A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Variegated Gooseneck

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Green-leaved gooseneck spreads so thickly and quickly that it needs to be the shortest plant at the party. Then it can mingle without being overwhelming. 'Geisha' gooseneck is so variegated that it's short on chlorophyll: There's just not enough energy for the all-green marauding. Instead, 'Geisha' nods to its neighbors, flaunts its creamy foliage, and then takes only short steps while it strolls gently on.

 

My colony has been making friends all around, all season. These pictures were taken in late September. Below, a tall flowering stem of Patrinia scabiosifolia has swan-dived down onto the gooseneck. Pink, yellow? The cream-variegated leaves of Lysimachia clethroides 'Geisha' go with just about everything

 

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A foot away, one of the stems of a feathery Japanese maple extends over the 'Geisha' colony. Backed by smooth leaves of green and cream, could the red petioles and  burgundy leaf blades of Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy' be more lively? 

 

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In the picture below, the bluish grassy leaves are those of our native Yucca glauca, while the vertical stem with strange corrugated green leaves is a congested form of Cornus sanguinea.

 

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Yes, variegated gooseneck flowers, too. But that was in August, and by late September, you can see just the remnants of the species' typical nodding spikes. Flowering is the whole point of Lysimachia clethroides itself, but the foliage of 'Geisha' is so showy that its flowers are secondary. By the time I realized they were out—they weren't. No matter: 'Geisha' foliage is a fully satisfying show from Spring to hard frost.

 

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Here's how to grow this showy and self-reliant perennial. 

 

Latin Name

Lysimachia clethroides 'Geisha' 

Common Name

Variegated gooseneck

Family

Primulaceae, the Primrose family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy and long-lived rhizomatous perennial.

Hardiness

Zone 3 to 8.

Habit

Vertical unbranched stems form loose colonies that—at least for a species that is notoriously outward bound—only creep along.  

Rate of Growth

So much slower than the species. Lysimachia clethroides itself is usually an invasive nightmare; 'Geisha' is merely self-reliant and sustaining.

Size in ten years

'Geisha' is shorter than the straight species: To about eighteen inches, not two to three feet. Spread is dependent on the circumstances. Even in the moist and nutrient-rich soil it prefers, a starter clump of 'Geisha' might not have expanded to a five-foot patch in a decade. By then, the straight species of Lysimachia clethroides might have taken over your entire back yard. 

Texture

Full but not crowded. 'Geisha' growth is noticeably more open than that of Lysimachia clethroides itself.

Grown for

its foliage: The leaves of Lysimachia clethroides 'Geisha' are heavily margined and sectored in cream. The coverage is irregular, with some leaves almost entirely cream and others just edged with it. In some light and situations, this creamy hue can be closer to white and, in still others, to pale yellow. In cooler weather—especially in the Spring, when new stems and leaves are emerging—a blush of pink may be present.

 

Whatever the coloring, the variegation is striking, and makes 'Geisha' enormously more desirable than Lysimachia clethroides itself. First, the foliage of the species is solid green, making the spikes of white flowers in August the plant's sole ornamental peak. 'Geisha' is interesting from the moment it emerges in Spring—so much so that its flowers are, at best, an afterthought.

 

Second, because so much of the foliage area is chlorophyll-free—which is why its color is something else than green—the plant's ability to draw energy from the sun (and, therefore, to grow) is greatly diminished. The variegation, then, is the direct reason for the mercifully reduced vigor of 'Geisha'. Indeed, if your goal were to make a plant less aggressive, reducing its leaves' ability to produce clorophyll would be one of the best ways to do it. That such a skimpy amount of chlorophyll also transforms the plant's appearance by allowing the visibility of other leaf pigments (cream, white, yellow, pink) is a huge aesthetic benefit.

 

 

its graceful habit: Lysimachia clethroides itself is a tireless groundcover, with stems and foliage so densely arrayed that they are jostling themselves, let alone any other partner plants. There's much more space between stems of 'Geisha'; it's usually the case that foliage of one stem barely touches that of the next. This makes 'Geisha' a mixer and weaver, not a smothering tide.

