When is a Montbretia not a Montbretia? ‘When it’s a Crocosmia’ would be the easy answer but a botanist’s answer is never straightforward. Montbretias were bred at the end of the 19th century in France by Victor Lemoine who crossed two vigorous South African varieties, Crocosmia pottsii and C. aurea.
The resulting plant, Montbretia, has now made itself at home up and down the Atlantic coastline, most especially in Ireland.
Here It Grows And Spreads Along The Roads And Streams
inveigling itself into any unsuspecting garden, and thence to the rest of the western world.
However, in the mid ‘sixties the late Alan Bloom took another look at the dusty old orange Montbretias and made other Crocosmia hybrids. He initially crossed C. mesonotum with C. paniculata and produced the wickedly red C. ‘Lucifer’ (AGM) that electrifies the garden in July. Its tall flower spikes are a world away from the leafy Montbretia. They flower. They are tough and hardy. And even their seed heads add structure to the border long after the flowers have faded.
And there are others. Just after the Second World War C. ‘Emily McKenzie’ was raised in the cold climes of Northumberland. Despite her larger, exotic looking flowers she has endured the northern winters well. Emily has wide open, amber flowers with a distinctive orange-red halo around the eye. Crocosmia ‘Citronella’ is another post-war favourite with yellow flowers and light green foliage. And the old hybrid C. ‘Solfatare’ is said to date back to the end of the 19th century but perhaps its slight tenderness has made it less common in our gardens. ‘Solfatare’ has bronze foliage and flowers that are the colour of apricot flesh.
To keep Lucifer company, there’s C. ‘Mephistopheles’. He’s another splendid old devil with large flame-red flowers with a central deep red eye surrounded by a yellow halo. The reverses of the petals alternate between red and orange and the whole plant are sturdy and hardy.
Within the past twenty years, as interest has exploded in this happy tribe, plant breeders are bringing us ever more gloriously sunny flowers. Crocosmia ‘Krakatoa’ erupts in floes of rich red-orange flower spikes that succeed C. ‘Lucifer’ in late July and August.
It’s smaller too, at 75cm (30ins) so planted alongside it would seize the torch from Lucifer and keep the fireworks going.
From Devon comes Crocosmia ‘Zeal Giant’ with a sturdy stature, as its name suggests, and larger, pale orange flowers with dark eyes. And among the most stylish of the true yellow-flowered forms is C. ‘Harlequin’ whose pink-orange calyxes make it jump out of the border.
If you combine these gorgeous reds, oranges and yellows with sultry purple-leaved perennials such as Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’ (AGM), they will dance. And if you place a large pot of royal blue Agapanthus among them, they will sing for you too.
Cultivation of Crocosmias
Crocosmias come from the stream sides of Southern Africa, so despite the recommendations in the old gardening books to grow crocosmias in light, sandy soil they are much happier growing in rich moist soil with plenty of organic matter, especially those with smooth leaves.
Varieties with pleated leaves such as C. ‘Lucifer’ are more tolerant of less than perfect conditions.
They all prefer sun but will put up with light shade.
Check the flowering height of the different varieties. They vary between 1.5m (5ft) and 30cm (12ins).
Most crocosmias do not invade your garden like Montbretia, but they do make big clumps over time.
Split over-large plants while they are dormant in winter, discarding the lowest growing corms.
Cut off the seed heads before they disperse to avoid rogue seedlings appearing.
The brown-leaved varieties can be a little tender.
Keep the leaves on until spring for protection.
In colder gardens give all crocosmias, brown-leaved and green, a winter mulch.