Singing the praises of a lamium that doesn't spread

Discover why giant dead nettle makes its way onto this gardener's list of favorite plants.

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    This charming perennial with lovely white flowers is Lamium orvala 'Alba.'
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Over the years I’ve planted so many shrubs and trees that my garden – or at least most of it – is in the shade. Thus, many of my current favorite plants are likely to thrive there.

Last week, I wrote about some of the plants I can't live without. Today I'm adding one more plant to that list:

Lamium orvala (giant dead nettle) – The package from my friend, Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hills Perennials in New York came with a simple note attached. “You’ll love this plant”, it stated simply. “Trust me!”

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Peering inside, I found three robust plants sitting jauntily in three-inch containers and staring back at me, Although I’m pretty good at identifying plants by their leaves, these threw me for a loop. Bending the hand-written plant stake, I could just make out the first word -- Lamium.

What was she thinking? With several undisciplined herds of various Lamium maculatum (spotted nettle) cultivars already running amok in my garden, a gift of another lamium, atypical though it may be, did not exactly make me leap for joy.

If you haven’t grown any, lamium in the right spot can be a choice ground cover for shady gardens. It’s fast growing, thrives in most light conditions, and those with silver coloration to their leaves can positively dazzle the eye in deep, dark corners of the garden.

But it can also run like the dickens in all directions, rooting as it goes, taking over not only your garden, but your neighbor’s as well.

Still, I trust Ellen.

Hers is a garden of extraordinary distinction – a combination of drop-dead gorgeous flowers and heady fragrances so intoxicating in all their diversity – a virtual Eden in which plants from various different continents co-exist and play peacefully amongst themselves.

So, if she said I’d like it …. but, lamium?

Well, that was four years ago. Today, Lamium orvala is one of my prized woodland garden jewels! Instead of scrambling along the ground, L. orvala is a handsome dude … an upright, tallish, clump-former, clothed in triangular, soft, highly veined, and somewhat hairy, serrated leaves.

The fact that this easily propagated, easily grown statuesque perennial is generally not available in most nurseries speaks of prejudice. It’s one of the first woodlanders to welcome the new season and one of the last to succumb to the icy fingers of late fall.

With its dense gray-green foliage, it looks good even out of bloom --- and yet, the blooms, on close-up, are spectacular. This easy-going cousin of our native dead nettles sends up intriguingly beautiful whorled spikes of rosy-pink, hooded, orchid-like flowers in late spring.

Native to the woodlands of Central Europe, Italy, Hungary, and the Balkans, the plant's flowers bloom for me from early May through mid-June. The blossoms appear in whorls around the tiered leaf axils, and the greenish bracts the blossoms leave behind are attractively spiky, giving rise to yet another season of interest.

Though L. orvala prefers a lightly shaded spot in humus-rich, moisture-retentive soil, where it has protection from strong, harsh winds, it is an amazingly adaptable plant, tolerating both dry conditions and, for brief periods of time, some standing water.

Hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, it is somewhat of a slow growing, incredible clump-former, which, under ideal conditions, can reach a height of 26 to 30 inches with a width to match. And the good-natured plant does not exhibit any of the rambunctious characteristics of its relatives.

Butterflies are attracted to the blossoms, but fortunately, it’s not particularly attractive to deer, which tend to leave it alone in favor of tastier treats.

This non-spreading perennial is also available in a white flowered form, L. orvala ‘Alba’. I’ve noticed some plants of ‘Alba’ are more cream-colored than white or have pink tinges, but my singular addition sports pristine white blossoms. Another sibling, L. orvala ‘Silva’, shows a light silver stripe down the center of its leaf. Both are incredibly hard to find, which in my opinion, makes us all the poorer.

Next up, the remainder of my current heartthrobs.

Betty Earl, author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” is one of eight garden writers who blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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