University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article


PERENNIAL PLANT FEATURE--SPEEDWELLS
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
If you’re not familiar with speedwells (Veronica), you’re missing out on a large group of easy-care, long blooming perennials.  The dozens of cultivars (cultivated varieties) are either spreading or upright, spring or summer blooming, and although mainly blue to purple they may be found in pink or white as well. Their leaves vary too, from glossy to hairy, smooth to toothed margins, and rounded to lance-shaped.
           
The spreading speedwells generally reach 2 to 3 feet wide.  Being low to the ground they are best along fronts of borders, walks, raised wall gardens, rock gardens, or as ground covers.  Species, and their cultivars, more commonly seen of the spreading types are the alpine (V. alpina), harebell (V. prostrata), creeping (V. repens), comb (V. pectinata), and gentian (V. gentianoides) speedwells.  Most of these bloom in spring or early summer, so they combine well with spring-flowering bulbs.  Since they are without blooms most the summer, it is important to choose selections with good vigor and attractive leaves. 
            
Unlike the spreaders that form a mat of leaves, with distinct flowering stems rising above these, the upright clump-forming speedwells have flowers at the ends of leafy stems.  Upright types often have a tuft of basal leaves too, especially over winter.  Although the flowering stems of all speedwells resemble and are usually called “spikes”, they  botanically are “indeterminate racemes”.  What this means is that the flowers along the stem open beginning at the bottom.  At any one time one-quarter to one-half of the flowers will be open, with some spent flowers and future buds present at the same time.
           
The upright speedwells generally vary from one to 3 feet tall, depending on selection.  Since these mainly bloom in mid summer, they combine with many other summer-blooming perennials such as yarrow, perennial geraniums and catmints.  Popular upright species, and their cultivars, are the long-leaved (V. longifolia), spiked (V. spicata), and Hungarian (V. austriaca) speedwells.  Once flowers are finished, if they are cut off or “deadheaded”, smaller flowering sideshoots may be produced. 
          
 Speedwells are in the figwort family, related to the snapdragon, foxglove, and penstemon.  Although they come from a variety of habitats in the Northern Hemisphere, from alpine meadows to grasslands and oak forests, they share a couple of cultural requirements.  Most prefer sunny locations, less light resulting in poor vigor, open habit, and floppiness for taller plants.  Most only need dividing in spring if they have lost vigor with age.

They prefer moist, but well-drained soils.  Too wet soils cause leaf diseases, loss of lower leaves, and root rots. The mid-summer blooming, upright speedwells can be cut back to the ground after bloom if the foliage is infected.  They will regrow and, if a warm season, may even have some reblooming.
           
In an attempt to answer which of the many speedwells are best for northern gardeners, Richard Hawke at the Chicago Botanic Garden (USDA zone 5b) conducted a trial of over 5 dozen selections between 1999 and 2009.   In addition to noting flowering, habit and size, for final ratings he took into account their winter hardiness and resistance to leaf diseases.  Common on some speedwells are powdery and downy mildews, leaf spots, and leaf rust diseases.
           
The top rated speedwells in the Chicago trials were the pale pink ‘Fairytale’, the pink ‘Giles Van Hees’, the pale blue ‘Ionian Skies’ (austriaca), the lavender blue ‘Blue John’ (longifolia), the pink ‘Baby Doll’ (spicata), the purple blue ‘Ulster Blue Dwarf’ (spicata), and a purple blue American alpine species (wormskjoldii).   These all had no serious pest or disease problems, and good winter survival on the somewhat wet soils.

The top-rated speedwells all were upright, but represented a range of heights.  Over 2 feet tall were ‘Fairytale’, Giles Van Hees’, and ‘Blue John’.  The others were about one foot high, except for ‘Baby Doll’ which reached about 18 inches. ‘Ionian Skies’ was the only one to bloom in late spring and early summer.  The others bloomed slightly later, then rebloomed in fall.

There were 18 other speedwells that rated slightly less, but still good.  Most were upright except for 7 spreading selections.  The pale blue ‘Pallida’ (gentianoides) was spreading but about 2 feet tall and wide.  The others were 9 inches or less tall, and spread over 2 feet.  These top ones included the lavender blue ‘Blue Reflection’, the pale blue ‘Waterperry Blue’, one blue species (pectinata) and one white (peduncularis), the blue ‘Blue Eyes’ (pinnata), and the pale purple ‘Mrs. Holt’ (prostrata). 

Almost 4 dozen of the speedwells in these trials had some, to serious, winter injury due to the wet and sometimes poorly drained soils.  This included some popular cultivars, such as ‘Sunny Border Blue’, pointing to the real need for good soil drainage for these perennials.

The complete results of these trials, as well as of many other perennial genera, can be found online under the Research section at the Chicago Botanic Garden (www.chicago-botanic.org/research/plant_evaluation/#notes).
 

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