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Astonishing Adonis Aestivalis: Growing Summer Pheasant's Eye From Seed

Nobody wants drama at home. That is, unless you're a gardener. While summer pheasant's eye isn't a whiny, high-maintenance plant, it has its ways of making your heart beat a little faster. First, you get all a-flutter when you peer at its beautiful blood-red blooms, electric purple stamens, and vibrant green foliage. Second, these plants literally contain compounds known to increase cardiac activity. And third? Well, the name says it all.

Adonis aestivalis is a member of the enormous buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). The Greek demigod Adonis, of course, starred in ancient mythology's biggest Jerry Springer moment, having been born out of incest into a messy love triangle with Persephone, the goddess of spring, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Legend tells us these crimson-flowered plants sprang from Adonis' blood...spilled when he was killed by a wild boar. Or maybe when he failed to dodge a Grecian urn hurled in his direction.

Aestivalis means "of the summer," an appropriate name for a plant that's in full bloom in the middle of the season. Adonis aestivalis' Latin name pretty much means "hot summertime beefcake booty call,” but most people tend to use the following common names so as not to freak out the white-gloved garden party set:

  • Pheasant's eye
  • Summer pheasant's eye
  • Summer Adonis
  • Adonis (grouping the closely-related species together)
  • Blooddrop (usually all one word)
  • Red Morocco (used in 18th century England)

Some botanical texts note "love lies bleeding" is among the plant's common names, but we're nipping that in the bud. This name is primarily assigned to the ornamental amaranth species grown for its bright red cascading seed clusters.

Native to the shrubby woodlands and steppes of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and western Asia, A. aestivalis has naturalized in much of Europe and North America's northern plains where it's often considered invasive. It favors chalky, somewhat alkaline soil, which is why it once thrived in England.

Adonis aestivalis closely related to and looks very much like Adonis annua, and both flowers share the pheasant's eye moniker.

Pheasant's eye as a medicinal plant

There have been recent studies indicating it has potential as a modern heart medicine, and it's best known among herbalists as an alternative to digitalis or as a treatment for kidney problems. Pheasant's eye claims these attributes:

  • Cardiotonic
  • Diuretic
  • Stimulant
  • Laxative

If you're entertaining the idea of growing this plant for anything other than an ornamental, we encourage you to visit Henriette's Herbal Homepage and check in with your general practitioner. In the meantime, we're going to stick with coffee.

Potential problems with growing pheasant's eye

The same compounds (cardiac glycosides) that give this plant its medicinal values can harm humans, pets, and livestock if ingested in large amounts. It's far more toxic to horses, which is a huge problem where it grows wild in grassy pastures, hay fields, and grain fields. Plants for a Future tones down the warning: "A toxic principle is present in very small quantities in the plant. It is poorly absorbed so poisoning is unlikely."

Still, we recommend using caution when planting summer pheasant's eye (or any member of the Ranunculaceae family) where small kids and curious pets play unsupervised, or where it's likely to escape. If you live in California, Idaho, Utah, eastern Washington, or Montana, these are states in which the plant has easily naturalized and become a pest, so you might want to keep them in pots and be diligent about removing any seed heads.

Adonis aestivalis in the garden

Summer pheasant's eye grows boldly upright in a columnar fashion, often in clusters of sturdy central stalks bearing two-inch alternating deeply-lobed fernlike, bright green leaves. Up to a half-dozen, one-to-two-inch flowers perch on the plants' upper stems. While its Latin name is pretty sexy, you can understand how it earned its common name if you were to compare its flower to a pheasant's face. Most of these game birds have a deep crimson red pattern around their eyes, which are in turn either dark brownish red around the pupils or a rich gold.

Flowers typical of A. aestivalis share the same deep red hue, often with dark red-purple basal blotches around the flowers' sex organs. The anthers are dark or vivid purple, extending and often curling inward over the green-to-blackish centers. Adonis aestivalis is a hermaphroditic plant, meaning it is self-fertile.

There are a few sub-species with narrower, more evenly-spaced petals, and these tend to be bright orange or yellow. The standard species has six to ten rounded, often overlapping petals forming a slightly concave shape.

Once the flowers fade, elongated green clusters of cone-shaped seed pods develop. We think the pods, which have been compared to hops or green loganberries, are almost as cool as the flowers themselves, and we'll include them with the pheasant's eye blooms for floral arrangements.

