Phemeranthus calycinum The "Large Flowered Fame Flower" - Cactus Club

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Phemeranthus calycinum The "Large Flowered Fame Flower"

Plant of the Month > Species O to P

by Bruce Brethauer

   The "Large Flowered Fame Flower" is a member of the purslane family, producing short, more or less ascending, succulent stems (to about 6 inches in height on my plants), and slender, cylindrical foliage, measuring from about 1.5 to 3 inches in length. The vegetative portion of these plants have the general appearance of a rather nondescript sedum plant, but it is the flowers of this species which accounts for its particular charm: these are star shaped, measuring from about 1/2 to nearly 1 inch across, (although some growers report flowers which are somewhat larger than those produced on my plants), and the petals are typically of the brightest magenta/hot pink. The flowers are borne on tall, branching, wiry scapes, with plants producing a succession of flowers which can last from late spring, through summer and until the first frost of fall, with a peak season lasting about 3 weeks through the hottest days of summer. Flowers only open in the afternoon, and only on sunny days. Each individual flower lasts but a single day, accounting for both the common name of this species ("Fame Flower" - as in "fleeting as fame") and its generic name, "Phemeranthus", which is derived from the word ephemera - meaning "lasting for a day". It is widely distributed through the South Central states, and (presumably) with its range extending into the northern states of Mexico. Due to its wide distribution and attractive appearance, it is widely known, and goes by a number of common names, including: "Large Flowered Fame Flower", "Fame  Flower", and "Flame Flower", and in my experience, various growers also give this plant a variety of specific names , including Talinium calycinum, Talinium parviflorus, Phemeranthus calycinum, and Phemeranthus parviflorus. For years, I have identified my plants as P. parviflorus, but in researching this plant more recently, I have come to believe that my plant is most likely P.calycinum; (Phemeranthus parviflorus is a somewhat smaller plant with differently shaped leaves, smaller flowers, and with shorter scapes).

      The "Large Flowered Fame Flower" has been gracing my various gardens for the past 20 years or so. Over the years, I have come to regard it as one of my favorites of the family, for its ease of care, its compact size, and the charming display of flowers which lasts pretty much throughout the summer months, when many of the perennials in my garden are finishing up for the season. Perhaps the most memorable feature of this plant is that its flowers are held so high above the foliage, on such wire-thin scapes, the flowers frequently give the impression of floating on air. It is a tough survivor, thriving in gravely/rocky/sandy soils, prevailing under hot, sun-baked conditions which would stress or kill most other plants. It is a great companion plant for hardy cactus beds, and mixed plantings of "Hens and Chicks", sedum, and delosperma. It is rated hardy through a zone 5, and can be grown as an annual in regions with colder winters. Where it is happy and thriving, the "Large Flowered Fame Flower" will readily produce numerous "volunteers" from scattered seed. Under optimal conditions, it will produce dense thickets, where its flowers will show to full advantage. Where its needs are well matched to the site, this plant has the potential to become a nuisance, but it has been my experience that this plant is not invasive - it does not compete well with faster and taller growing plants; and even when it grows among slower growing plants (cacti and alpines for example), any unwanted volunteers are easily pulled (the roots are similar to the minute roots of seedling beets - they are especially easy to pull when the ground is wet). These pulled seedlings can be potted up or transplanted to other sites; they do not seem to suffer much from transplant shock, and will readily establish themselves in any sunny, well drained site.

   I think that some growers may make the mistake of restricting themselves to one or two plants of this species, and end up with a rather poor impression of this plant. One or two plants may be adequate for a mixed planting of alpines in a hypertufa trough, but would be completely lost in a large garden bed. To really appreciate this plant, allow it to completely colonize a space about the size of a small window box or larger. A dense planting containing dozens (or hundreds) of plants will give the best impression, and will maintain good color throughout most of the summer (individual plants may periodically be without flowers, but with many plants, you should never be completely without flowers once their flowering season has begun). Don't worry about buying dozens of plants: start with one or two, and either allow it to re-seed naturally, or gather seed from the ripe capsules, and and plant these either immediately, or in fall (it is my experience that cold stratification benefits germination in this plant). By the second year, you should have dozens of plants - and these will mature quickly to produce a pretty impressive display of flowers. Older plants typically produce a better display than seedlings, so the colony will look even better in its third year.

The Fame Flower is, in my opinion, one of the great, and mostly undiscovered, American natives. It is an easy, and undemanding plant that thrives in hot dry rocky, sandy, gravely sites where few other desirable plants really thrive. But despite its many good traits, it is not commonly found in the trade; to date, I have never seen it in any of our local nurseries, and it is not always readily available from specialists nurseries. I originally acquired seed from Mesa Garden, and plants are sometimes offered at  High Country Gardens and Arrowhead Alpines. Gardeners who specialize in winter hardy cacti and other succulents will frequently grow this plant, and would be a source of plants or seed. I also suspect that the seed of this and related species may occasionally be offered on the CSSA Seed Depot

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