How to grow bugles

Alys Fowler

I have fallen for a very ordinary sort of plant; the small woodlander, Ajuga reptans, or bugle. It’s a native that’s fond of damp forest floors, where it creates a dense carpet of small blue flowers that are delightful: not showy or spectacular, just rather lovely and flowering right through to early summer.

It’s not just any ajuga that has caught my eye. Ajuga reptans ‘Rosea’, as its name suggests, is a pale rose-coloured form. I have planted it under one of my apples, near a bench that catches the first of the morning sun and is perfect for a quick coffee as I take in the blossom before the day starts. The blush-pink apple blossom is mirrored in a pool of pink below; I have never been so shamelessly romantic.

The straight species has satisfyingly shiny, rich green leaves and spikes of deep blue flowers that appear in late spring. It’s particularly suited to the sort of dappled shade you get from a deciduous tree or shrub (an apple tree or blackcurrant, perhaps). In time, it will form a thick mat, which one might call invasive; but it would be wiser to simply see it less as a weed and more of a butterfly- and bee-pleaser. It’s an important food source for pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies (large and small), if you are lucky enough to have them flit by, and a secondary food source to many more. It also doesn’t mind poor soil, thrives in shade and is fast growing – a winning combination.

If pink isn’t your thing, there are other options: the white form, ‘Alba’, which looks lovely mixed in with white Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’ or Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’; or the popular ‘Catlin’s Giant’, which is a larger form of Ajuga reptans ‘Atropurpurea’, with the ubiquitous blue flower spikes and an exuberant bronze foliage. It makes a pleasing evergreen mat that works well if contrasted with lime green – say, Alchemilla mollis. Again, it works well under trees and shrubs, or woven between the shade of larger perennials. The only thing it hates is drying out, so make sure the soil has plenty of organic matter incorporated, particularly if it’s growing under a tree.

There is a variegated ‘Burgundy Glow’, which has wine-red splashes and cream margins; but I think the more unusual, near-black foliage form called ‘Black Scallop’ is more interesting. It’s actually a very deep bronze and can get a bit lost against the soil, but looks marvellous as a backdrop between snowdrops; it also works very well in a pot, where you can admire the blue flowers. Plant it as a bedfellow to a blueberry or other container shrubs.