In May and June, when the garden is so full of preening beauties—not there’s anything wrong with being a preening beauty, mind you—it’s easy to lose sight of the little guys. But without these modest plants, the garden would be unbearable—it would be like being trapped at a cocktail party where all the other guests were movie stars, top-ranking politicians, and Fortune 500 CEOs. It’s all a question of balance: it’s fine to grow some plants for flash and dazzle as long as there are plenty of small folk to set them off and give them a context. Small doesn’t have to mean mousy or negligible, however. Small can be elegant. Small can be exciting.
Some of the most elegant and exciting small perennials I know are Geum coccineum and its selections. (That should probably be “Geum coccineum hort.”—the “hort.” being an abbreviation of hortensis, meaning “of gardens”; in other words, a popular rather than a scientific designation—since most plants sold under that name are actually hybrids.) This group of plants (herbaceous members of the rose family) hasn’t received much attention, which is puzzling, since they are gems in several senses of the word, being easy of culture, small in size, beautiful of leaf, and adorned with brilliant flowers over a long season. My favorite is called ‘Feuermeer’, which was selected in the early 1960s by the late German nurseryman Heinz Klose. What a charmer: the rounded, pleated, deeply veined leaves overlap each other to form a neat clump about a foot across, which stays in pristine condition all through the season; in USDA Zones 6 and above, the plant is nearly evergreen. I would grow it for the foliage alone; the leafy, graceful sprays of small, radiant, red-orange flowers—delicate and bold all at once—which appear on and off all summer and into the fall, are almost too good to believe. I also like the hybrid ‘Georgenberg’, which is about half again as large in all its parts. It doesn’t stay quite as neat in growth as ‘Feuermeer’, but does have the same welcome habit of blooming all season.
These plants demand little other than a reasonably fertile, retentive, well-drained soil, full sun to partial shade, and a moderate level of moisture. (I suspect they wouldn’t be happy in blazing sun in dry, sandy soil.) In my Boston garden, they made wonderful companions for coppery-leaved heucheras and indigo Aquilegia ‘Hensol Harebell’ at the front of a sunny border, but of course you could easily use them to flatter a big, blowsy peony or Oriental poppy. Just remember: big is good, but small is good, too.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 3 (May/June 2002).