SOMETIMES WE just want showstopping flowers, as grand as we can grow them. Like towering sunflowers that turn their seed-laden heads to follow the path of the sun through the sky. Like exotic canna lilies, and waxy white magnolia flowers opening above our heads to waft their lemon-scented perfume around the garden.
Sound sensual? No wonder. Flowers are the sexual organs of plants. Evolved to attract pollinators, they are equally effective at attracting us. When you think of childhood gardens, do you remember leaves? It’s flowers, with their extravagant prettiness and fragrances that linger in our minds and hearts.
We won’t be growing the hugest flower of all in our temperate climate — you’ll only come across Rafflesia arnoldii in the rain forests of Indonesia. It grows 3 feet across and lives by attaching itself to a host plant and sucking up nutrients and water. The orange-speckled flower weighs up to 15 pounds, and stinks like rotting meat to attract insects to pollinate and perpetuate its huge self.
While many of the plant world’s largest flowers are tropical, we have a few big bloomers that thrive in Northwest gardens.
Itoh peonies were bred to have tree-peony-sized flowers on 3-foot-tall herbaceous plants. The flowers are so luxuriously ruffled, splotched and colored they read even larger than they are. After a few years, the flowers swamp the bush with more than 50 big blooms over their relatively short season.
Inch-for-inch, no flowers are as voluptuous as lilies, in part because most are wildly, sweetly scented. The perfume greatly enhances the effect of the flowers, which are pretty heady all by themselves. Lilium ‘Ice Dancer’ is an Oriental hybrid with slightly cupped, upward-facing flowers. In our less-than-hot climate the flowers hold their ivory-tinged-with-gold color.
I checked in with Dianna Gibson, proprietor of B&D Lilies in Port Townsend, on how to maximize flower size. No Miracle Gro, she advises. “Repeated bouts of high nitrogen can be fatal. It’s just like eating all candy and no vegetables would be for us.” Instead, she suggests fertilizing twice a year with a balanced (5-10-10) fertilizer. Water lilies deeply and regularly. Then stand back.
In his classic book “The Essential Earthman,” Washington Post garden columnist Henry Mitchell wrote that no one had yet bred a dahlia quite as large as a TV set, or as bright as an atomic bomb . . . But he hadn’t seen ‘Wildman.’ Fully a foot wide, spidery and bright orange, ‘Wildman’ is a dinner-plate dahlia that benefits, like all of its kind, from pinching back early in the season, deep watering and full sun.
If you really want to impress the neighbors, grow a hedge of 16-foot-tall ‘Sunzilla’ sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). Even way up there in the air, the flowers are awe-inspiring with their 18-inch-wide heads. ‘Sunzillas’ have been bred to have thick stems like Jack’s beanstalk to support the golden flowers, even when in autumn songbirds swing from the stalks to feast on the plump seeds.
Even a few hefty flowers create focal points and stir up garden excitement. And remember that absolute size isn’t everything. In winter, even hellebore flowers are impressive, and in earliest springtime, daffodils are as thrilling as the largest lilies of summer.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.