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I have an herb garden that stays quite dry. Although this garden is in the notoriously wet Pacific Northwest (USDA zone 8a), it is against a two story south-facing brick wall, under a large overhang, and in a sandy soil. Combining that with our rainless summers and a hard-nosed gardener who refuses to provide supplemental water after a plant's second year, it is surprising anything survives. And yet, all the standard dry soil herbs, thyme, chives, fennel, tarragon, sage, and rosemary, are all doing well in this little piece of Provence in Washington State.

I am looking for a plant (perennial) for a spot behind a rugosa rose against the wall. It must be narrow so it does not crowd the rose, but tall, 4 to 6 feet, so it stands up above the rose.

Here is the trouble: the typical tall, narrow dry-soil perennials — mulleins (Verbascum), yucca, or fox-tail lilies (Eremurus) — may have flowers that will go up above the rose, but that important part of the plant, the foliage, will be shaded by the rose. As the rose gets bigger, the problem will get worse.

A lily might be a acceptable plant choice, but lilies and dry soils do not get along well. My research tells me the madonna lily (Lilium candidum) is from the dry eastern Mediterranean, but I am skeptical.

  1. Have you grown madonna lilies (or other lilies) on a dry soil and succeeded?
  2. Can you think you any better choices?
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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

My skepticism about growing lilies in dry situations was overcome when I stumbled across a PlantAnswers article on growing lilies (Lilium) in Texas. They only list four lilies that grow in Texas, three of which might be useful in the the herb garden. Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) is the one especially well adapted to the drier part of the state.

Madonna lily (Lilium candidum):

It is most adapted to the alkaline areas of Texas including North and Central Texas. The Madonna lily can occasionally be found surviving in Central Texas cemeteries, primarily those of German heritage.

Tiger Lily (Lilium lancifolium syn. L. tigrinum):

The tiger lily is a common inhabitant of many older gardens throughout Texas and the South ... It seems to thrive best in the acid sandy soils of East Texas and the southeastern states. Its bright orange flowers speckled with dark spots are its easily recognized feature.

Philippine Lily (Lilium formosanum):

The relatively obscure Philippine lily is perhaps the most adapted of all. It is native to Taiwan and the Philippines. It is a very tall growing lily (3-5 feet) that produces it's cluster of drooping, fragrant, white trumpets during the late summer ... It is adapted to all areas of the state.

Madonna lily and Philippine lily might work very well behind the rose.

Inspired by Mike's suggestion of royal catchfly, I also looked for possible alternative plants from among the natives of the (dry-mesic) tall grass prairie since they will be used to have their bases shaded by the surrounding grasses. I found a couple options that were tall and narrow enough:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), 3-4'+, 1-2' wide.

Rough Gayfeather (Liatris aspera), 3-5' high, 1-3' wide.

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya), 3-5' high, 2-3' wide.

Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum rigidum syn. Solidago rigida), 3-6' high, 1-3' wide.

Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), 3-6' high, 1-3' wide.

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This answer does not quite fit the specs but it works well with tough rugosa roses.
A species clematis like clematis tangutica will climb up and around a rose and coexist with it. I have grown several in various locations. Tough, needs full sun, not fussy as to soil and decorative seed heads that are attractive in winter. Sadly, I see that is now considered an invasive plant in Bow Valley, Alberta but I have not found it be a problem where I garden in Ontario.

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+1 A vine is an excellent alternative. I like C. tangutica. –  Eric Nitardy Sep 17 '11 at 15:43

Not a perennial, but an ornamental grass, I can't recommend the below Switchgrass enough (I have 15 of them in my garden and planted 8 of them last year in one of our streets common ground areas):

Also another striking Switchgrass that might work (I planted 2 of them last year in one of our streets common ground areas):

A perennial that might work, though it may not be quite tall enough for your particular needs (I have one in my Missouri native garden):

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I have feather reed grass (Calamagrostis a. 'Stricta') elswhere in the garden. A grass might look a bit odd behind the rose. Royal catchfly looks interesting though. It has the same form as a lily, the foliage runs up the flower stem. There must other (taller) prairie natives with that form. That is where I will look. –  Eric Nitardy Sep 17 '11 at 15:43

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