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Veratrum nigra

Larry Davidson

Every so often a plant emerges that completely baffles me. Something so striking I can't understand why it isn't available everywhere. Veratrum nigra is an example of a great plant that's hard to find. It is easy to forget about and then – wham – spring comes and there is this lush leaf-extravaganza thrusting out of the soil in the most amazing way.

Later in the season it has small, dark brown, almost black flowers, but it is the pleated nature of the leaves that is truly enchanting. They come out of the ground in a dense sheath, then unfurl, looking like something Issey Miyake dreamed up.

This is the ultimate shade plant, and in the wild lasts for 40 years. It only tolerates part sun, and only if it has terrific soil, but to my eye, it looks best in the gloom. It grows from 60 to 120 centimetres (more likely the latter after a few years). This is a plant for a damp place, and slugs and deer avoid it.

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To plant it: Make a wide hole the same depth as the plant and add lots of organic matter to the bottom and top of the hole. This will ensure good drainage. Keep it out of the wind, which will dry out those luscious leaves. This is definitely not a plant for a drought-prone garden. However, I've seen it grow with extraordinary vigour in a garden where it is pretty much ignored. Mind you, it's in superb soil there.

This plant is better known in homeopathic circles than in garden groups. Every part of it is toxic. The roots creep along underground, so it's called rhizomatous (spread by rhizomes), but it's not invasive and stays in place with the leaves rising out of the base. The black flowers come out in terminal panicles (as lilacs do), but it doesn't matter if they bloom or not. The British horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll used to cut off the flowers, but they do add a striking addition to the shade garden in midsummer, and I would leave them alone. This is one of the loveliest of all shade plants, so let's pressure growers to please get on with growing it.

$18 at Lost Horizons in Acton, Ont., losthorizons.ca.

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