It’s no surprise that with rose-like flowers, this perennial is
in the rose family. Flowers are held on wiry stems above the
foliage and, depending on species and cultivar (cultivated
variety), may be upward-, outward-, or down-facing. The lower
compact rosettes of hairy leaves are generally under one foot
high, while the flower stems may reach two feet high. Leaf shapes
can be quite variable and, in mild winters and climates, may be
semi-evergreen or evergreen. Occasionally you may find some minor
powdery mildew on leaves, primarily with water avens (G.
rivale), alpine avens (G. montanum), and wood avens (G.
Fruits develop after the flowers and have long feathery tails on
seeds, resembling puffs of smoke above the plants. They’re
particularly attractive in prairie smoke avens (G. triflorum)
and alpine avens.
In the cooler North, avens grow best in full sun and can tolerate
part shade (four to six hours of direct sun daily). In warmer
climates, they prefer afternoon shade. Avens prefer moist,
well-drained soils and do not tolerate wet soils, particularly
during winter. The ideal soil will vary with species, as they
originally come from various areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and
the Americas. The prairie smoke avens, for instance, is native to
dry prairies and rocky places. The Chilean avens (G.
chiloense) and scarlet avens (G. coccineum) are
native to woodlands with moist, nutrient-rich soils. Generally,
avens need minimal fertility.
If leaves are brown after winter, or get scorched brown from
drought, merely prune them off and new ones will appear. If
flowering stems appear unsightly after bloom, prune these off.
This also will help prevent reseeding, if this is a concern, from
some selections and perhaps such “deadheading” will encourage
reblooming in late summer.
Some species and hybrids are short-lived—only growing a few
years—including the Chilean and scarlet geum and their cultivars.
For these, divide plants every year or two (“crown division”) to
keep plants vigorous. Division also is the means to get new,
identical plants. While some, such as ‘Mrs. Bradshaw’ and ‘Lady
Stratheden,’ are grown from seeds, many cultivars grown from seeds
may not “come true to type.”
Since avens are low, compared to many perennials, they’re best
used in masses or along the front of a border or walk. Their warm
colors contrast nicely with blues and purples, such as from
perennial salvias or sages, with many perennial geraniums and
catmints. Contrast the flowers with dark-leaved coralbells (Heuchera),
or interplant for a more bold effect with gold- and orange-leaved
coralbells. Avens combine well, too, with ornamental grasses such
as prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and little
bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Many avens work well in
container plantings, and the prairie smoke avens is good for rock
In trials by Richard Hawke at the Chicago Botanic Garden, 49
different avens were compared, with 46 living at least two years
and most living for at least four years. Of all those tested, 60
percent were rated either good to excellent.
Four of the avens in the Chicago trials received five-star
excellent ratings. Prairie smoke avens (G. triflorum) has
nodding, white to rosy-pink flowers held about 18 inches high.
The white petals are actually hidden beneath the rosy-pink bracts
(modified leaves). In Chicago, this avens bloomed over a long
period—from early May to early July. The rosette of leaves, from
which the flowering stems arose, was 10 inches high and 20 inches
‘Sangria’ avens has upward-facing, semi-double scarlet flowers
held about 30 inches high and blooming from early June to early
July. The leaf rosette of this avens was 16 inches high and 30
inches wide. This is part of the Cocktail Series of avens, bred by
nurseryman Brent Horvath of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens in Hebron,
Illinois. This series features bold colors such as with ‘Sangria’,
and softer colors as with another top-rated avens—‘Mai Tai’.
Flowers of this one open as a muted red, turning apricot on
burgundy stems. The outward-facing, semi-double Flowers bloomed
in Chicago from late April until early June. While flower stems
of ‘Mai Tai’ were 24 inches tall, the rounded mound of leaves was
10 inches tall and 24 inches wide.
‘Totally Tangerine’ (which you may find as ‘Tim’s Tangerine’)
also has upward-facing, semi-double flowers on stems to about 30
inches high. The orange sterile flowers bloom over a long period,
from late May to mid-July. The leaf rosette reaches 10 inches
high and about 20 inches wide. This is one of my favorite
perennials, which has grown well for me in Vermont.
Several avens were either quite short-lived, or not hardy, in the
Chicago trials and so are recommended to be treated as annuals.
These included ‘Blazing Sunset’, the popular ‘Mrs. Bradshaw’ and
‘Lady Stratheden’, ‘Double Bloody Mary’, and wood avens (G.
urbanum). The latter, too, was one of the least
attractive, had severe mildew some years on leaves, and reseeded
to the point of being weedy.
Return to Perry's Perennial Pages: Green Mountain Gardener Articles-- your reliable source of gardening information for over 50 years.