Flowering season

Like the straight species, Lysimachia clethroides 'Geisha' flowers in August (or late July if your season is long and Spring comes early). If you can imagine the lower portion of the flower spike as a bird's head, and the rest of it (horizontal and narrowing to a point) as the beak, the species' common name of gooseneck makes some sense. Although the flowers of 'Geisha' are as charming as those of the species, 'Geisha' foliage is so showy you might not even notice their appearance.

Color combinations

The shades of the leaves' colorful pigment seems variable, with some sources describing it as containing some yellow and others describing it as cream or even white. Others notice a mild suffusion of pink. In my garden, where 'Geisha' grows in full sun in good but heavy soil, the show is exclusively cream-to-white. See how 'Geisha' performs in your garden's combination of climate and exposure. 

 

Darker colors such as burgundy, brown, black, and deep green are good contrasts in all cases. If your 'Geisha' displays either yellow or pink, by all means bring more of one or the other nearby. In my experience, variegated foliage provides such a contrast in itself that there's little need for a diversity of additional colors from nearby plants—and, certainly, not for other forms of variegation. Only if the primary coloring of neighboring plants is simple, low-key, and uniform would I encourage you to add a zesty contrasting color like blue, purple, or red.

 

The August flowers of 'Geisha' are pure white, and are noticeably brighter than the foliage. A neighboring plant that also supplies white at the same time would be a skillful touch. See "Plant partners."

Plant partners

Although the lively variegation of 'Geisha' rules out variegated neighbors, this perennial lends itself to so many scenarios that this is hardly a limitation.

 

The shallowness of the rhizomes, combined with a mat of rhizomes that is less dense than the straight species, suggests the opportunity for pairing 'Geisha' with deeply rooted bulbs. They'd have plenty of root-run down in the sub-basement, so to speak, while their stems should be able to pierce through the mat of rhizomes above. Could 'Geisha' be a "cover crop" for large-scale tulips? They benefit from extra-deep planting—as deep as a foot, as I understand it. Or perhaps 'Geisha' could be the fill-in around the ankles of oriental lilies; the later-flowering forms especially welcome planting so deep that there's at least eight inches of soil atop the bulbs.

 

The lively texture of 'Geisha' is easy to work with, too. As long as their foliage is clearly a different shape and texture, plants with either much larger or much smaller leaves are nearly foolproof. Just make sure they come in solid colors. My 'Geisha' colony mingles with the ferny burgundy leaves of Acer palmatum 'Red Pygmy', the large felt-leaved rosette of an occasional volunteer Verbascum densiflorum, and the grassy narrow leaves of Yucca glauca. The dark green mouse-ear leaves and narrow columnar shape of Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil' contrast in texture and color as well as habit and size, as do the dark-green rugose leaves and startling vertical stems of Cornus sanguinea 'Compressa'

 

With so much contrast right within the 'Geisha' leaves—and then, in August, the additional zip and white color of the spikes of flowers nodding atop the foliage—there's usually little need for partners to add still other colors. If your 'Geisha' enjoys mid-day or dappled shade, let it weave amid the huge chartreuse foliage of Hosta 'Sum and Substance' or Xanthosoma aurea 'Lime Zinger'. And maybe that shade could be cast by Viburnum lantana 'Aureum' or Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'. As your reward for being so tastefully restrained with colors, allow yourself a single jolt of contrast by letting Clematis integrifolia 'Rooguchi' weave through everything.

 

What other plants are celebrating white in August, so that the 'Geisha' flowers have some company? If the sun is full and your soil is rich, there are any number of pure-white dahlias to plant nearby. Handily, the same deep digging needed to prepare the planting area for the dahlias will also remove out-of-bounds 'Geisha' rhizomes. (This is also the case if you're planting that 'Lime Zinger' elephant ear.) Other white-in-August options that welcome the same sunny-with-good-soil-that-doesn't-dry-out setting as 'Geisha' include Clematis viticella 'Alba Luxurians', Hemerocallis 'Heidi Eidelweiss' and 'Porcelain Pleasure', Lilium 'Casablanca' and 'Crystal Blanca', and Phlox paniculata 'David'.

