Ajuga Grows Up
11/15/2023 2:10 pm
Ajuga is a well known evergreen ground cover good at choking out weeds. As an added bonus, it is deer and rabbit resistant due to the bitterness of its leaves. It is virtually a carefree plant. In recent years, I've not only allowed what I have to run, but I've moved it around and added new forms in lieu of mulching empty spots.
Ajuga blooms with upright stalks of numerous bluish purple blooms in early spring. It is an excellent source of pollen for honeybees. Not only is Ajuga's early bloom time important to honeybees, but its prolific flowers low to the ground are a boon because it takes the honeybees down out of the wind. Honeybees are not good at pollinating in the presence of strong wind. And it isn't just imported honeybees that visit Ajuga either. Ajuga also attracts native and solitary bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
For those of us who prefer to mulch with plants instead of wood chips or pine straw, Ajuga is a great filler of empty soil in the shade and part shade. Alternately, Ajuga can be used as an accent plant to perennials and shrubs. Recently developed cultivars are even container worthy.
Ajuga has a reputation for being "vigorous," and some would even say aggressive. My experience is that it generally pulls up quite easily. Indeed, even my personally named faux cultivar, Ajuga 'Driveway Crack', pulled up with minimal effort. In the course of one year, it grew so big and fluffy -- a foot and a half in diameter and six inches tall-- that I started to trip over it. Out it went! Even in the rockery, I've rarely struggled to pull out the Ajuga that runs down from above with regularity.
Ajuga 'Driveway Crack'
(pictured in early 2023 before it doubled in size by Nov. 2023)
The earliest Ajugas sold in the U.S. featured small oblong leaves resembling tongues. The individual plants generally were small too, mostly 6-8" wide, although they "ran" to form larger mats consisting of similarly sized adjacent plants.These included Ajuga x tenorii 'Chocolate Chip' (small "chocolate leaves" with burgundy highlights), Ajuga reptans 'Black Scallop' (nearly black leaves), Ajuga reptans 'Burgundy Glow' (deep bronze leaves), and Ajuga reptans 'Silver Queen' (white variegated green leaves).
Ajuga 'Black Scallop'
Ajuga reptans 'Catlin's Giant' bought in a new angle, flowers that seem outsized to the foliage. Still, it was a dwarf plant that ran like most other Ajugas on the market. These running cultivars have been successful enough to remain in nursery production to this day.
Ajuga 'Catlin's Giant'
Of late, however, hybridizers are having a fun time messing with both the color and growth patterns of Ajuga.
Ajuga pyramidalis ‘Metallica Crispa’ is a metallic looking plant with dark crinkly twisted leaves. The plant looks like a little piled sculpture in the garden. (Until it dies, that is. I'd try it again. It was advertised as sun tolerant, but in my garden it wasn't in soil that probably was allowed to get too dry. )
Ajuga pyramidalis ‘Metallica Crispa’
Ajuga 'Cordial Canary' and Ajuga 'Parrot Paradise' are adorable small-leaved bright yellow cultivars. They really show off when the bluish purple blooms arrive, but look great when not in bloom too. These forms were hybridized from a mix of clumping and running Ajuga heritage and consequently spread at modest rates. (My 'Cordial Canary' is taking that to heart!)
Ajuga 'Canary Cordial'
Some larger clumping forms are now available too. Ajuga 'Sparkler' reads great in a shady spot, with the silver streaks providing glowing effect. Spreading to 14" wide, warm weather brings out the best variegation on the large (3-5") elongated leaves.
Ajuga 'Tropical Toucan' is another large clumper (to 18"), bearing large (3-4") bright yellow corrugated leaves. It clumps to one or two feet wide.
Ajuga 'Tropical Toucan' in November
I expect continued experiments with leaf color, shape and size in Ajuga, offering the shade gardener a fabulous variety of living mulch. Here are some others on the market now in the "Fancy Feathers' series. Tell me they don't look prettier than mulch!
Ajuga 'Fierce Falcon'
Ajuga 'Fancy Finch'
Ajuga comes to us from various spots around the world, Europe, Northern Africa and Southwestern Asia.
You might wonder why Ajuga's common name is "bugleweed". Some sources suggest that the flower shape resembles the musical instrument, 'bugle'. Americans added "weed" to the "bugle" whereas Europeans just call it "bugle". No definitive answer was found, however. That won't stop us from tooting our horn about this great living mulch option.
Contributed by Liane Schleifer