Friday, April 25, 2008

Plant Disappointments

"Your tastes will mature," said a co-worker to me one day. I was complaining about some plant or another and swearing up and down that I'd never enjoy that particular tree/shrub. Over time my tastes have changed, but there are still many plants that fit into the category of "Disappointing."

My biggest plant gripe is with fad plants. At one point it was anything in the Amelanchier species. Yes, a nice native plant that doesn't get overwhelmingly large, flowers, and has fall color. It will tolerate city conditions and fits well into a small garden. Sounds good. In nature, it's a great plant. The flowers will cover the tree turning it into a fluffy cloud of white. The flowers don't last all that long, but in spring we'll take what we can get. The foliage varies in quality and can range from yellows to oranges to reds. These trees also produce fruit for birds. Excellent, you want one, right? So what's my problem with these plants? Well, I like them enough in the wild, but there are so many other plants that offer far more. There was a time at the nursery when rabid customers would arrive in droves to see this miracle plant their landscape architect had recommended and then they'd take one look and say, "Is that all?" The fad surrounding the plant was far greater than the plant itself. Would I own one? Sure. Would it be the centerpiece of my small garden? No. I've also seen what happens when these trees mature and they can be some pretty gnarly ugly things. They're pretty in flower and the fall foliage is nice, but the rest of the year they're a Gothic mess.

Hosta "Great Expectations" was all the rage one year. Sure it looked interesting and I was hoping to have one. A co-worker and I were given plants to test out in our yards. Before long the expectations turned into frustrations as the plant just sat there in the garden. Other hostas nearby chugged right along, but Great Expectations just sat, expectantly. After about 3 seasons of being the same exact size, it disappeared. My co-worker had a similar experience with the plant. According to a grower we'd talked to, the plant was having issues. Tissue cultured versions of the plant just weren't growing and there were so many of these plants on the market because it had a sudden explosion of popularity. If you could find a plant divided from a healthy parent, things might turn out different. I expected more than this and decided to skip getting another.

Of course, there are plants I've changed my mind about. Witch Hazels, for example. Hated them to pieces when I first saw them. They were gangly, yellow, and their leaves were unimpressive. Over time, however, I realized that there was more than just yellow, the plants could be beautiful in the right location, and the fact that I saw them flowering in January in southern Rhode Island sure made them more appealing. Even the native "virginiana" is an interesting plant that flowers far later than other blooming plants. The forests in New England are full of them. Sure, they're a common yellow and the flowers are small, but some years they're holding onto flowers near Thanksgiving.

Have my tastes matured? Somewhat. I'm more willing to give plants a second look now, although I still haven't changed my mind about many others (which I'll discuss later). Native plants hold more interest for me now, especially since a number of them are quite hardy. Will I rush out to buy the new Echinacea or Hydrangea? Probably not. I'll wait and see how nature deals with these introductions before I decide whether or not they'll appear in my garden.

Recommended Plant of the Day: Erianthus ravenna. If you're looking for an ornamental grass that becomes a beast, this is the one for you. It's a reed-like grass that reaches 12-15 feet or so. The seed heads are whitish/silver and look a bit like pampas grass. It's native to southern Europe, but is hardy to zone 5. I've seen a stand of it growing and didn't think much of it at first, until the seed heads started growing so much higher than the clumps. Plant it as a specimen plant by itself, or put it in as a summer screen.

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