Movement is important in a garden. It lends an informal atmosphere and softens otherwise stiff plantings. Grasses are often used for this, especially taller varieties but a few perennials are also perfectly suited for the job and one of the best is whirling butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri). The common name is a perfect description for these fluttering white flowers which are in constant movement on tall wiry stems. (Other common names include wand flower and bee blossom).
The species has white flowers, flushed with pink which emerge all summer long from soft pink buds giving a hazy bicolor effect. In form it resembles a large lavender with a basal clump of narrow foliage in mid green from which rises a fountain of 3-4' flowering stems. Each plant easily fills a 3' diameter space – good value from a $10 plant! However there are many other cultivars now available in various sizes and colors. Here is just a sampling;
- 'Passionate Rainbow'; variegated burgundy, pink, creamy white and gold foliage, mid pink flowers, upright habit, 2'. Zones 7-9
- 'Siskiyou Pink'; green foliage, pink flowers, fountain, 2-3'. Zones 5-9
- 'Crimson Butterflies'; a recent hybrid from 'Siskiyou Pink' with burgundy foliage, deep pink flowers, upright habit, dwarf at 2'. Zones 5-10
- 'Dauphine'; the giant! Green foliage, pink and white flowers, 5-7' fountain. Zones 5-9
At first glance whirling butterflies may seem ideally suited to a casual cottage garden and indeed I have used them that way. Their delicate appearance softens stiffer companions such as coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) and the soft pink and white color scheme is beautiful, lasting for many months. In such an environment it is a 'mingler'.
In my current garden I have used it to surround a whitebarked Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) which enhances the already stunning white tree bark. These adaptable perennials also make a great background plant for the green and white variegated 'Magical Fantasy' weigela (Weigela florida 'Kolsunn')Unlike older cultivars this weigela has crisp white margins to its leaves – perfect for combining with whirling butterflies. Tubular pink flowers on the shrub further strengthen the association with either white or pink cultivars of the perennial.
Silver, purple and blue foliage or flowers also form easy companions. Blue 'Rozanne' geranium works well as the two weave in and out of one another and billowing 'Silver Mound' wormwood (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Silver Mound') adds a shimmery touch.
Shorter cultivars are ideal for using as the 'thriller' in container plantings or even in a hanging basket. For both of these designs I rely heavily on good foliage so find the deep pink or variegated foliage forms of whirling butterflies especially useful.
What do they need to thrive? Very little. They are drought tolerant and deer resistant – two of my top priorities. Mine have barely had any water this summer and look amazing. Be careful not to add excessive mulch or compost around the crowns and avoid overly rich soil which stays wet in winter; just average, well drained soil is fine. Other than that, full sun and a chair nearby to enjoy the steady drone of bees which get drunk daily on the pollen!
One key point to remember is about pruning. Being a woody perennial it retains a twiggy structure after the leaves fall in autumn. Do not cut this down. Wait until spring and look to see where the uppermost buds are on the stems and cut just above those. The twigs help protect the crown during the winter. I find that there is usually fresh basal growth in spring as well so the plant quickly regains its former size.
Some cultivars seem to self-seed more than others but extras are easy to pull up. there is no need to deadhead.
How many do you have room for?