Short plants got no reason to….Verbesina olsenii


Illustration by Ippy Patterson

by Tony Avent

In a world where most plant breeders and nursery folks buy into the mistaken proposition that all homeowners want short plants, I embrace a different notion.

I can’t imagine anything worse than opening my front door and seeing all of the plants in my garden at one glance – it would be like having the interior of my home decorated entirely with midget-sized furniture.

One of my long-time favorite trend-bucking
giant perennials is the Mexican winged crown beard, Verbesina olsenii, which I first learned about in 1998 when my friends at Yucca Do Nursery collected its seeds in Northern Mexico.

The giant Verbesina olsenii is not for the faint of heart. It grows at a rate that would make Jack – the one who successfully cultivated beanstalks – proud. Emerging from the ground in late spring, its giant stalks reach skyward, topping out in late summer at a shade-producing 10 feet tall.

I’d grow Verbesina olsenii for the stems alone, which are amazing: one-inch wide and square, with oversized papery wings lining each corner. As these stalks stretch skyward, the wings gradually disappear from the base, which begins to look like a tree trunk. From it emerge stalks with 20-inch-long, thick, green, fuzzy, bold-textured leaves…about the size and shape of Sasquatch’s feet.

By early fall, the clump has reached its full height, although its ground footprint is only four feet wide. Verbesina olsenii finally gets around to flowering, but only when it senses frost is fast approaching. Sometimes it miscalculates slightly, and the developing flowers are singed by an early freeze.

If they bloom on time, the plant’s giant clusters of small, bright yellow, delightfully fragrant flowers are held atop the 10-foot-tall stalks. To see them, you should plant the winged crown beard where you can look at it from above. Other possibilities include renting a hot air balloon for a flyover, or buying a pair of binoculars.

In its native haunts, Verbesina olsenii can be found growing in light shade, but it makes a much more attractive and larger specimen in full sun.

In our garden, Verbesina olsenii reaches the size of a small dogwood before it dies back to the ground each winter. Although it pains garden neat-freaks, I prefer allowing the dried tan stalks to stand through the winter until frozen precipitation renders them unsightly, because they’re really great structurally, perfect for decorating with Christmas lights.

In my opinion, assembling a well-designed garden is a lot like assembling a basketball team: a few taller members provide balance, and can be very effective.  

You’re not likely to find Verbesina olsenii at your local nursery, but it is easy to find online.