It looks like the sky has fallen and landed among my perennials. Purple-blue flowers formed a dense carpet nearly obscuring the thick layer of green foliage underneath—and the whole show was only a few inches high. I have a weakness for “blue” flowers (when it comes to botanical descriptions, usually that means purple), and the various speedwells are at the top of my list.
The genus Veronica currently includes more than 500 species, although botanists are busy rethinking their taxonomy. While they ponder, I prefer to focus on the ones I can grow in my garden; there are a number of similar species in cultivation, each with their own assortment of named varieties. Sizes range from mid-sized perennials growing a foot or more tall to the diminutive ground cover I described above. Some, such as Woolly Speedwell (V. pectinata), have thick, fleshy leaves that look like tiny chubby ferns, while others have long, thin strap-like leaves attached to tall stems.
The plants may look different, but the flowers are clearly close relatives. Most Veronicas are a luscious periwinkle blue-purple—a primary reason I cherish them—although the tall, spiky racemes of V. spicata (above, right) come in white and pink as well. The flowers are generally small, but there are so many of them! A close examination shows a white center surrounded by five petals, with lines pointing inward to tell bees and other pollinators where to aim.
Speedwells are easy to grow. They generally prefer full sun, although they tolerate light shade (although you’ll get fewer flowers). Most are somewhat drought resistant, but rot away in soggy soils. Although nothing survives famished rabbits or deer, most speedwells “tolerate” some browsing.
Here are my favorites; all do exceptionally well in Colorado, and are hardy to zone 4.
Woolly Speedwell (V. pectinata), as mentioned above, has thicker foliage, but it too forms a low-growing mat smothered with purple-blue flowers in mid-spring. As an added bonus, the plants are evergreen, even in cold winter areas. This species is particularly drought-resistant, thriving with only 10 to 30 inches of rain per year.
Turkish Speedwell (V. liwanensis) has tiny spade-shaped leaves on prostrate stems. It’s only one to two inches tall, but can spread up to two feet across. Bloom time is April to May at lower elevations, later as you ascend. Originally from western Asia, it does very well in Colorado’s comparable climate, surviving drought and shallow, rocky soil, but not waterlogged roots. You can grow it in zones 4 through 9.
A cross between these two, Crystal River® Veronica (Veronica ‘Reavis’, below), combines the best of both species, and was named a PlantSelect winner in 2003.
Prostrate (aka Harebell) Speedwell (V. prostrata) grows a bit taller, six to nine inches. It sends out long stems that enable it to spread, but it isn’t invasive. This species comes from Europe, so prefers a bit more water—what we’d call “average” irrigation. The flowers are tiny, less than a half-inch across, but there are so many that the effect is still very showy. They appear a month later than V. liwanensis.
While the cultivated species hail from overseas, there are also a number of wild Veronicas native to various parts of North America. You can easily recognize them in bloom by their flowers—obviously all part of the same genus as our garden plants.
Veronicas from top: V. peduncularis, unlabeled Veronica, V. spicata, another unlabeled Veronica, V. pectinata, V. liwanensis, Crystal River® Veronica, V. prostrata.