Cerinthe: Welcome Back, Honeybells

Cerinthe, commonly known as Honeybells or Honeywort, was grown in gardens in the Middle Ages then somehow was lost to gardeners until recently. Cerinthe grows wild in the Mediterranean countryside quite abundantly, so there was no lack of plants; gardeners just forgot how interesting this quiet beauty could be. Cerinthe has been rediscovered and is once again appearing in gardens. If you like unusual plants that other gardeners will covet when they see them, then certainly this wonderful plant deserves a place in your garden.

Cerinthe has thick, fleshy, gray-green foliage, similar to the foliage of sedums. Each leaf encircles the stem at the leaf base. In sun and good soil, cerinthe can grow to 3 feet tall. In partial shade or poorer soil, cerinthe grows 18 inches to 2 feet in height. At the ends of drooping stems, blue flower bracts arranged in overlapping fashion encircle tiny, tube-shaped purple flowers. It is the soft, true-blue flower bracts of cerinthe that fascinate gardeners. The color changes with the light and makes cerinthe a delightful foliage plant for gardeners who appreciate beauty that isn't flashy. The tiny purple flowers however, are a favorite of bees and hummingbirds who flock to the plants. Each flower yields a small drop of sweet fluid, which can be tasted if you suck on the flower.

Cerinthe flowers produce small, black BB-shaped seeds that are shot from the plant when ripe like little cannon balls. It readily reseeds in the garden, but often the seeds sprout in the fall and are killed in colder zones. In my Zone 5 garden, cerinthe will produce many seedlings in late spring, but before they grow into plants big enough to produce flowers, frost has usually killed them. In Zone 5 and above, cerinthe would probably not be able to re-establish itself each year. Seed should be saved and started inside in early spring for plants to set out after frost, or new plants will need to be purchased each year.

Growing cerinthe
Cerinthe is a short-lived perennial, or a biannual in its native land. The hardiness of the plant in other places is still being worked out. In Zone 6 and above, it should certainly be treated as an annual or potted plant. Some gardeners report that in Zone 7 or lower it can be protected with mulch and will overwinter.

Cerinthe will grow in sun or partial shade. It likes well-drained soil but isn't fussy about soil ph or fertility. Damp, shady areas will cause the plants to rot. Cerinthe has few insect pests and no known diseases. Cerinthe can be started from seeds quite easily about eight weeks before your last frost. Cerinthe can also be started from cuttings.

Choosing varieties
Cerinthe major purpurascens has only one named variety in commerce, Kiwi Blue. The plants can vary widely in size and "blueness" of the foliage. I suspect that as more gardeners discover this quiet beauty, more work will be done to establish separate varieties. There is another wild species of cerinthe that is occasionally for sale. It has yellow flowers but the blue flower bracts are not as handsome as Cerinthe major.

Using cerinthe
Cerinthe makes an excellent addition to borders and beds where the color blue is wanted and the texture of its thick, waxy leaves can make a bold statement. Cerinthe also makes a good container plant; it will sprawl down the sides of containers, displaying the lovely blue color to perfection. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds will greatly appreciate the plant. Cerinthe foliage can be used in floral arrangements; the stems must be dipped in hot water or seared to close off the cut end.

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