Pink tulips with blue periwinkles by Val Bourne
Periwinkles are ground cover plants that provide good winter foliage and early flower. They are most useful in wilder areas of the garden where they will smother weeds, or clothe difficult slopes.
They are not for those with smaller gardens as they send our runners which root where they land, rather as some strawberries do. This makes them too invasive to be included in ordinary borders where choice bulbs and woodlanders are planted. However they can flatter borders containing mature trees and shrubs and the flowers, which normally appear in March, are very good for early bees. Deer seem to leave them alone too.
Vincas, commonly known as periwinkles, normally have green leaves and single flowers in either purple, blue, pink or white. However there are double-flowered forms and variegated forms too so the choice is wide, although they all send out runners. The Lesser Periwinkle, Vinca minor, offers the greatest choice of colours and flower type.
Vincas vary in height. Taller varieties are listed under Vinca major (roughly reaching 18in/45 cm) and shorter ones (which reach 4in/10cm on average) are listed under V. minor. There is also an earlier-flowering species called V. difformis which needs more shelter to do well.
The shorter forms send out far more runners and effectively cover whole areas in a netting of stems. Taller periwinkles tend to send out a few long runners, about two feet in length, and these dip to the soil and root - sometimes just where you don’t want them. Plant them in areas where spreading and travelling are desirable and don’t be fooled into thinking that the shorter vincas are less invasive. It’s quite the reverse. Vincas are invasive and they’ve become a real problem in North America and New Zealand.
Margery Fish, the famous cottage gardener from East Lambrook Manor, writing in Ground Cover Plants, lists them under Rampers. However I grow some along my stone walls in sunless positions where little else thrives.
How to grow
These are bombproof plants that tolerate shade or light-shade in a variety of soils including acid and alkaline. Vincas also make good container plants - particularly the small-leaved Vinca minor forms. Vincas will always travel towards better light though.
In winter the foliage can get shabby and forms of Vinca major and V. minor are hardy enough to be sheared off to encourage fresh spring growth. Do not shear off V. difformis however: it is a little too tender as it comes from the Western Mediterranean.
Keep a vigilant eye for unwanted runners and pull any in the wrong place up.
V.major (Greater Periwinkle)
The green-leaved form with purplish-blue flowers.
V.major ‘Variegata’ (syn ‘Elegantissima’) AGM
This widely-available variegated vinca has attractive green leaves mottled in grey-green with cream-white edging. This bright leaf shows up the purplish-blue flowers and the plant is good at lighting up dank corners.
Vinca major ‘Wojo’s Gem’
A much brasher periwinkle with green leaves irregularly splashed in custard-yellow. It’s used as a trailing basket plant in America. It arrived as a sport of the subtler variegated periwinkle ‘Maculata’. This is sometimes sold under the name ‘Surrey Marble’.
V. major var. oxyloba (syn ‘Dartington Star’)
Dark-blue spidery flowers and green foliage.
Vinca minor (Lesser Periwinkle)
This small-leaved ramper has mid-blue flowers, but many better forms exist.
V. minor ‘La Grave’ AGM (syn. Bowles Variety)
Long trailing stems, with oval, glossy evergreen foliage and large, rounded bright-blue flowers.
V.minor ‘Ralph Shugart’
Large bright blue flowers and crisp silver margined, rounded leaves.
V. minor ‘Azurea Flore Pleno’ AGM
The sky-blue semi-double flowers and small green leaves.
V. minor f. alba ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ AGM
White flowers set against small, shiny green leaves.
V. minor ‘Argenteovariegata’ AGM
Small grey-green leaves edged in cream supporting single blue flowers - a better option that the silvery ‘Aureovariagata’.
V. minor ‘Illumination’
Bright blue flowers and small green leaves splashed in bright-yellow centre, so very good in shade. A new variety with PBR.
There are purple-flowered forms and burgundy-red forms of this green-leaved periwinkle sold under this name. Memorably seen framing a seat at Great Dixter and it’s one of my favourite periwinkles.
Vinca difformis ‘Jenny Pym’ (Intermediate Periwinkle)
Much earlier flowering than other vincas, even flowering in midwinter sometimes. ‘Jenny Pym’ is a white-eyed lilac-pink with glossy green foliage. I have found her hardy.
- Vincas are good with spring bulbs, especially tulips, and the picture shows a Dutch garden with a blue periwinkle (V. major) used almost like a low hedge.
- They are good planted under trees.
- The Lesser periwinkles (V. minor) mix well with robust forms of miniature and shorter narcissi such as ‘Jetfire’, ‘Tête à Tête’, ‘W.P.Milner’ and ‘Jumblie’.
- Vincas can be used with hardy wintergreen ferns (especially dryopteris, polystichum and polypodium) and with pulmonarias and oriental hellebores for winter interest and spring colour.
- They can also be grown with robust colchicums like ‘The Giant’ as the evergreen leaves cover up the dying foliage. In autumn, the flowers pop up through the leaves.
History and folklore
- The English name periwinkle and the botanical name Vinca are both derived from the Latin vincio (to bind) describing the long, trailing stems that spread over the ground.
- Vincas contain tannins which are astringent. They also contains indole alkaloids including ‘vincamine’, which is used by the pharmaceutical industry. There are also saponins (detergent-like molecules) and flavonoids.
- Common names include parwynke, joy of the ground, ground ivy, cockles, cockle shells, pennywinkle, blue buttons, sorcerer’s violet and blue smock.
- 'Sorcerer's Violet' was used for making charms and love potions. Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist, says that if the leaves were eaten by a couple they would stay in love forever. It was used to exorcise evil spirits.
- The giving of periwinkle meant 'First love - My heart was whole until I saw you'.
Birncoose Nurseries - www.burncoose.co.uk
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