While here the Blue Lobelia must have spun
Her azure robe from fragments of the skies
Brought by the dew that on her bosom lies!
~ Mary Boyd, The Veld
We all admire the magnificent hanging baskets of the UK, the bold colour combinations and the wonderful choice of plant material. You may be interested to know that three of the most popular plants used in these baskets originate here in the Garden Route: Lobelia erinus, Helichrysum petiolare and Pelargonium peltatum.
Some of them like wet, waterlogged ground, others like stony hillsides. One thing they have in common is a love for a sunny position, not too hot or windy.
While there are numerous varieties of lobelia plants, only a few are commonly seen in the home garden. Although most varieties are compact, growing only 8 – 20cm tall, others will grow up to 75cm. Colours are also variable, with white, pink, red and blue species available. However, violet-blue is probably one of the most commonly seen. These plants make great additions in borders, around ponds, as ground covers, or in containers—especially hanging baskets. Annual lobelia will grow nearly anywhere.
The small bedding lobelias all come from the southern and south-eastern Cape. L. erinus was discovered in the Cape by Frances Masson (1714 – 1806), the first officially appointed collector from Kew sent to the Cape of Good Hope. He sailed out to Cape Town with Captain Cook on the Endeavour, Cook’s second great voyage of exploration, and discovered hundreds of plants species, including eleven lobelias. L. erinus is certainly the most well known of the genus and one which together with its cultivars has proved the most popular and useful to gardeners. It was introduced to the British public in 1759 by Phillip Miller, who cultivated plants and seeds sent by Masson in the famous Chelsea Physic Gardens. It became immensely popular and has remained a garden favourite until today.
Lobelia seeds can be sown directly in the garden or indoors for later transplanting. These plants typically require an area with full sun but will tolerate partial shade. They also prefer moist, rich soil. Spread the tiny seeds just on top of the soil and water thoroughly. Place them in a warm, well-lit area. The seedlings should pop up within a week or two, at which time you can begin thinning them out. Once the seedlings are established transplant them to the garden—spacing about 10 t0 15cm apart.
Lobelia was named in honour of Matthias de L’Obel (1538 – 1616). He was Flemish, and was recognised as one of the finest continental herbal writers of his time.