Crazy for Corydalis

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The defining plants of my pre-teen years were those that grew in the garden of my parents’ 1930’s semi-detached house in Plymouth. Climbing the walls were Rosa ‘Masquerade’ and R. ‘Albertine’, a delicious loganberry and a variegated honeysuckle which resolutely failed to flower. In the borders there were African marigolds in summer and crocuses in spring, planted in small round beds beneath standard roses: ‘Peace’, ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’. Hedges were fashioned from golden privet and red escallonia, and the walls along the drive were thronged with red valerian (Centranthus ruber) and an ineradicable weed we called bread and cheese. That plant had soft, ferny, light green foliage and clear yellow flowers sprouting from pinkish, succulent stems. It was the favourite gathering place for local snails, providing cool, lush cover, out of harm’s way. Its persistence made it part of the garden’s fabric. Although I can find no reference to it ever being referred to as bread and cheese by anyone else, I know the weed’s name: Corydalis lutea.


Corydalis lutea (photo source unknown)


Corydalis lutea (known to most as yellow fumitory), is one of those plants, like Erigeron karvinskianus or Meconopsis cambrica, that once you have it established in a wall or terrace you will never be rid of. That’s not all bad as it’s a pretty filler, but one can definitely have too much of a good thing. Yellow fumitory loves the West Country climate, which is generally damp and cool. Like so many plants, Corydalis lutea appreciates good drainage, hence a penchant for walls and rockeries. Having come up short on finding any of my own photographs of the subject in hand, I stumbled upon this one on Pinterest, demonstrating both its rapacity and its ability to act as an effortless groundcover in semi-shaded situations. Although a great visual companion for hostas, I cannot recommend it if you are susceptible to snails.


Corydalis lutea with hostas


Corydalis is a genus of about 470 species of annual and perennial herbaceous plants in the Papaveraceae family, native to the temperate Northern Hemisphere and high mountains of tropical East Africa. They are most diverse in Asia and the Himalayas, with at least 357 species originating in China. The name Corydalis comes from the Greek korydalís, which means ‘crested lark’. This refers to the delicately balanced, bird-like poise of each individual flower on the stem. Others compare them to shoals of colourful tadpoles navigating a sea of fine foliage. Corydalis flowers cover a wide colour spectrum, including red, pink, coral, orange, yellow, purple and, famously, blue.


Corydalis solida


Corydalis solida has been planted in gardens since at least the sixteenth century. It has mauvish-pink flowers and naturalises well in grass or amongst spring-flowering bulbs. Imagine it with bluebells, primroses or late flowering narcissi and then go and plant some! Two weekends ago I admired Corydalis solida subsp. solida ‘Beth Evans’ in the Lower Courtyard at Sissinghurst. This cheerful variety produces delicate, pink-spurred flowers and rarely tops six inches in height, making it ideal as an edging plant. Later in the year the foliage dies back quickly, allowing other plants to occupy the same space. Anyone craving redder flowers might try Corydalis solida subsp. solida ‘George Baker’, which has brick-red flowers that vary in colour depending on the quality of the plant and the coldness of the preceding winter. The clone was originally discovered in Romania, from whence most of the pink and red forms hail. Corydalis solida ‘Zwanenburg’ is considered the finest red form, and has been known to change hands for three figure sums.


Corydalis solida subsp. solida ‘Beth Evans’ near the Lion Pond at Sissinghurst


Personally I like the quieter colours in Corydalis, especially the hybrids between Corydalis solida and sulphur-flowered Siberian native Corydalis bracteata, known horticulturally as Corydalis × allenii. These produce pale, creamy-yellow, mauve-suffused blooms above luxuriant, silver-grey leaves. Quite the most elegant fumitories you’ll ever see.


Corydalis x allenii ‘Enno’ (Photo Fafard / Russell Stafford)


Now, to the attention-grabbing blues from Eastern Asia. The most common is Corydalis flexuosa, which has an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS. Plants have finely divided, glaucous foliage, sometimes tinged with purple. Flowers are electric blue, often tinged with purple, and are utterly irresistible. The form ‘China Blue’ has heavenly, glacier-blue flowers that carry on from spring until July.  ‘Purple Leaf’ produces mounds of smoky-blue foliage and azure flowers flushed with red. If you can track them down, Corydalis ornata and Corydalis turtschaninovii are other interesting blues.


