Lamium orvala – a plant for dry shade
I think Lamium orvala is a fabulous plant. Every plant has its moment in the sun, or, in this case, shade, and now is that time for Lamium orvala. But I don’t remember seeing it in gardens very often or reading about it in gardening or botanical literature. I got to wondering why.
Lamium orvala – in brief
Lamium orvala is a herbaceous perennial hardy down to about -15˚C. It is non-invasive, forming clumps to 40cm high and wide. The square stems bear opposite, softly hairy, toothed, nettle-like leaves together with whorls of pink-purple 2-lipped flowers, the lower lip having deep purple mottling. It will grow in shade, even quite deep shade in most soils, including dry. It spreads easily but can be pulled out where it’s not required or transplanted to a new location. Seedlings are easy to identify and remove. I grow it in the shade of a high fence under deciduous birches where the soil is dry and rooty.
Where does Lamium orvala come from?
As Lamium orvala is a species I thought the best place to start finding out a bit more about it was a source dealing with wild plants. Perennials Vol.1 by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix told me that it is a native of northern Italy and western Austria east to western Yugoslavia and southern Hungary, growing in scrub and on the edges of woods. An attractive plant for well-drained soil in partial shade, slowly forming wide mats.
As soon as I realised it came from somewhere so close to home, I wondered when it might have arrived in this country. Might it have an entry in Gerard’s Herbal?
A trawl through the index in the revised 1633 edition quickly turned up Lamium pannonicum Dead Nettle of Hungary with a description. “hath many large rough leaves very much curled or crumpled like those of the stinging nettle, of a darke greene colour, snipt about the edges like the teeth of a sawe, set upon a foure square stalke by couples; from the botome of which leaves come forth the floures close to the stalkes, of a perfect purple colour, in shape like those of the white Archangell, gaping like a dragons mouth, the lower chap whereof is of a bright purple spotted with white, which being past, there doth follow seed inclosed in rough huskes, with fine sharpe points sticking out. The root is thicke, tough, consisting of many threds and long strings.”
The Kew Plant List refers to Lamium pannonicum as a synonym of Lamium orvala so it looks like the same plant. It doesn’t say that the plant was grown in Britain but the name and description were at least recorded at that date.
Who can tell us more?
Famously, William Robinson, writing at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, rebelled against the Victorian artificial and formal style of gardening so surely Lamium orvala would suite his informal style. Of lamium or Dead Nettle he wrote, “Perennial herbs of which there are a few plants occasionally worth a place in poor dry soils, where little else will grow – such as are found on dry banks or beneath trees.” One such is Lamium orvala, which he merely describes as having deep red flowers in early summer. I think that could be regarded as damning with faint praise!
I then turned to the book I usually consult first, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Perennial Garden Plants, and he didn’t let me down. He says it’s very like a white Dead Nettle but is non-invasive and makes a beautiful clump of leaves. He goes on, “The flowers are a subtle shade of coppery pink. At home in shade anywhere. There is also a rare and very beautiful white variety, ‘Album’.” He then includes a quote from A. T. Johnson.
Arthur Tysilio Johnson, for whom Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ is named, and his wife, Nora, made a garden in North Wales from 1907 onwrds. Graham Stuart Thomas in his book, Recollections of Great Gardeners, describes it thus: “Their garden achieved the nearest I have ever seen to this most diffiult of all garden styles – that of being naturally beautiful and intriguing without ever being wild.”
Unlike William Robinson, Arthur Johnson thought very highly of Lamium orvala but preferred the white variety, describing it, in A Woodland Garden, published in 1937, as “one of our ideal woodland plants of the bigger sort.” He thought it was a fine thing, full of quality and of exemplary behaviour. He described it as giving “from about mid-spring a long succession of large flowers, hooded and fringed and all swaddled in a fine white down which gives a touch of snowy purity to their rich creamy hue.”
Margery Fish included this lamium in her Ground Cover Plants, published in 1964, in the chapter entitled Plants for Poor Soils. She explains that It will “take over the worst possible places under trees or on bare banks and completely furnish them” and describes the rosy-lilac flowers and soft green nettle leaves tinged with red, and the white Lamium orvala ‘Album’ but then rather spoils things by saying “Though not very exciting this lamium has a pleasant old fashioned air which reminds one of old gardens and country cottages.” I beg to differ! I think anything that looks this good and will grow in the worst possible places should be considered very exciting.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1982, Beth Chatto includes it in her book, The Damp Garden. She first saw it on a Chelsea exhibit of Messrs Bloom of Bressingham and could not rest until she possessed this beautiful plant. She suggests growing it in part shade, in cool, well-drained but not dry soil and describes the rare shade of coppery-pink of the flowers. This unusual pink colouring is preferred over the white form.
Is there something a bit more modern?
Coming up to date I found from the RHS Plant Finder that Lamium orvala is listed by 39 nursries, a number which came as something of a surprise. Many just list it by name with scant other details but a few give some indication of what we might expect if we grow it.
Crug Farm Plants describes its clump-forming nature, its clusters of pink or purple-pink flowers held in whorls and suggest partial shade in any soil.
Claire Austin’s description leads me to think she likes it a lot. She calls it a wonderful plant and gives us a better picture of its structure; each whorl of flowers is divided by large, heart-shaped mid-green leaves. She calls it a spring delight and adds that it is long lived.
“Whatever your preconceptions of dead nettles think again this is a classy act, looking more like an orchid!” is how the Norwell Nurseries website encourages us to grow it.
But the prize for inspiration must go to Dorset Perennials. “This is the Big Daddy of the deadnettle world. The leaves are large and rough, set well off the stems on long stalks. The flowers are produced in a ring of half a dozen around each node up the stem. They are ruddy pink with wide open mouths and shaggy lips and more than a passing resemblance to a guard of Chinese dragons. It doesn’t spread around like so many of its cousins, preferring to make a statement where it stands. 30-45cm. Spring flowering, for shade.”
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