All About Speedwell (Veronica)

Easy to grow perennials, Speedwell (Veronica) blooms in flowering spires for a dramatic garden display.

bee balm flowers

Veronicas are handsome plants with tall spires of flowers in colors from deep pink to purple and blue to white. Some, like Blue Skywalker, grow two feet tall, others like Tidal Pool, are only three inches high.

They are easy to grow perennials.

There are more than 500 species in the genus Veronica, a very large genus in the plantain family, the Plantaginaceae. (Older sources will say they are in the Scrophulariaceae; that has changed due to DNA studies.) Veronicas are annuals and perennials, herbs, and small shrubs. They are native all over the world, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. With all those species, there are wonderful plants available to grow.

Most of the veronicas for sale are Veronica spicata or varieties of it. These are taller plants with a spike of flowers that can be a rich pink, sky blue, or white. Several other, mostly shorter, species can also be found in garden stores, for example, Turkish speedwell, Veronica liwanensis.

Veronica is the scientific name of these plants but is used as their common name too. Another common name is speedwell. The Oxford English Dictionary interprets speedwell as the plant wishing you success, based on an old meaning of speed, to succeed or prosper. Thus, seeing these cheerful flowers on the roadside was good luck. An alternate explanation is that the name reflects that the petals fall off in just a few days. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the name speedwell has been used for these plants since 1578, so I think their explanation likely correct. In North America, some wild veronicas are called gypsyweeds (not the same as gypsyworts) and bird’s eye. A couple of American and European veronicas are called brooklimes, lime being an old word for mud; these plants grow on muddy stream banks.

The name veronica was being used for these plants across Europe when it was made their scientific name in the 1750s, so it is a traditional name. It seems reasonable that the name referred the plant to St. Veronica, who was an important saint throughout Christian history. Many European plants are named for or associated with saints.

Veronicas can be many shapes and colors but almost all have small flowers with four (sometimes five) petals, and often a contrasting center. The flowers grow close together making a dramatic display. In taller species the flowers are in a spike that can rise almost a foot above the foliage. In creeping species, the flowers cover the foliage close to the ground. Leaves can be yellow green to dark green, depending on the variety, long and narrow in the taller varieties, in small varieties much smaller and nearly round.

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Where to Plant Veronicas?

If you wanted to, you could probably fill your yard with veronicas. You could make one the center piece of a flowerbed, use another to complement other plants, put a third along the edge of a flowerbed, grow a fourth as a ground cover and a fifth along a wall. And all these could be different heights, colors, and shapes, because veronicas are that diverse. In short, there’s a veronica for practically every spot.

They do not grow well in deep shade or soggy soils, however. The low ones grown as groundcovers tolerate some foot traffic but will not survive heavy use.

Across all the varieties for sale, they are hardy from USDA Zone 3 to 9. Of course, not all varieties are that hardy, so check the tolerances of the variety you are picking. Some varieties like moderate water, but many grow well in dry conditions. All seem to prefer full sun but will thrive in partial shade. They are not picky about the soil texture, nutrients, or acidity.

The flowers will attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The taller species make elegant cut flowers. They are dramatic and well-behaved when planted in containers.

How to Plant Veronicas

You can transplant plants in pots from a nursery from spring through autumn but doing it when temperatures are cooler is recommended because there is less stress on the plants. Dig holes about 12” apart (for tall varieties). Make the hole larger than the pot but not much deeper. Add a little fertilizer or compost. Take the plant out of the pot carefully and if the roots are matted, gently separate them, which will help them spread into the ground faster. Place the plant in the hole so that what was the soil surface in the pot is level with the ground. Fill in around the plant and press the soil down firmly. Water thoroughly.

Maintenance

In most veronicas, cutting back the plants after they bloom will result in a strong second bloom. If the plants get too large or flowering decreases, simply divide them, replanting the healthier part. Fertilize lightly if your soil requires it; do not over-fertilize as it will cause taller varieties to fall over. Be sure they get adequate water during long dry periods.

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Pests and Problems

The foliage is not attractive to deer or rabbits. When growing well, the plants do not have much trouble with insect pests. They are susceptible to mildew and do best on well drained sites with good air flow.

Veronicas are handsome easily grown plants.

Written by Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

About the writer: I have gardened all my life, in New York, Ohio, California, Nebraska, and Colorado; the differences fascinate me. My B.S. (in biology) was from the University of Michigan, my Ph. D. (in genetics) from the University of California, Berkeley, and for 31 years I studied plants as professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In retirement, I traveled and saw wonderful plants; now I write a blog (AWanderingBotanist.com to share plant stories.