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Gaura spp.

Gardeners do love their perennials. They delight in watching them grow and artfully combining them with neighboring plants. They savor those "in bloom" moments, and they generously share their stock (sometimes) with friends. But most of all, they love to discover new ones.

Gaura lindheimeri is a relative newcomer to Chicago-area perennial borders. Native to Texas and Louisiana and planted widely on the West Coast, it might seem an unlikely candidate for Midwest gardens. But those who grow the white 'Whirling Butterflies', bright pink 'Siskiyou Pink', or the yellow and green variegated 'Corries's Gold' know what treats await.

The straight species forms a clump that produces long, wandlike stems bearing pinkish white, four-petaled flowers that open one at a time, from the bottom up, in gladiolus fashion. These slender flower stems tend to wave in the wind, with the flowers dancing like tiny butterflies. Gaura must be grown in full sun, in soil that drains rapidly. An overly rich soil will encourage stems to fall. The plant forms a strong taproot that allows it to withstand heat and drought once established. It is also tolerant of humidity and has no known insect or disease problems. Perhaps best of all, it blooms for a long time, from early summer to autumn, especially if the entire flower stem is removed as blossoms fade.

There have been some improvements on the original plant as breeders sought to develop more compact plants with brighter flowers and less floppiness.

  • 'Whirling Butterflies' was one result. At 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, it yields numerous bright white flowers with no pink overtones, and the very narrow foliage is spotted with dark red.
  • 'Crimson Butterflies' is compact at 18 inches, with red foliage and stems but bright pink blooms.
  • 'Siskiyou Pink' is nicely compact at 2 feet, and its red buds open to bright pink flowers.
  • 'Passionate Pink' is 2 1/2 feet tall, with shiny pink flowers and red foliage.
  • 'Sunny Butterflies' is more upright, at 2 feet, with pink flowers and variegated foliage.
  • 'Corrie's Gold' is another compact plant with pink and white flowers and yellow variegated leaves.

Since Chicago represents the coldest end of this plant's hardiness (zones 5 to 9), it makes sense to mulch over winter. Plant Gaura in borders where companion plants will show it to advantage. Its delicate color, grasslike texture, and extended bloom time will endear Gaura to perennial aficionados everywhere.