by Gayle Harris (gayleharris2(at)juno.com)
Doctor, what is it? It's spreading all over the place, it's yellow, and no matter what I do it keeps coming back! Not to worry; it may sound like a contagious skin disease, but it's actually a versatile plant called melampodium. This underused annual with a dreary moniker is well worth a trial run in your garden.
Although Melampodium paludosum has been around for a long time, I wasn't aware of it until my mother claimed that she'd discovered a true yellow that bloomed gloriously in partial shade. Here in Texas we love our shade trees, but it can be a challenge getting a variety of colors beneath them. Like everyone else I've used the pink hues of impatiens and the ubiquitous caladiums, but I was yearning for something a little brighter. I figured I had nothing to lose by giving melampodium a try.
My first seedlings came straight from mom's garden, and I was surprised that they transplanted with hardly a fatality. I wasn't especially tender with them, hurriedly patting them into their new homes before a May thunderstorm. And the soil, I'm afraid, wasn't perfect since I had to dig among the roots of a live oak. So I was surprised at how well they adapted and grew. And grew! Each plant transformed into a foot-wide mount of spectacular, sunny color that lasted until the first frost.
At maturity, melampodium has cheerful, bright green foliage and is profusely covered with 1-inch yellow, daisy-like flowers sporting darker centers. Another bonus is that it seems to be ignored by disease or insects, which can be a frightful force here in Texas. I've seen several seed varieties available; among them are Million Gold, with an approximate growth height of 8-10 inches, Showstar (14-24 inches), and Medallion (24-36 inches), and they're quite easy to grow from seed. I prefer a more compact growth habit, but the variety you choose will depend on planting location, companion plants, and the effect you wish to achieve.
As mentioned, mine did well in dappled shade, which was a nice surprise since many sources indicate that it needs a good full sun to bloom well. As an experiment, I also planted some in an area of my yard that gets strong summer light for a good 7 hours per day, but it proved to be a cruel move. My poor mellies in that location looked a little depressed when August rolled around. Although they didn't die, the foliage drooped by late afternoon and didn't perk up again until the cool of evening and after a solid watering. So if the summer sun in your part of the country isn't as brutal as ours in Texas, melampodium might be very happy without any shade at all. Otherwise, a little break from the relentless rays is fine and shouldn't affect the blooms. I feel safe in saying that it wouldn't do well in full shade, however.
Although melampodium is officially classified as an annual, I've had mine reseed and pop up year after year due to our mild Texas winters. And prolific little reseeders they are, too, yielding plenty to gather and share with friends. They're generally regarded as drought and heat resistant (after all, they're natives of South Africa), though they do appreciate a cool drink during the dog days of summer, even in dappled shade. Amid a background of blue salvia and a pairing with white begonias, the resulting contrast is beautiful.
If you go nursery shopping for melampodium, don't confuse the yellow varieties with melampodium leucanthum, a white daisy-like flower sometimes known as the Blackfoot Daisy. The latter has many things to recommend it, but is different entirely. And above all, if you're ever diagnosed with melampodium, don't panic and run for the skin cream. Relax, put your hoe away, and enjoy prolonged blooming from the carefree plant with the peculiar name.