Verbena bonariensis sails into our Top 30 at Number 10. It is native to South America, from Brazil to Argentina, growing in wet fields and waste places and flowering in late summer. It was introduced to this country in 1726, when it was grown in the Eltham garden of Dr. James Sherard, but it is not reliably hardy here. It is certainly a very popular and fashionable plant at the moment but hasn’t always been so. I wonder if this lack of hardiness put gardeners off. It is easily grown from seed and will self sow in the garden. Well, it will here in the south but I don’t know how far north our fellow members are successful with it. It gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2002.
It has erect, branching, sparsely-leaved stems to about 1.5m that stand well without staking, and small, flattened heads of bright purple flowers. Many gardeners now find this an indispensible plant, which fits in with many planting schemes and mixes well with lots of other plants. The feature which is often mentioned is its airy habit, which makes it a beautiful plant in its own right or a see-through screen allowing views of other plants in the border and the garden beyond.
But, how did it get the name bonariensis? William Stearn simply tells us it means, “Of Buenos Aires, Argentina.” I’ve often seen this explanation along with reasons why the Argentinian capital is so named. However, I’ve also found a more detailed explanation, which might be worth consideration.
Catalan missionaries and Jesuits arriving in Cagliari (now the capital of Sardinia) after its capture in 1324, established their headquarters on top of a hill known as Buen Ayre (Bonaria in the Sardinian language) as it was free of the foul air of the city. A sanctuary to the Virgin Mary, and subsequently an abbey, were built on the hill and a story was told claiming that a statue of the Virgin Mary was retrieved from the water after it helped to calm a storm in the Mediterranean Sea. The statue was placed in the abbey and Spanish sailors revered it, calling on the ‘Fair Winds’ to help them with navigation and prevent shipwrecks.
When a Spanish expedition, led by Pedro de Mendoza, arrived in Rio de la Plata in 1536, where the modern city of Buenos Aires now stands, Mendoza named the city Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre, (literally, “City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds”) after Our Lady of Bonaria, who is the patron Saint of Sardinia today. The short form “Buenos Aires” became the common usage during the 17th century.
This lovely plant from halfway round the world has taken to our gardens and we have taken to it and put it at Number 10 in our Top 30.