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Geum coccineum

Scarlet avens (Geum coccineum) has bright red flowers and interesting leaves.

In May and June, when the garden is full of preening beauties—not that there's anything wrong with being a preening beauty, mind you—it's easy to lose sight of the little guys. But without these modest plants, the garden would be unbearable—it would be like being trapped at a cocktail party where all the other guests were movie stars, top-ranking politicians, and Fortune 500 CEOs. It's all a question of balance: a few attention grabbers are fine as long as there are plenty of small folk to set them off and give them a context. Small doesn't have to mean mousy or negligible, however. Small can be elegant. Small can be exciting.

Some of the most elegant and exciting small perennials I know are selections of Geum coccineum. These plants haven't received much attention, which is puzzling, since they are gems in several senses of the word, being easy of culture, small in size, beautiful of leaf, and adorned with brilliant flowers over a long season. My favorite is called ‘Feuermeer’, which was selected in the early 1960s by the late German nurseryman Heinz Klose. What a charmer! The rounded, pleated, deeply veined leaves overlap each other to form a neat clump about eight inches across, which stays in pristine condition all through the season; in fact, the plant is nearly evergreen in my USDA Zone 6b Boston garden. I would grow it for the foliage alone; the leafy, graceful sprays of small, radiant, red-orange flowers—delicate and bold all at once—which appear on and off all summer and into the fall, are a delightful bonus. I also like the slightly smaller ‘Werner Arends’.

These plants demand little other than a reasonably fertile, retentive, well-drained soil, full sun to partial shade, and a moderate level of moisture. (I suspect they wouldn't be happy in blazing sun in dry, sandy soil.) In my garden, they make lively companions for coppery-leaved Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ and indigo Aquilegia ‘Hensol Harebell’ at the front of a sunny border, but of course you could also use them to change a big, flashy peony or Oriental poppy from a solo act into an ensemble. You just need to think small.

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