Veratrum nigrum

This stately and curious herbaceous plant has been cultivated in Britain for four hundred years, but is not widely grown today. True, it is a large plant, some 5 feet (1.5 m) tall and 2 feet (60 cm) wide, but it makes such a sensation in summer in a shady bed that it is worth finding space for a single plant, or a group of three, if you can provide the right conditions. It is quite hardy.

The plant forms an impressive pyramid with spikes of tiny purple-black velvety flowers crowded up the stem as though a swarm of bees had settled there. The spikes shoot up from very large longitudinally pleated and deeply veined leaves. Like a piece of sculpture, these need space round them to be appreciated, so do not plant anything competitive near Veratrum. Self-effacing plants of medium size, like Salvia superba or blue rue will be the best sort of companions, or silver artemisias or santolina. There is also a white species, V. album, but neither the leaves nor the flowers compare with V. nigrum for sinister beauty. Incidentally, the specific name ‘nigrum’ refers to the root, which is black and poisonous.

Veratrum needs rich moist soil, likes some shade and will tolerate a little lime. It is recommended for woodlands as well as for a shady border, but few of us have this amenity, and mulches of peat or leafmould must do duty for those desirable woodland conditions.

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