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This is a North American annual, originally native to the arid southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico but now grown widely by farmers as a cover crop and by gardeners for its ferny leaves, fast growth and flowers, which bees love (as do other beneficial insects, including hoverflies, which eat aphids),
The plant is speedy. It starts from seeds in early spring and is full size (about three feet) and blooming by late spring. The top branches grow hairy flower stems toothed with stubby leaves, curled like the headstock of a violin, and lined with round, hairy flower buds. The leaves are softly hairy and divided into leaflets that are divided too, resembling the leaves of tansy (another common name for lacy Phaelia is tansy Phacelia).
Bloom is generous (one stem can have fifty flowers) and it continues for two months as the flower stems uncurl and the flower buds open in turn. Eventually a flower stem wears a crown of small, bell-shaped blue flowers that have wiry, blue stamens twice as long as the petals. Seen from a distance the flowers make a loose whiskery sphere, almost a pincushion.
In fall the seeds scatter around the plant, which dies with cold weather. The seeds persist over the winter (they’re hardy to Zone 3) and must have darkness to germinate; so if you sow Phacelia in spring, cover the seeds with a layer of dirt. Avoid heavy or wet soil. Phacelia likes fast-drained, even gritty soil.
Phacelia is in the Borage family (its hairy buds are one sign) and, like borage itself, makes a good cover crop because it grows fast, shades out weeds, and builds the soil when you knock it down for mulch or till it in.
Bees love Phacelia and so do the folks at The Great Sunflower Project, which encourages those taking part in the project to grow Phacelia and other bee-friendly plants so they can tally visiting bees. (A lot of the members also enjoy watching the bees at work.) The project aims to learn how bees are faring, especially in urban areas, because we need bees and they need us. This is a project that many of us here at YourGardenShow enjoy!
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