In recent years we have all been encouraged to introduce more and more brightly coloured, 'muscular' plants into our gardens. These big, bold plantings are seductive in their way, but unassuming plants such as the herbaceous potentillas can bring a quiet elegance to our borders.
The famous botanist, author and artist E A Bowles of Myddleton House counted them among his favourite plants. And the French nurseryman Victor Lemoine produced many cultivars to satisfy public demand at the beginning of the last century. Few other herbaceous plants are as pest-free, undemanding and as long flowering as potentillas. Time, perhaps, for a second look.
The nepalensis cultivars are generally the largest of the herbaceous potentillas. There are a number of forms ranging in flower colour from pale pink to luxurious deep red. They produce tidy little rosettes of pretty pleated leaves, resembling those of the strawberry, and saucer-shaped flowers that begin to bloom in early summer.
While the species traipses throughout Nepal's Himalayan Mountains, this compact cultivar makes a well-groomed perennial for the garden. Venerating the former plant curator at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, 'Ron McBeath' is a beautiful new semi-dwarf cultivar that wears a coat of carmine-red, saucer-shaped single blooms, each defined by a dark crimson eye and five heart-shaped petals that are attractively crinkled like crepe paper.
Growing to 30cm (12in) tall, it makes a handsome low mound of hairy coarse-toothed strawberry-like foliage. This diminutive potentilla is valued for its long period of bloom, it repeat-flowers for months, even in shade. Sending up wands of carmine-red flowers on branched stems and flowering from June until September, it outlasts other herbaceous potentillas by far.
Potentillas are excellent filler-plants, they hold their own without displacing surrounding perennials. If started early are apt to bloom in the first year. They grow well in any reasonable soil which is not too wet. Easy, pest and disease resistant, they will repeat flower if cut back regularly. Grow in full sun, plant in groups of five or more, with each plant spaced about 30cm (12in) apart
They are fine border plants, useful in containers and look good in a sunny cottage garden, raised bed or the rock garden. Extremely cold-hardy to minus 29°C (-20°F) they are also suitable for coastal conditions.
Sowing: Sow late summer to autumn or late winter to late spring
Seed sown early will often produce flowers the same season.
Sow seed on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed compost in pots or trays. Just cover the seed with a light sprinkling of compost or vermiculite. Keep at a temperature of between 18 to 22°C (65 to 70°F)
Keep the surface of the compost moist but not waterlogged; water from beneath the tray, never directly onto the seeds. Sealing the container inside a polythene bag after sowing is beneficial. Germination should be between 14 to 30 days
When large enough to handle, transplant seedlings into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out after all risk of frost, 38cm (15in) apart. Provide any ordinary, well-drained soil in full sun.
Although drought-hardy when established, to bloom its best it should have moderate watering during the summer months. Seasonal fertilizing with an evergreen fertilizer isn't essential, but can benefit especially a clump that is in a crowded perennial garden.
The main flowering period is June, July and August and it usually continues to first frosts. If at any point it stops flowering, cut the stems back to get a second flush of leaves and buds. It might die back naturally at the end of the season otherwise cut back stems that remain to ground level in spring.
Potentilla is a long-lived plant that can be divided every three years or so, in spring.
Cottage/Informal Garden, Flower Borders and Beds, Rock gardens, Containers. Coastal.
Potentilla is a genus containing over 300 species of annual, biennial and perennial herbaceous flowering plants in the rose family, Rosaceae. Potentilla are generally only found throughout the northern continents of the world (holarctic), though some may even be found in montane biomes of the New Guinea Highlands.
Potentilla nepalensis is a species that is native to East Asia and West Himalayas, from Pakistan to Nepal. The species can be found in grazing grounds and cultivated areas, at elevations of 2,100 to 2,700 metres (6,900 to 8,900 ft) above sea level.
The genus name has its origin is the French ‘potence’ meaning ‘potent’ (strong, powerful or mighty). The origin of these words is the Latin potens, which has the same meaning. Historically it was believed to be a potent medicinal plant.
The species nepalensis means 'of or from Nepal'
Pronounced poh-ten-TILL-uh: nap-ahl-EN-sis. They are commonly called cinquefoils in English. The plants have a five-fingered arrangement of leaves, to which the name ‘cinquefoil’, meaning ‘five-leaf’ alludes.
The cultivar name honours Ron McBeath, a respected alpine grower and plant hunter, and the former assistant curator of plants at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Berwickshire in the south of Scotland is rather remote from Western China, but a large percentage of Chinese plants in cultivation have found their way to gardens via the great explorers of China. Ron McBeath, whose garden harbors many Chinese treasures, is among the foremost of the modern plant explorers.
For decades he traveled almost yearly to China to collect for Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. He spent more than 20 years at the Royal Botanic Gardens, where he oversaw herbaceous collections and databases.
Ron left RBG to found Lamberton Nursery, a rare plant nursery very near the English border. Although he has largely phased out nursery operations, he and his wife Susan have time to themselves now and have developed a marvelous private garden filled with the very best plants.
Plants named after him include Persicaria affinis 'Ron McBeath' and the wonderfully named Muscari mcbeathianum.
As an Emblem
In heraldry and in architecture, the cinquefoil emblem or 'potentilla' signified strength, power, honour and loyalty.
Depiction of the five-petalled flower appears as early as 1033, in the architecture of the church built in the village of Reulle-Vergy (Burgundy, France), two years before the reign of William the Conqueror.
From the 11th to 14th century, the word 'potence', related to Potentilla, as above, was used mainly in a military context and to describe the condition of the soul. During the time of William the Conqueror, the potentilla was used as an emblem on the coat of arms of Bardolph of Bretagne, who in 1066 was the master of the William's military engineer corps.
Other commonly used flower-like charges (called 'foils') include:-
• trefoil (with three petals),
• quatrefoil (with four petals),
• cinquefoil (with five petals),
• sexfoil (with six petals);
• The septfoil (with seven petals) appears in the arms of the 63rd Armor of the United States Army.
• The double quatrefoil (with eight petals) is in England the seldom if ever seen cadency mark of the ninth son.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 25 mg Average Seed Count 100 Seeds Family Rosaceae Genus Potentilla Species nepalensis Cultivar Ron McBeath Common Name Cinquefoil Hardiness Hardy Perennial Hardy Hardy to minus 29°C (-20°F) Flowers Carmine-red flowers, each defined by a dark crimson eye. Natural Flower Time Late June to September Foliage Serrated edged strawberry-like leaves Height 30cm (12in) Spread 30cm (12in) Position Full sun to light shade. Soil Any reasonable garden soil. Time to Sow Sow in late winter/late spring or late summer/autumn. Germination 14 to 30 days