A swarm of flowers
Amateur Gardening|September 25, 2021
Tall and long flowering, sanguisorbas are wonderful border plants that look like a swarm of bees from a distance – and you can plant them now, says Hazel Sillver
Hazel Sillver

LOVED by garden designers, sanguisorbas (burnets) are tall perennials that boast flower power and have a ‘see-through’ quality. Their poker-like flowerheads float atop slender stems, providing glimpses of the plants behind, in turn giving the border a lightweight feel. They are also easy to grow, attractive to bees and can be cut for the vase. And now is the ideal time to plant them for summer flowers next year.

In the wild, sanguisorba grows in moist mountain meadows in the temperate northern hemisphere. The name stems from the Latin sanguis (blood) and sorbere (absorb) because it was once used to staunch wounds. Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor), which has wonderfully weird green and red globular flowerheads, was introduced here in the 16th century as a herb. It was planted on paths, as it releases scent when trodden on, and the leaves (which have a very bitter, cucumber taste) were eaten. It is now one of our wildflowers, abundant on chalk downlands.

Many of the burnets favoured by garden designers have similar compact flowerheads. S. officinalis ‘Red Thunder’resembles a swarm of dark-red bees from a distance. And the blooms of the superb S. ‘Cangshan Cranberry’ look like pink-red catkins. On branching stems as thin as wire, they create an open screen through which a view of plants behind can be seen.

Other sanguisorbas (such as the pink S. hakusanensis and S. obtusa) have a softer look, resembling squirrel tails or bottlebrushes. S. tenuifolia var. alba has shaggy white catkins, while S. ‘Pink Brushes’ has rosy caterpillar-like flowers. These softer burnets have less of the see-through quality, but offer bags of charm and fit into cottage-style gardens.

Airy quality

Blooming from July to September, and trouble-free in the right conditions, burnets easily earn their place. Their airy quality, which creates layers in the border, means they mix well with other billowy plants, such as Verbena hastata f. rosea and Oenothera lindheimeri. They also have lovely divided leaves, which can turn fiery shades in autumn. Plant them now for beautiful swarms of flowers next year.

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