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: Herbaceous annual in zones 3 through 10, growing best in zones 5 through 9.
  • Sunlight Preferences: Full sun, light shade; in the hottest regions late afternoon shade is all but required.
  • Moisture Requirements: Tolerates some drought, but prefers even, consistent moisture. Do not allow it to sit in standing water.
  • Soil Preferences: Tolerates poor soil as long as it's well-drained with a pH between 6.6 and 7.8.
  • Plant Height: 10" to 18" tall.
  • Plant Width: 6" to 12" spread.
  • Growth Rate: Fast grower. Once the seedlings emerge, summer pheasant's eye really takes off.

A. aestivalis can inhibit the growth of closely-planted neighbors, particularly legumes, and we recommend adhering to spacing guidelines if you place it near other plant species. If you're worried about pheasant eye's inability to play well with others, you can get creative with its placement by planting it in isolated sections of your rock garden. It's a fabulous container plant and its size allows you to grow it in smaller pots for window boxes, ledges, or hanging baskets. Otherwise, use it as a mass-planted bedding specimen or border.

Mass planting or locating them against a windbreak may help with the occasional lodging issues these tall plants sometimes experience.

Maintaining and harvesting summer pheasant's eye

These are low-maintenance plants with no particular susceptibility to pest predation or disease. Deadhead spent flowers to extend the bloom period, and remove dead and frost-killed plants at the end of the season. Be sure to collect seed heads to discourage naturalization, though the seeds are heavy and don't scatter far. Taller plants might need staking if they're located in an unsheltered area.

Cut your pheasant’s eyes with long stems as soon as the flowers have opened, and dunk the stems in water as soon as possible. If you're collecting seeds for future use, allow the seed pods to dry on the plant just until they turn brown, then pick the pods and finish the drying process on a screen or in a tray until you're ready to separate and store them in a cool, dry place. Keep all parts of A. aestivalis out of reach of children and pets.

Growing pheasant's eye from seed

Pheasant's eye is a slow-to-germinate plant since the seeds can remain dormant for years in the soil until the right conditions arrive. Fire, soil disturbance, and clear-cutting are among the environmental triggers that prompt natural germination, but there's no need for you to rent a flamethrower, a pack of feral pigs, or a hot, shirtless logger to compensate.

It's not a requirement, but when growing pheasant's eye from seed we recommend a 30-day period of cold stratification using the paper towel method described in "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination" prior to planting. It's a good idea to plant two or three seeds per location. It's a taproot plant, so if you're starting them indoors, be sure to use biodegradable pots or plant them in the containers in which you intend to keep them when they're mature.

  • When to Plant Outdoors: Direct-sow your Adonis aestivalis seeds as soon as possible after your last frost date, or when soil temperatures reach 65°F or higher.
  • When to Plant Indoors: 6 to 10 weeks prior to last spring frost.
  • Seed Depth: 1/16" deep or surface-sow.
  • Seed Spacing: 8" to 12"
  • Days to Germination: 21 to 40 days at 65°F to 70°F.

The two "baby leaves" (cotyledons) are long and narrow, resembling blades of grass. The true leaves look a lot like carrot leaves as they emerge. Allow the plants to grow four or more true leaves before you transplant them, peat pot and all, to their permanent location. We like to soak and score our peat and CowPots before transplanting to help them break down more quickly.

Thanks for Gardening with Seed Needs

Gardening's good for us! Fresh, home-grown veggies nourish our bodies. The visual beauty of a landscape in bloom brings us joy, and carefully-researched herbs can help keep us healthy and add garnish to our adult bevvies. We're fans of multi-purpose plants, but some species are best planted for their beauty alone. Summer pheasant's eye is one of them.

If you need a cardiovascular pick-me-up, call your doctor or let your teenager drive you somewhere in rush hour. For everything else gardening-related, contact us! We can help you select the right plants for your herb, ornamental, and vegetable gardens, and if you want to learn more about the health benefits of a specific plant, we do our best to provide the most accurate and objective information available on our gardening blog. We'd rather be overly cautious in warning you about a potentially harmful plant than see a customer get hurt. After all...you want to impress everyone with the flowers in your garden, not at your funeral.

Here are some (still) living, breathing customers who've helped us build our family business; we hope to earn and keep yours!
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