Anemonopsis macrophylla, False anemone
August is often a time of quiet beauty in shady perennial gardens where there is generally an appropriate reliance on foliage shapes, forms, sizes and colors to provide interest at this time of year. This state of affairs, where foliage reigns, is due in part to the fact that so many popular shade loving plants are early blooming ephemerals whose flowers, and sometimes foliage, have come and gone by mid-summer. Add to this the rush to garden in spring, the nearly insatiable desire for color, and the exuberant acquisition of plants that occurs around Memorial Day and then peters off thereafter, and it’s easy to understand why many gardens, not only shady ones, peak in early summer.
Seasoned gardeners and those in-the-know eventually seek out plants that will carry the day in July and August. Some of those, of course, are wonderful foliage plants, but there are many choices which provide a satisfying floral display as well. In shady borders, cultivars of Anemone, Astilbe, Gentiana, Kirengeshoma, Ligularia, Tricyrtis and are among the perennials that hold out for later bloom, adding both interest and fodder for pollinators in August and September. Unaccountably uncommon and worthy of adding to the list is the lovely False Anemone (Anemonopsis macrophylla), a shade loving perennial which is easy to cultivate, pest and disease resistant, and adds interest from July into September.
Anemonopsis macrophylla is the only member of its genus, and is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) along with Anemone, columbine (Aquilegia), and bugbane (Actaea sp.), all which share similar physical characteristics. In fact, the name Anemonopsis alludes to its resemblance to Anemone; Anemon for Amemone and –opsis meaning like. Many similarities exist between the flowers, each bearing numerous individual petals and distinct and numerous stamens and pistils, but false anemone flowers are conspicuously pendant and the petals, which have heavy substance, can only be described as waxy. An outer whorl of petals flares out horizontally above the inner whorl and the petals are lightly blushed with lavender. The inner petals are far shorter, remain pendant, and overlap to form an elegant cup around the stamens and pistils. Each inner petal is trimmed in deep purple with the leading edge traced in a thin line of white.
Two pure white cultivars, ’White Swan’ and ‘Alba’, are even rarer than the species and a double-flowered form, also with pristine white petals, is listed rarely. Flower buds are held on gracefully arching pedicels which depart from wiry, 2’ tall stems. The stems are often ebony-hued, adding to the particular beauty of this plant. Pale green buds dangle expectantly, pearl-like, throughout July only beginning to open in early August, then displaying airy masses of flowers which dance above the deep green foliage until early September. The wiry, leafless stems remain upright while the buds remain closed, but, as the petals unfurl and the flower gains size, the stems begin to lean elegantly, rarely flopping, but rather displaying a relaxed countenance.
The specific epithet, macrophylla, refers to the plants large basal leaves. Each ternately compound leaf expands to 24” across; smaller leaflets are deeply lobed with unevenly serrated edges. In all, the foliage mass is usually 12-15” tall. The foliage is similar to that of black bugbane (Actaea racemosa), but the color of Anemonopsis leaves are slightly darker and boast a distinct sheen. The species is native to the island of Honshu, Japan where it is known in only a few mountainous woodlands, rare now even in its native habitat.
In the garden, this subtle beauty is best situated in full shade or morning light, in rich, organic soil. Ample moisture will produce the most robust and floriferous plants, though it resents excessively moist or soggy locations. The false anemone is particularly resentful of winter wet. Protect from midday sun and drying winds or the foliage will scorch. It is quite hardly, often listed as being suited to USDA hardiness zone 4 (-30 degrees Fahrenheit). I have personally trialed it in the colder part of zone 5 with unfailing success. In 20 or so years, it has not succumbed to rabbit, vole or deer damage, and while it occasionally sports some perforations in foliage from unknown assailants (see photo), it has yet to sustain damage that rises to aesthetically objectionable levels.
When flowering is finished, allow the seeds to mature in their upward facing follicles until the follicle turns brown and splits open (dehisces) to reveal the ripe seeds within. Seeds require a cold period to break dormancy and permit germination. Sowing in flats and leaving outdoors for the winter is a simple way to satisfy the need for cold stratification. Left to its own devices, the false anemone will self-sow gently in the garden. Flowers are self-fertile, so there is no need to start with more than a single plant, though they are best enjoyed in masses and are particularly useful for sloped areas in the shade where the flowers can be viewed from below. When seed dispersal is complete, the foliage, which is deciduous, can be cut to the ground for the winter.
In addition to combining nicely with the closely related plants mentioned above, Anemonopsis is wonderful in borders which include other shade loving companions such as European ginger (Asarum europaeum), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), fairywings (Epimedium), hepatica (Anemone sp,) and early blooming ephemerals like Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), wakerobin (Trillium sp.) and fumeworts (Corydalis sp.).
Joann Vieira, Director of Horticulture, The Trustees of Reservations