The simple vinca plant is being celebrated this year. The National Garden Bureau has designated 2002 as the "Year of the Vinca" because the plant provides so much garden color with so little care.
Clear flower colors and glossy green leaves make vinca indispensable for season-long interest in the garden and in containers. Add in virtually no maintenance to these drought-tolerant plants and you have a winning combination.
Native to Madagascar, vinca performs as an annual in our region. It blooms beautifully from the first warm days of late spring to the first frost in fall.
Vincas are sun-loving annuals that prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH of 6 to 6.5. They need well drained but not particularly rich soil. Space them 8 to 12 inches apart for a border edging and 6 to 8 inches for a quick ground cover.
Water infrequently once the plants have become established. Don't worry if the leaves curl up during the day in the hot summer drought. They will unfurl when evening arrives with its touch of dew.
Use vinca to edge a border of annual or perennial flowers or to weave color through the bed or container. Plant vinca as a ground cover to fill in empty spaces in the flower bed. Even the most vibrantly colored vinca flowers will not overpower other flowers.
Because they are drought-tolerant, vincas are particularly well-suited for containers. They look great in combination with blue or red salvias, geraniums, zinnias, French marigolds and petunias.
Unlike other annuals, vincas need no deadheading. The spent flower blossoms drop off naturally so plants stay neat looking. Mulch the soil around the plant and fertilize monthly with a granular or water-soluble fertilizer.
Although vinca can be started from seed, most gardeners purchase bedding plants. Look for plants with bright green foliage.
A telltale sign of potential root rot is a vinca with yellowed leaves on the upper or lower portion of the plant. Stay clear of leggy plants, too. Seek out the more compact, well-branched specimens.
Vinca typically grows up to 18 inches tall, although dwarf varieties, such as Heatwave Pink are available.
Vinca has been cultivated for centuries in Europe, India, China and the United States by gardeners and herbalists.
In Europe and elsewhere it was used to treat all kinds of diseases, from coughs and sore throats to eye and lung infections. Among the most interesting was its folk use in treating diabetes, an idea not lacking in scientific provenance.
Twentieth-century researchers discovered that the plant contains dozens of alkaloids, some of them lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
In the 1950s two alkaloids were discovered that are the source of anticancer drugs. However, leave the use of vinca in medicine to the professionals the scientists. You can enjoy them in their modern forms in your garden for their beauty and easy maintenance.
All vinca flowers are simple; they are single, never double. Breeders are working to improve the germination rates and add even more color to the vinca palate. Larger flowers, overlapping petals and trailing habits also are being sought. Most modern varieties have overlapping petals.
Thanks to extensive breeding, the color range of vinca now includes pink, deep rose, red, scarlet, white with red eye, lavender blue with white eye, peach, apricot, orchid, raspberry, burgundy and many other shades.
What this means to gardeners is that the reliable vinca will have better garden performance. No wonder the National Garden Bureau has honored it.
Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and home and garden writer for the Journal-World.