Wednesday, July 08, 2009

If you water me in summer I'll die: Lewisia redivia

Lewisia redivia in the wild - growing in dark basalt rock

When my husband John started rock gardening, one of the attractions was to grow little-known and unusual plants such as Lewisia. Native to western North America, these alpine perennials are named for explorer Meriweather Lewis. (Maybe you have dim memories of learning about Lewis and Clark in high school too?)

One lovely Lewisia in our rock garden is L. coteledon, above, which John grew from seed. It lives in the garden wall and has thrived there for a number of seasons. (Not all alpines make it through our eastern winters with their rainy January thaws and sometimes cold, snowless weeks in February.)

The strangest Lewisia that John grows is L. rediviva, commonly known as bitterroot. When he first started growing it, I couldn't figure out why anyone would bother with a plant that must stay completely dry in the summer. If it gets watered, L. rediviva dies, so it has to be grown in pots and kept away from those who carry around a garden hose.

Our Lewisia rediviva in bloom and dormant

This need for summer dryness is an adaptation to a very dry natural habitat, best described as cold desert. The plant grows in gritty, gravelly soils in places where most of the annual precipitation falls as snow and there is very little rainfall during the growing season. L. rediviva likes it cold in the winter and dry in the summer. The plants have big fleshy roots, which keep them alive through dormancy.

When this plant was discovered in the early 19th century and specimens were sent to collectors, it attracted a good deal of interest when a dried specimen returned to life and began to grow, but the first attempts to grow it in Britain failed. The plants all died in that moist summer environment.

John's plants live in clay pots. They bloom sweetly in June and when the flowers are finished, he lets them dry out. Already they have gone completely dormant sitting on the front porch where they won't get rained on. Later they will spend the rest of the summer unwatered in the basement and over-winter in our unheated hoophouse.

The things rock gardeners do to keep unusual specimens going!

Photo credit (top photo): Thanks to wanderflechten, Flickr

© Yvonne Cunnington, Country Gardener


  1. I used to grow things that were hard to do, but stopped a few years ago.

    I'm now the opposite, if it needs to be staked, (except tomatoes) tied, or brought indoors to over winter...forget it.

    If anything flops over onto the lawn it get mowed over too.

  2. Hi Alan: I understand completely, though I haven't succumbed to utter laissez faire gardening yet. Have to admit that I'm tempted.

  3. I think it is worth the effort Yvonne! It's a beauty.


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