There is nothing quite like the evening scent of border phlox – it takes me straight back to childhood with its sweet, peppery perfume. A native of the eastern United States cultivated here since the 1800’s, border phlox come in a range of shades of pink, salmon, white and magenta. The flowers are soft, fresh and clear, carried on tall stalks of generally plain green leaves, which are a perfect foil for the dahlias and Michaelmas daisies and other lovelies of the late summer border.
Generally I don’t like variegated foliage which to me is distracting to the eye, but I make an exception for ‘Norah Leigh’, which has green leaves with cream splashed edges. The flowers start as pinky-mauve buds opening to pale flowers with the same darker pinky-mauve centres, and the whole plant creates a freshness in the late summer when other perennials are running wild and rambling all over the place, in danger of descending into opulent chaos.
Border phlox are hungry plants needing a rich retentive soil, which makes them perfect for our clay conditions. They can be prone to powdery mildew which can be avoided if they are kept well-watered and not overcrowded. I pinch out some of the growing tips in the early summer (or sometimes cut lower if the plant is quite thin) which encourages a later and thicker regrowth, and more but smaller panicles of flowers. They are at their best when grown in cool conditions or part shade, where the colours of the flowers can really stand out.
Norah Leigh herself was a gardener in the Cotswolds whose daughter married Joe Elliott (the son of Clarence Elliott - plant hunter, horticulturalist and owner of The Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage, which closed in 1954). She had been growing this phlox for years in her garden and passed it on to Joe who was carrying on the family tradition with a successful alpine nursery in Broadwell, near Stow on the Wold. The plant had been quite a rarity for many years as it is slow to propagate (root cuttings do not hold the variegation), but now thanks to micropropagation we can all enjoy this light and elegant phlox in our gardens.