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Diggin' It

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.

By Betty Earl / January 11, 2010

This charming perennial with lovely white flowers is Lamium orvala 'Alba.'

Photo courtesy of Betty Earl

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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.

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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!”

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.

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