper in my garden this year. Its aversion to heat had kept me from growing it. Then a "bonus" packet of Lilac Fountains seed arrived with my order from Shepherd's Seeds of Felton, Calif. The new trailing variety, introduced this season, was said to "take sun in all but the hottest regions as long as it has rich moist soil." The temptation to try the plant was too hard to resist.
Small as specks of dust, the seeds are exceedingly hard to regulate in sowing. Mine fell in clumps, hard to separate when the plants came up. Loathe to throw any away, I set out every one.
In this record-breaking hot summer, Lilac Fountains, under the added burden of exposure to the full brunt of the sun on my eighth-floor terrace, has bloomed like a champion. Flowers climb through a potentilla, covering it with constant bloom, trail down from ledges and generally fill in what would otherwise be bare spots. And insignificant through the dainty three-quarters-of-an-inch blossoms may seem individually, in a mass they're showy as can be.
The Lobelia genus also includes perennials, notably the brilliant cardinal flower (L. cardinalis) and Big Blue lobelia (L. siphilitica, from its early use as a remedy for syphillis). Introduced in the late 17th century, the plant was named for Matthias de L'Obel, an acclaimed Flemish botanist and physician to England's James I.
My lobelia turned in a performance in the blazing sun even more stellar than expected by Keith Idle, a breeding associate at Waller Flower Seed Co. Waller, the originator of Lilac Fountains, is a specialist in lobelias. In developing the variety, Mr. Keith said in a telephone interview from his base in Quadalupe, Calif., the firm was striving to create the unique lilac color, a first in lobelias. Heat tolerance has apparently occurred as a byproduct.