Where to use it in your garden

Because its growth isn't as dense as that of the straight species, Lysimachia clethroides 'Geisha' isn't effective as a groundcover. If you need to handle a strip of ground between your driveway and house once and for all, plant Lysimachia clethroides itself; Japanese lantern, Physalis alkakengi; or lilyturf, Liriope spicata. If you just want to bring greater fullness around the shins and ankles of taller perennials and bare-stemmed shrubs, 'Geisha' is your girl. See "Plant partners," above.  

Culture

Site in sun to dappled shade, in almost any soil that doesn't become too dry in the Summer. You'll need to water if the sun is too strong or the moisture level in the soil dips too low too often. Drought-stressed colonies are less vigorous (not, in itself, a bad thing) but also tend to suffer leaf scorch. You can see a bit of scorch on my colony, which receives no supplemental water. 

 

For once, neither heavy soil nor poor drainage (Winter or Summer) is a detriment. Rather, Lysimachia clethroides welcomes moisture, and is in part comfortable growing in heavy soil because its density usually makes better drainage impossible. That said, Lysimachia clethroides is not a true aquatic. It thrives by ponds and along streams, but usually doesn't creep out into them.

How to handle it

Plant, divide, or transplant in Spring or Fall, whenever the soil is workable. Fall or early-as-possible Spring are best, in that the soil is likely to be moist already—and will stay that way long enough for 'Geisha' to establish. If your scheduling doesn't permit this cool-season task, get out your shovel anyway. 'Geisha' tolerates planting at almost any time, but the plants will wilt sadly in hot dry weather until their roots have grown into surrounding soil. Over the long term, the wilting doesn't harm the plants, but it is a downer visually. If necessary, cut stems of newly-planted 'Geisha' back by half to reduce wilting or at least make it less obvious. 

 

Division can be very ad hoc: Dig up hunks and slice through them with your shovel or, simply, pull them apart with your hands. If you're looking to maximize coverage, take care to collect the small pieces of severed rhizomes; sections of any size are likely to reroot. As is typical for this species, the rhizomes are shallow, and they interweave such that older colonies can be dug up nearly like turf. You can usually relocate an entire colony of 'Geisha' without worrying that you've missed deeper pieces that will soon repopulate the plant in the original location.

 

Cut stems off at ground level any time from Fall to early Spring after frost has killed them and before new stems emerge. 'Geisha' doesn't need staking, pinching, or deadheading.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

If you need to control a colony's overall size, you're in luck: The shallowness of the rhizomes that makes 'Geisha' easy to transplant also makes it easy to rip out. Even if the colony has woven itself through its neighbors—which is the look that, I think, is the best—you can loosen out-of-bounds portions with a trowel or trident, usually with minimal disturbance to the "wovee" plants, and then pull up rhizomes as needed. Do this any time you have the urge or need. These same rhizomes can be composted, replanted elsewhere, or given to friends so they can start their own 'Geisha' colonies. 

Quirks and special cases

Lysimachia clethroides is a delightful cut flower, especially as it's in bloom in August, when bouquets composed of flowers other than dahlias are welcome. 'Geisha' is an even better cut flower than the straight species, because the foliage itself is also an asset. Plus, flowers in a bouquet are by definition in a  concentrated and focused venue: You'll notice 'Geisha' flowers more in a vase than in the garden.

Downsides

Compared to those of Lysimachia clethroides?  None.   

Variants

The straight species, Lysimachia clethroides, presents a classic gardening dilemma: So hardy, so vigorous, so reliable about coming into flower in August, when almost any blooms are welcome—and, yet, with such aggressive rhizomes and thick growth that it quickly overwhelms any perennials nearby. Only use this species where any plant it might encounter is much taller and older, so the tide of gooseneck will only flow harmlessly about the larger plant's ankles. Although the species is reported to set seed, I have never encountered Lysimachia clethroides that have popped up at any distance from the mother colony.  

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By division; in my experience, 'Geisha' doesn't set seed.

Native habitat

Lysimachia clethroides is native to China and Japan; 'Geisha' originated in Japan.

 
 
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