Ipheion uniflorum, spring starflower, in the family Alliaceae, is the only species in general cultivation. It is native to Argentina and Uruguay and was introduced to Britain in 1820. It is a bulbous perennial, which, in late autumn, produces narrow leaves that smell of onions when bruised, followed in spring by solitary, upward-facing, scented flowers on stems up to 20cm. The flowers are star-shaped and each of the six segments has a line of darker colour down the centre. Described as pale blue, they are often said to be wishy-washy so named cultivars with stronger colour are more often grown.
Ipheion cultivars that are widely grown
Ipheion uniflorum ‘Wisley Blue’
Named after the RHS garden it has flowers of clear lilac-blue.
Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’
This cultivar has a rather lovely story.
Writing in The Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society in 1982, Mrs. D. Taylor-Smith extols the virtues of Ipheion uniflorum. It has great merit, she says, is easy to grow, hardy and flowers for two to three months, increases prodigiously and has beautiful flowers.
She then tells of a plant collecting expedition to the Nepalese Himalayas in 1973 that she and her husband joined. They found one or two exciting plants but in that inaccessible area anything can happen. On the trek, her husband nearly lost his life. “The search for rare plants can have great joys but also cost dearly”, she wrote.
The story continued a few months after their return home. Passing a large clump of Ipheion uniflorum ‘Wisley Blue’ in full flower in her garden she noticed one flower of a deep violet-purple. Hardly able to believe her eyes, she rushed indoors and phoned Patrick Synge. With great excitement she told him what she had seen. After a long pause he asked if she really meant violet-purple. After being assured that that was correct, he told her to dig it up and pot it up because it could be an important new addition to the colour range. How right he was!
In 1975 she showed it under the name Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’, which was the name of their house at the time. It then received the RHS Award of Merit when shown at Vincent Square in 1981.
She concluded, “Having flown half round the world and climbed to 4250m. in the Himalayas and nearly lost my husband there, all for the sake of new, rare plants, to find a very exciting new flower in our own garden was an amazing and subtle twist of fate.”
It was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit and is now available from many nurseries throughout the country.
Ipheion uniflorum ‘Charlotte Bishop’
This was a chance seedling that appeared amongst a long-established clump of the selection ‘Wisley Blue’ in the Kent garden of John Clark. The flowers are pale pink with a darker pink centre line.
Ipheion ‘Rolf Fiedler’
A cultivar grown from two or three bulbs given to Brian Halliwell of Kew by Rolf Fiedler when they both attended the ‘Alpines 1981 Conference’. It was originally identified as Ipheion uniflorum but was superior to any other form in cultivation so was given the cultivar name ‘Rolf Fiedler’ and has now had the species attribution removed. There is some disagreement as to whether or not it belongs to this species or another one altogether but there is no disagreement that this is a fabulous plant and well worth growing.
The leaves are broader and more grey than other forms. The floral parts are also broader and oval, of a pure sky blue, fading to a white throat with a dark line on each. It is also sweetly scented. However, it would seem that it might be less hardy than other forms and a little more difficult to grow.
This was raised from seed of ‘Rolf Fielder’ by Tony Hall at Kew and named for his late sister, Jessie. It is similar to its parent but has a much deeper blue colour.
A new form released in 2011, it has dark pink flowers with a darker midrib.
Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’
How best to grow ipheion
They should all be grown in sun or light deciduous shade in a well drained, sheltered position. They can be propagated by division of the bulbs during their dormant period in summer or by seed – you might even find an exciting new cultivar! .
It’s amazing what you see when you look!
Having found out so much about ipheion I went to have a look at my small patch, the name of which I don’t know but might well be ‘Wisley Blue’. As I studied the flowers, I realized, not for the first time, that looking closely brings rewards. I understood the structure of the flower and, even though very small, its great beauty. And then I noticed that some flowers on the edge of the clump were paler in colour, almost white with purplish midribs. Admittedly, not good enough to send me dashing for the phone but interesting, nonetheless.
Perhaps I will save seed and see what I get and, certainly, I will search out some other forms to add to my collection. But most of all I will enjoy the flowers of this South American native that’s found a home in our gardens.
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