Corydalis flexuosa ‘China Blue’


Thirty years on I find myself without any corydalis in my gardens at all, a position I am eager to remedy. Flowering in spring and early summer, Corydalis tend to have disappeared underground by midsummer, making them an ideal partner for hostas, deciduous ferns, grasses and other perennial plants which come into leaf later in the year. Corydalis will grow nicely in pots of gritty, humus-rich soil, but must be kept cool and moist in summer, otherwise they will succumb to mildew faster than you can say ‘Jack Robinson’. The one I covet most is Corydalis cheilanthifolia, pictured below in the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst, a plant one might easily mistake for a flowering fern, if such a thing existed. The leaves are finely dissected and flushed with red in spring, whilst the flowers are produced in thick, upright plumes of canary yellow. Quite a sight, even in the most exotic of gardens.

There are two National Collections of Corydalis; one in Durham, and one in Clacton-on-Sea. A comprehensive selection of seldom-found and unusual Corydalis is offered by Rare Plants in Wrexham, North Wales. Do let me know if you grow Corydalis and I have left any of your favourites out. TFG.


Corydalis cheilanthifolia







Categories: Flowers, Foliage, Musings, Perennials, Plants, Plants in Detail

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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27 comments On "Crazy for Corydalis"

  1. Corydalis cheilanthifolia seeds itself around happily in my upstate NY garden. We’ll worth having. I believe there is another cultivar however I like this one better. Good luck in finding it.

    1. I missed out propagation though! Chiltern seeds offer a few types of Corydalis seed. Anyone with Corydalis lutea would probably offer you a clump with a knowing smile. The more choice ones need to be propagated by division or rhizomes to get them true to form. Glad you found the post informative.

      1. Thanks again, I’ve WAY too much propagation going on to be adding more. I’m almost (almost…) at the point where I’m hoping some seeds won’t germinate just to ease the pressure on bench/frame space. Eyes bigger than my, er, garden!

  2. You could probably come and dig a little plant of Corydalis cheilanthifolia out of our border here at Madrona Nursery. It’s a bit of a weed there. Have you found C. flexuosa very persistant, btw? Thought it often petered out after a short time?

    1. Hi Ylva. That’s a tempting offer. I do need to pop by at some stage and stock up on some of your beautiful plants. I have been enjoying the Ypsilandra I purchased 4 or 5 years ago which have made a lovely clump in London. Anyway, I digress. I have not managed to keep Corydalis flexuosa going for long, but then, I have not tried very hard either. I was thinking I might give it another go, but I usually stumble at well drained. London is too damp and Broadstairs too warm and dry. I need to move to Cornwall or Devon!

  3. Oh my goodness. Thank you for this post. I’ve always disliked the invasive yellow corydalis that grows like a weed in our gravelly, clay soil. However, after 8 years in our home, its persistence is winning me over! Your excellent post has shown me that’s there’s also some beautiful cultivars – I might have to go out and finally add some more to the garden!

    1. Hi Emily. I think it’s wise to learn to live with Corydalis lutea and perhaps introduce it to some of its politer relatives. There are many more that I didn’t mention, particularly varieties of C. solida. As I recall our soil in Plymouth was gravelly clay, providing the drainage and moisture retention Corydalis enjoys.

  4. I’ve just received Corydalis anthriscifolia Blackberry Wine (which sounds rather luscious) from Border Alpines, a new nursery to me. I’ve not grown one before, so I’m looking forward to seeing it in flower. Maureen

  5. I am another corydalis fan. I have several named C.solida and C. cava hybrids and they produce offspring in many shades of pink and mauve. Milky white C. malkensis is lovely too. The best blue is an elata- flexuosa cross called ‘Spinners’. It is long lasting and spreads, unlike many blues which disappear.

  6. Delighted to see your championing of corydalis. Fumitory is a component of our native flora here, so in theory I should be able to grow the cultivated species in my garden. I’ve just germinated a pot of C.lutea (slow process as the seed needs over wintering) , these are destined for the garden, but the scarcer species remain in the alpine house until I have enough to try some plants out doors.

  7. My beautiful china blue is great in spring then flags, and some die. I think slugs and snails are the problem, so I dug them up to put in pot rescue, but that was a mistake!
    How to keep and propogate?

