Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ is in full bloom. Its sturdy stems of purple flowers have been a feature in the garden since the middle of March, and it will continue to produce blossom until autumn. Many perennial plants are often described as having long flowering seasons, but this one shines out from the rest, mainly because it is so dependable. But such a profusion of never-ending flowers requires a lot of energy, and ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ is exactly what it says on the label – a short-lived perennial. The term ‘short-lived’ is nebulous; a tentative warning to gardeners that ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ will provide you with this amazing show of flowers for three or four years, but then it may die. In reality, though, its lifespan seems to be random. I have known one plant to live for twelve years, but other plants to last only for two. Armed with this knowledge, and because I consider this plant to be such a stalwart and so indispensable, I plant a new one every May, just in case those that have been established for more than two years suddenly run out of steam.
Fresh from the garden centre, ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ looks neat and compact in its pot, but soon after planting out in the garden it begins to spread outwards, quickly forming a dense, bushy mound. Foliage is dark, dusty green in colour, and after a couple of years, the oldest stems forming the framework of the plant and woody and tough.
It loves the sun, and it gives its best display of flowers if it can look towards the summer skies, unshaded by surrounding plants. In theory, it is completely hardy, but in the garden, it seems to have a longer life if it is planted in a sheltered spot. A sun-soaked bed against a south-facing wall has been the most successful site I have found for coaxing longevity. Beds like this often also tend to have soil that is slightly alkaline and low in fertility – other qualities that suit ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ and related members of the wallflower genus very well. Again, in theory, it is evergreen, but our northern winter weather tends to leave its foliage bedraggled and dull, and it is only when spring arrives that it becomes rejuvenated and lively.
It is usually grown for appearances alone, but I am fond of it because its flowers prove irresistible to honey bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hoverflies. A mound of ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ planted close to a garden bench or patio table will allow you to observe foraging insects at very close quarters on sunny June days.
At first glance, the variety name of this plant may seem unusual, but it was named after Edward Augustus Bowles, known as Gussie to his friends. He was born in 1865 at Myddelton House, Enfield, North London, and after abandoning his studies for the priesthood, he became a highly regarded and self-taught gardener, botanist, garden writer and natural historian. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him with the Victoria Medal of Honour in 1916.