Diascia: A Darling Debutante

Diascia, sometimes known as Twinspur, is a newcomer to the bedding plant world. This beautiful flowering plant was virtually unheard of a few years ago, but diascia has much to offer and is easy to grow. Diascia is an excellent bedding, container or basket plant.

Diascia comes to us from South Africa, where more than 70 species exist. It is a close relative of the snapdragon. Recently plant breeders began working with diascia, crossing several species to produce wonderful varieties for your garden.

Diascia has small, slightly oval leaves of dark green. Some varieties are upright and some produce trailing type plants. Modern varieties range from about 6 inches to a foot high and can spread to 18 inches wide.

Each tiny diascia flower is a marvel. They are small, about a half-inch or so across, and come in a wide range of colors from pastel apricots, corals and plums to magenta and wine-red shades, and the plants bloom quite freely. There is one large petal on top. There is a petal on each side; each has a projection to the back that looks like a hollow horn or spur, which gives diascia the common name of Twinspur. There is also a larger split petal on the bottom. The bottom petal on the diascia flower has a small depression, shiny and yellow in most colors, right under the diascia flower's sexual organs. It reminds me of an oval swimming pool set in the plush petal. The spurs and the pool contain nectar glands to attract pollinators. The diascia is self-infertile and needs to have pollen from another plant to set seed.

Growing diascia
Diascia is actually a short-lived perennial, but is often treated as an annual. The hardiness of the plants is yet to be fully determined. I have had plants blooming outside until Thanksgiving in my Zone 5 garden through several light frosts. When a hard freeze threatens, I bring them into an unheated but above-freezing porch, where they go semi-dormant. They revive in the spring, put on a flush of growth and go back to flowering. I think they might survive winter much like snapdragons if mulched in Zone 7 and above, maybe even Zone 6. Otherwise, winter the plants indoors or discard like annuals. They will bloom right through light frosts.

Diascia seed is seldom offered for sale. If you do find some, sow the seed six to eight weeks before your last frost indoors. It needs light to germinate, so just press seeds lightly into sterile medium. Keep moist and germination should take place in about 20 days. Most diascia is started from cuttings and gardeners will find several types and many colors on sale in nurseries now.

Diascia likes cool weather and blooms best in spring and fall. In southern areas, plant it in the fall as you would pansies or snapdragons. It will bloom continuously until a hard freeze or until hot weather stops the bloom. In hot weather, cut the stems back to a few inches and keep watered, and the plants will resume bloom in cooler weather. In the North, plant diascia outside after danger of frost is over. Plants grown in greenhouses and then set outside without a period of hardening off will be killed by frost. They will bloom all summer if conditions are cool; otherwise blooms may slow down or cease until cooler weather. In fall they will bloom for a long time, adding color after most flowers are gone.

In the North plant diascia in sun or partial shade. In the South diascia prefers partial shade. While diascia will need some fertilization, especially in containers and baskets, use a light hand, as too much fertilization will produce more foliage than flowers. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer. Keep diascia moist, but don't over-water, as it quickly succumbs to wet feet. Pinching or cutting the plants back if they get lanky will encourage full plants and more bloom.

Choosing varieties
Several series are being marketed. Sunchimes, Flying Colors, Wink, and Whisper series all come in several colors. Slightly older varieties include Hopley's Apricot, Rubyfields, Little Charmer and Twinkler.

Using diascia
Diascia is excellent for color in cooler seasons. It is a good hanging-basket plant and looks charming creeping from a container. It is also a good, low-growing bedding plant to use in rock gardens and spilling over retaining walls.

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