  8. I live in Toronto, Canada. Planted a yellow corydalis lutea many years ago, and its pretty flowers and foliage graced my garden all summer. However, when several volunteers sprung up in my brick walkway/patio the next spring, I realized they might be too enthusiastic, and yanked them. Last spring I put in some new plants where the corydalis used to be, and several corydalis plants emerged – they looked very pretty against dark purple and caramel heucheras. I was tempted to leave them, because I saw some growing so beautifully on a rural property with stone walls. But I resisted. Yanked them. This year I had two more plants; let them grow but deadheaded them. I am ambivalent now about whether to yank – even without flowers, the foliage is a nice foil against the colourful heuchera.

    I have several times tried blue ones – China Blue; Blue Panda, etc. but they disappeared over winter.

    This year I bought Corydalis ‘Wildside Blue’ (on a recommendation from a local gardening guru) and have kept it alive through an extremely rainy June and then the hottest and driest July on record. It is very pretty; bloomed for about 3-4 weeks (but it is a young plant).

    Here’s the plant description: “Finally a fabulous blue corydalis that grows and blooms well. A hybrid from Keith Wiley … we brought back from England … has performed very well. Lacy green foliage that doesn’t go dormant and very long blooming radiant sky blue flowers.”

    Fingers crossed. I will likely forget to post an update, so if you’re curious, email me in June 2020 if you want to know how it did over the winter.

  9. Oh, and I think the corydalis x allenii ‘Enno’ is very pretty but not sure I could find it locally. Planning to buy and plant this fall: corydalis buschii; several varieties of corydalis solida: ‘Beth Evans,’ ‘George Baker,’ ‘Penza Strain’ (Russian, mixed), and corydalis solida incisa (also mixed). I read an article which recommended one buy as many solida varieties as possible and allow them to cross. So that’s my plan, but I will keep them all in the back garden and away from the ‘Wildside Blue.’

    1. Beth Evans, George Baker and the Corydalis buschii were all lovely; it was a thrill to see them come up. Corydalis incisa is reported to be invasive in parts of the eastern US, so I did not plant it, as Toronto winters seem to be getting warmer because of climate change. For instance, the Chionodoxa luciliae and Scilla siberica have become a little too contented, especially in the vegetable bed. I deadheaded the ones in my garden and removed and donated (with full disclosure) the ones pretending to be veggies (a pain because although initially planted only a couple of inches deep, they retreat deeper into the soil and beyond easy reach of even a long trowel).

      1. Hi Luiza,
        I’m from Hamilton, Ontario. I was wondering where you purchased your Penza Strain from. I have only found China Blue here but haven’t had any luck with it.
        Thanks to Frustrated Gardener for the great article.

      2. I got Corydalis solida ‘Penza Strain’ (a bulb) and also mixed strain from Fraser’s Thimble Farm in BC. Also bought Corydalis solida ‘Purple Bird’ from Phoenix Perennials in BC and more of George Baker and Beth Evans from both nurseries. I think Art’s Nursery (also in BC) sells corydalis bulbs too.

        I got Corydalis flexuosa ‘Hillier Porcelain Blue’ from Lost Horizons in Acton, ON and it seemed quite robust and healthy. I left it in a pot in shade until the fall and then planted it in the garden. The fate of Lost Horizons is up in the air — the owners announced in the fall that if they couldn’t find a buyer, they would close (but open up in the spring to sell remaining stock; I got the last Hillier Porcelain Blue last year, so doubt if there will be any for sale this spring). However, Phoenix Perennials seems to have Hillier available for mail order.

        My Corydalis x Wildside Blue (also from Lost Horizons) did well in June, but seemed to be languishing later during last summer’s heat and drought, so I relocated it to a slightly shadier spot.

        Fingers crossed both survived.

        If you post a reply in early May, I will let you know.

      3. Thanks for your response and suggestions. I’m wondering how your plants did over the winter?. I’m considering planting the Penza Strain in my lawn. I saw a lawn in Stratford Ontario covered with them and it was so beautiful. However, I imagine it took years to fill in.

  10. I love Corydalis – including the yellow weedy one you mention . It is a fabulous ground cover and blooms all summer. The blues are my favorite but I have some pink on the way and am excited to see them next to the blue.

  11. Wildside Blue flowered again last fall, and into November 2019 in Toronto, Canada and survived well through the winter. Bloomed in late May and early June 2020, but then we had a hot and dry spell which has continued unabated from late June through July, and the plant seemed to be languishing despite being in partial shade. I’ve given it extra water and it’s now sending up new leaves. Will move it in the fall to a slightly shadier spot to reduce sun exposure.

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