In the garden: caryopteris

One blue tucked up against another blue makes artists of us all.
Crosscut archive image.

<i>Caryopteris divaricata</i>

One blue tucked up against another blue makes artists of us all.

One of the great unexpected gifts of meditation retreats has been the consequent energy and drive to tie up loose ends in my life when I get home. Last weekend I did a retreat in Seattle at the Blue Heron Zen Center with Zen Master Ji Bong, a classic Zen monk if ever there was one. A professor of music in California and a jazz and blues musician from New Orleans, Ji Bong is about as clear-eyed as they come. Driving between Eugene and Seattle, I was reminded of two things:

  1. Six hours of driving each way, even with rest stops and an audio book, feels like forever after hour four.
  2. The Seattle area is beautiful beyond words. The mountains. The trees. The water. Sunsets over Mt. Rainier. Sunrises over the eastern side of Lake Washington. That I can say this even after sitting on 405, the hell bardo at rush hour on Friday, and then again on I-5 when I foolishly tried to leave the city on a Celine Dion concert night, is a genuine tribute to the beauty of the place.

Making it home, retreat energy propelled me to send a children's book that has been in the refrigerator for months (a writer's thing ... if the house burns down, at least the manuscript will be safe ....) off to Authorhouse. The postponed for as many months trip to Verizon for a phone battery happened. I called my mom. Last on the loose end list is digging up four square feet of lawn that I have been meaning to dig up since, okay, last October.

In the lawn's place, I'm putting in caryopteris. Every year, as the growing season comes to what feels like a screeching halt, I head for a last tour of the nurseries to say 'thank you' and 'please stay in business if you can.' Toward that end, I'm skilled at conjuring up the need to buy one last plant. This fall, I'm planning to figure out how to do small-scale grain raising in what will soon be a grass-free corner (more on this during the blogs of winter), starting next spring. In the meantime, and in case grain raising turns out to be way over my head, a caryopteris is my placeholder of choice.

This plant, at least in its most popular form, the blue mist shrub, is really blue. A blue aster crossed with crayola blue. In other words, "true blue." It is compact, easy to grow, doesn't need much water, and loves sun. At the same time, it can survive moist soils, a boon to anyone gardening in the Northwest. The perfect border plant, growing anywhere from three to six feet high, the shrub can make a rock garden sing and happily tuck into that part of a garden you just don't know how to fill. It plays well with asters, black-eyed susans, butterfly bushes, stonecrops. Coryopsis. Coneflowers. For me, its best friend is campanula. There is just something about one blue tucked up against another blue that makes artists of us all.

These are shrubs that don't get diseases. Pests don't like them. They smell like heaven. If there is any better end-of-the-season gift for the garden, I can't imagine what it is.

Actually, I can't understand why the caryopteris hasn't earned rock star status. Britain's Royal Horticulture Society has given it at least seven Awards of Garden Merit. Curators at the Gardens of Villa Taranto in Italy's Piedmont region have purposefully sent plants to fellow curators in an effort to introduce it to the rest of us. It is beloved in Asia, particularly in Korea where the "Blue Billows" variety is a favorite of gardeners in the know.

Have I mentioned how much bees and butterflies love it?

It gets better. There are a number of varieties of the caryopteris — from the Dark Night to Sunshine Blue, each one offering their own private pleasures. For Dark Night, the pleasure is its gray-green foliage with dark blue, spikey flowers. For First Choice, it is the deep, sweet smell of its silvery green foliage. For Sunshine Blue, it is the flowers that, when cut, will last for weeks in a vase. The bright yellow foliage of this plant is a perfect backdrop for its flowers, both inside and out.

Even grown-ups deserve the fun of a scavenger hunt. A search through local nurseries and catalogues for a blue mist feels like a perfect ending for a wonderful retreat. Planting it when I find it will be a way to say thank you to the Zen Center, to Ji Bong, and to Seattle, for the gifts you are.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors