Oldies but goodies: Common plants are here to serve
Don’t apologize for growing forsythia, lilac, mop-head hydrangeas or mock orange, says Natural Gardener columnist Valerie Easton. What looks better blazing chrome yellow against stormy February skies than forsythia?
Special to The Seattle Times
I’M AFRAID we’re all plant snobs of one stripe or another. It pretty much depends on how long we’ve been gardening.
Early on we’re thrilled when Japanese anemones or hardy geraniums bloom for us. Soon enough, we become more discerning and, unfortunately, turn up our noses at many perfectly good plants. But decades spent creating and tending gardens give us a better sense of a plant and its place in our hearts and landscapes.
Some gardeners feel superior if you don’t pronounce “clematis” the same way they do. Others would never use a common name when they can roll botanical Latin such as Koelreuteria paniculata off their tongues. If the idea is to communicate rather than intimidate, the common term “goldenrain tree” will do. Botanical Latin has its place in identifying plants, of course, and I wish that place was on plant tags and in reference books rather than casual conversation.
When I began working at the Center for Urban Horticulture long ago, I made the mistake of saying how much I liked a certain rhododendron with plum-colored blossoms. The Arboretum’s well-versed naturalist hastened to declare it common. I sheepishly explained that I loved to cut this particular hybrid because its flowers were beautiful in a vase. Didn’t matter. It was impressed upon me that the plant was far from choice.
The downside of “choice” plants was brought home when I was part of a team judging gardens for a contest. I noticed that gardeners who grew more simple, old-fashioned, familiar plants loved their gardens best. The plants performed well for them, and they appreciated that.
The gardeners with elaborate gardens and rare plants were the ones who more often met us at the door lamenting that their gardens looked much better last week, or would certainly show better two weeks out. They weren’t satisfied. In the plant world, as with cars and electronics, there’s always a newer model, a more status-worthy choice. It’s hard to keep up.
Not that all plants are created equal. There are sound reasons to avoid invasives such as English ivy, common fennel and the species butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii). Ask questions at your nursery, read up on any plant you’re considering, and check out the state’s noxious weed list (http://www.nwcb.wa.gov/nwcb_nox.htm). Such precautions are common sense, not snobbery.
But does it matter that Viburnum davidii is so dependable that it’s planted in traffic medians all around town? It’s not only bulletproof and evergreen, but has pretty, pleated leaves and sports electric-blue berries. Don’t apologize for growing forsythia, lilac, mop-head hydrangeas or mock orange. What looks better blazing chrome yellow against stormy February skies than forsythia? What smells sweeter than mock orange in May?
I think the trend toward edible gardening has helped. Many expert ornamental gardeners are food-gardening newbies. Sure, you can get persnickety about one variety of broccoli or another, but growing vegetables is pretty much growing vegetables.
Not that new plants, and fresh versions of old plants, aren’t fun to play around with. I get excited over a hellebore color I’ve never seen before, a more fragrant rose, an arugula that’s slower to bolt. But I try to remind myself that breeding and marketing new plants is big business. Just because it creates buzz doesn’t mean we need to fall for it.
Perhaps if we’re lucky, the arc of our gardening lives will restore our beginner’s mind and eyes to us, and we’ll see plants, no matter how common, for the living wonders they are.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.