One of the benefits of belonging to a garden club is that you are often introduced to new plants. Gardeners are generous folks and enjoy sharing their plants, especially when they are redesigning a garden bed to make room for new acquisitions. Healthy gardens produce a bounty of perennials that need division from time to time, and most gardeners cannot bear to toss their divisions into the compost pile. So, if there is an overflow of a particular plant, babies will be potted up and either donated to the annual plant sale, or brought to a meeting and shared with other members. That is how I came by one of my favorite perennials for the winter garden – variegated liriope.
Sometimes known as lilyturf or monkey grass, liriope is a grass-like flowering perennial from East Asia. It may be either solid green or variegated, and has been widely used in the South as a groundcover due to its hardiness in Zones 6-10. Now that much of Massachusetts is reclassified as Zone 6, it is sure to be used much more widely here as well.
Variegated liriope grows to about 12” tall, with leaves striped in white or gold. It blooms in late summer with lavender, purple or white spikes that are followed by clusters of bluish-black berry-like fruits. With its foliage holding well through the winter, variegated liriope is an ornamental perennial for most of the year.
There are two species of liriope, which dictate its use in the garden. The first is liriope muscari – a clumping perennial with typically lavender or purple blooms. Because it stays where it is planted, liriope muscari is the preferred choice for flower beds or as an edger. It combines beautifully with evergreen shrubs such as boxwoods, and with perennials with contrasting leaf shapes, such as large-leaved hostas and hellebores. Variegated cultivars include ‘Silvery Sunproof’, ‘John Burch’ and ‘Gold Band’.
Liriope spicata is the “running” liriope, a vigorous grower that spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes. It will quickly cover a wide area, making it an excellent groundcover, and can be used to retain soil on slopes and banks. It is tough enough to be planted in dry shade around trees and at the edges of walks or roads. Spicata’s flowers are slightly smaller than muscari’s, and range from white to lavender. ‘Silver Dragon’ is a variegated cultivar whose foliage and lavender flowers light up shady areas.
Variagated liriope is a deer-resistant, low-maintenance perennial. It can be grown in both sun and shade, but looks best in partial shade where its color is not diminished by lack of sunlight or washed out by an overabundance of it. It requires well-drained soil, and is moderately drought tolerant when established. I treat it just like my other perennials: amend the soil with compost when planting, fertilize once a year in the spring, and top off with a layer of mulch to retain moisture. Since the foliage stays evergreen throughout winter, I trim it off in early spring before new shoots emerge. As the plants grow and mature, they can be dug and divided to increase your supply. This is usually done in the spring, every three years or so, but is not necessary for the health of the plant. However, if you need to make room for a coveted new addition to your garden, variegated liriope divisions are sure to be a welcome gift to friends and neighbors.