When in full bloom Lewisias are real show-stoppers in the garden

Lewisia 'Elise Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofLewisia 'Elise Mix' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofLewisias are cold hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance and water-wise plants, which thrive in the heat and provide a spectacular show when in bloom. Read more about these little gems below, and how to grow them successfully in the garden and in pots.

Lewisias are indigenous to the western parts of North America, where they are often found clinging precariously to rocky ledges and among boulders on rock-strewn slopes.  Some species occur in damp gravelly places, some in alpine meadows and others in desert-like conditions - such is the diversity of this fascinating genus.

There are about eighteen known species, many of which are evergreen, but others go dormant, rather like bulbs, and have a resting period below ground for part of the year. They all form large flat, fleshy leaves in a rosette shape, and several species produce large, funnel-shaped flowers in various beautiful colours during spring, and sporadically through the summer months, whilst the flowers of others are smaller with intricate details, but all of them are truly charming. 

Lewisia 'Elise Ruby White' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofLewisia 'Elise Ruby White' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofIn the wild, the evergreen species are frequently found growing vertically in shady rocky crevices where the roots can reach moisture, but where the collar of the plant remains perfectly drained. Lewisia cotyledon is no exception, and this evergreen native of southern Oregon and northern California grows in rocky subalpine mountain habitats, and is known by the common names: “Siskiyou lewisia” and “Cliff Maids”.

In spring, and sporadically in summer, it produces the prettiest of flowers in stripy or plain variations of pink, orange, magenta, yellow, apricot and white, and some of the petals have an almost feathered appearance. The thick green rosette of leaves have a waxy coating that helps the plant conserve moisture, and the rosette rarely gets taller than 15 or 20cm, but the slender stalks which bear the flowering inflorescence, will grow about 30 to 50cm high.

Lewisia Cotyledon ‘Elise Mix’ is available in South Africa and is a strikingly beautiful Lewisia that has received the prestigious ‘Award of Garden Merit’ of the Royal Horticultural Society. It displays a mixture of colours, in shades of pink, rose, salmon, orange, white, yellow and bi-colours. Elise can flower in flushes during the whole season, and is ideal for planting in garden beds, rockeries, and pots both outdoors and indoors where it is a long-lasting decor plant. It grows about 15cm tall and wide, with flower stems reaching up to 30cm in height.

Lewisia 'Elise Ultra Violet' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofLewisia 'Elise Ultra Violet' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofIn the Garden:

This little garden gem will be with you for a long time, so for the best show, spoil yourself with several in various colours.  

Lewisia are low-maintenance and water-wise plants which are perfect as a xeriscaping plant. Xeriscaping is simply the practice of designing landscapes to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation.

Grow them in crevices in the rock garden or scree beds. In the garden, a scree bed tries to emulate nature, where screes occur in mountainous areas where rock faces disintegrate due to freeze-thaw action, causing rock particles and loose stones to travel down the slopes and reduce the angle of steepness. In fact you can plant them in any crevices like dry stone walling etc., or even in the ground alongside a gravel pathway.  

They are perfect subjects for sink and trough gardening, where you can create a miniature landscape with year-round interest. Planting into sinks and troughs which are raised above ground level allows you admire these often brightly coloured jewels close at hand.

They are frequently used nowadays in vertical plantings, fitting perfectly into the current trend of vertical gardening.

They also grow beautifully in pots which can be placed indoors or outdoors, and moved around to fully show them off when they are in bloom.

Lewisia 'Elise Ruby Red' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofLewisia 'Elise Ruby Red' Picture courtesy Ball StraathofCultivation/Propagation:

In the wild, the evergreen species of lewisia are frequently found growing vertically in shady rocky crevices where the roots can reach moisture, but where the collar of the plant remains perfectly drained. For the best results in the garden, try and replicate these conditions.

Lewisias are extremely frost hardy plants and tolerate temperatures down to -10 °C, as long as the soil is on the dry side, and it is excess water which is their biggest enemy. For this reason, always plant them slightly tipped on their sides so that water drains away from the crown of the plant, and always plant in very well-drained, moderately fertile, gritty soil that provides perfect drainage around the plant’s crown. This is especially important in the winter rainfall regions, as lewisias can easily rot from too much moisture in winter. In these regions it may be easier to grow them in pots which can be moved for overwintering. Unfortunately they grow best where humidity is low during the summer months, and could struggle in our very hot and humid regions.

Once established lewisia is heat and drought tolerant, however, it flowers best with regular watering in summer. To prevent rotting, always allow the soil to dry out before watering again. Fertilise once a month during spring and summer with an all-purpose fertiliser which is mixed at half the recommended strength.

In cooler climates lewisia does best in full sun, but in hotter areas it prefers partial shade. In South Africa the plants are generally happiest in an open position that is protected from the sun during the hottest part of the day.

Many gardeners prefer to grow Lewisias in containers where growing conditions are easily controlled. Use a free draining potting mix, neutral to slightly acid if possible, combined with 25% grit or washed river sand, by volume, as well as a grit mulch to further enhance drainage and air circulation (available at garden centres).  Add a small amount of slow release fertiliser at planting (1/4 the regular amount) and only feed again with a weak liquid fertiliser solution when the plants look tired and undernourished. Unglazed terracotta pots work best because they are porous, further enhancing drainage. Water the pots regularly when the plants are growing and blooming, but keep them on the dry side in winter.

If grown indoors, lewisia is potted, fed and watered as for those grown in pots outdoors, but it needs very bright light or even some direct sunshine, and must be placed in a warm environment without cold winter draughts.

Lewisia cotyledon is easily propagated by offsets taken in early summer, or after the flowering period. These are carefully removed with their roots from the mother plant using sharp scissors, hand pruners or a knife. For established plants, the entire plant can be lifted and divided.

You can also learn how to grow lewisia from seed, but remember that germination can be slow, and although the tiny plants take a couple of seasons to form a rosette, they grow easily when sown in a sandy potting mixture. Elise is exceptional in that it has been bred to flower in its first year, and will start to bloom within 4 to 5 months after sowing.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Lewisias are not susceptible to many insect or disease problems. Watch out for aphids and slug and snail damage, and avoid overwatering as this can promote rot.

Warning:

Lewisia has no toxic effects reported but it is always advised to supervise small children around plants and to discourage pets from chewing on plants.