Nancy Brachey

Leadwort and cardinal flower are pretty surprises in August

Distinctive red spikes of cardinal flower appear in shady areas in August
Distinctive red spikes of cardinal flower appear in shady areas in August Observer file photo

It is always nice to see perennials begin to bloom about now. This lift to our spirits comes just at the right time, when midsummer’s flowers begin to wane. We need to see something fresh and new, especially in this dry, broiling summer.

Two simple perennials will do this for us. Both are widely sold, reliable and easy to grow. Leadwort is a beautiful cobalt blue and cardinal flower is bright red.

Both are distinctive for their beautiful colors, but they are very different.

Leadwort is a low and spreading ground cover, but not invasive. It is well suited for the front corners of a flower bed, where it should grow 6 to 12 inches tall. Plant leadwort in groups of three or more, each set 1 foot apart, for a ground-cover effect.

The round flowers bloom at the top of wiry stems bearing dark green leaves that have a bronze tinge and turn red in the fall. This color combination is very pretty, and stands out nicely at the edge of flower beds from late summer into early autumn.

Leadwort performs best in the Piedmont with afternoon shade. I grew it for a time in a hot western exposure and it died out in a couple of years.

While it is considered semi-evergreen in areas farther south, it tends to lose all its leaves here and should be cut back lightly in late fall. This is also the time to mark its location with a plant stake or golf tee because leadwort is late to break dormancy in spring and you don’t want to risk digging it up accidentally during spring planting.

Often this plant shows up in the marketplace now because the flowers are so pretty and distinctive and people are always looking for something fresh and new for their flowerbeds. You can plant and enjoy leadwort now or wait until fall or next spring and look for plants then.

The cardinal flower is totally different in appearance. It grows in part to full shade and is a good plant for shady gardens. It produces spikes bearing bright red flowers that can reach 2 to 3 feet tall.

It is also a problem solver. Cardinal flower grows well in quite damp soil, and that’s a place where it is hard to find something good to plant. While most people don’t have a bog, they often have a place that stays pretty wet much of the time, such as near a creek, where it is also usually shady.

While a white variety exists, cardinal flower is best in the vivid red form that gave it its name. Plant some in spring or fall.

Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. My grass is in terrible shape. What should I be doing now to prepare it for replanting in September?

A. If there are weeds, the first task is to get rid of them. If you are using a weed killer, it is best to do that now, well ahead of grass-sowing time. Some weeds can simply be dug up with a trowel, but you can wait for cooler weather – which we all hope will arrive soon.

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