Tapien Verbena

Family: Verbenaceae (Verbena family)
Genus: Verbena
Named Variety: Tapien

It is always a pleasure to visit with Al McHenry, our esteemed Master Gardener Coordinator—but meeting Al and his bride at a nursery center is a particular treat. Not long ago, we found ourselves sharing information about plant choices and comparing notes amidst shelves of spring-flowering perennials, and I noticed quite a few shoppers were lingering nearby to listen to what Al had to say. He recommended Tapien Verbena as an ideal groundcover. It was not yet in stock, but his experience with it led me to ask if I could write it up for this month’s column. Who among us can resist an attractive yet undemanding plant that will fill in those bare spots with great foliage and an abundance of cheery flowers appearing in profusion from June through October?

Now, I’m quite fond of garden verbena—the Verbena x hybrida that’s a bit old-fashioned with its perky flowers, if a trifle rangy in the foliage department. It’s prone to powdery mildew, however, and it requires constant deadheading all summer. This is a tiresome chore at best. But Tapien Verbena is to common garden verbena as Superfinia petunias are to regular petunia hybrids. This is not so surprising once we consider that Tapiens (look for the very word, Verbena, to disappear from the common name) and Superfinias (ditto the Petunia) were developed by the same plant breeders. Tapien hybrids are patented—as are Superfinias—which means they can only be propagated by those who are licensed to do so by the company holding the patent rights. Without going off on the tangent of plant cartels, I’ll just note that the Tapiens we buy here—if we shop quickly, because they almost fly off the shelves, I’m told—have come to us by way of Japan, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Southern Oregon. You won’t be starting them from seed very soon. So in this column, we will assume that you begin with Tapien starts, purchased from your nursery center of choice in four-packs, six-packs, or four-inch pots. You’ll select from named colors: ‘Lavender’, ‘Salmon’, ‘Soft Pink’, ‘Pink’, ‘Blue Violet’, ‘Powder Blue’, and the brand-new ‘Pure White’. All of them are lovely, with airy, lacy foliage and small flowers that cover the entire plant from the first days of summer until the serious frosts of early winter. Tapiens are declared hardy to 14 degrees, and may survive mild winters here, although they are best treated as annuals and replanted every spring. They are suitable for use as ground covers and edging plants, and do beautifully in containers and hanging baskets, from which their flower-laden stems cascade spectacularly. The flowers of Tapien Verbenas are even more profuse than those of the “trailing” verbenas found on basket-stuffer racks this time of year.

The Tapiens are resistant to powdery mildew—and they require no deadheading. What a relief that is! Only 6 to 8 inches tall, these low-growing lovelies form a thick mat that smothers weeds. They don’t spread by rhizomes but grow from a central stem, although nodes along the branching stems will root if they touch the ground. Your Tapien will spread to about 18 inches in six weeks. If it oversteps its bounds, just shear it back and it will recover quickly. To make sure it does spread, you must pinch your Tapien. Give it a day or two after you’ve planted it so it can catch its breath, and then pinch the tops of the branches right off, down to the first or second set of tiny leaves. This will encourage the Tapien to spread. If you do not do this requisite pinching, your plant may choose to loll the summer away, looking scrawny and spare. Take heart that the only other grooming required is a periodic removal of dead leaves from the center of the plant.

Tapiens enjoy full or part sun and rich, well-drained soil. They tolerate sandy soil and adapt to dry conditions when planted in the ground, once they have a toehold. If you have them in a container, however, you’ll want to keep the growing medium evenly moist but not soggy. In the ground, feed them once a month with a complete fertilizer that has slightly more nitrogen. In containers, add a time-release fertilizer when you plant, or feed your Tapiens every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer.

Keep the slugs at bay while the plants are establishing themselves, and be on the lookout for white flies during the last days of summer. The only other visitors to your Tapien are likely to be butterflies, who are most fond of the sweet flowers. What scent they may have can’t be appreciated by our noses, however. Tapien flowers aren’t fragrant—some species of verbenas were scented, long ago, but that attribute was lost as breeders opted for flower size and form instead—and if you’re hoping to catch a whiff of something similar to lemon verbena, remember that’s actually Aloysia triphylla, another species entirely.

Scent or no, I have just the place for a ‘Blue Violet’ Tapien—I shall try it tumbling down a slope of sandy soil in the front of the yard. When the butterflies are visiting, and I’m neither weeding nor deadheading, I’ll be thanking Al McHenry for his good suggestion.