Sunday, October 2, 2011


          We value most what can’t be kept— babies, one's own youth, non-existent trust funds, and, in my case at least, some very special plants. They came into my life for a season or two, then flitted away, leaving only warm memories and something like regret.

            Oh, the halcyon days of calling my friend Pam Baggett’s mail-order nursery, Singing Springs, for replacements for the tender treasures I’d killed by attempting to over-winter them in the kitchen. And the ones I drowned. And the ones that succumbed to hypothermia. Those wonderful years ended abruptly when Pam up and decided her health was more important than cosseting fragile darlings in greenhouses heated with ruinously expensive propane through Piedmont winters only to doom them to the oafish care of oatmeal-for-brains customers from March through June.

            I understood, really. I don’t know why anyone goes into growing, so many things can go horribly wrong, from aphids to power failures to whitefly outbreaks. Nonetheless, just like I understand that my sister Karen didn’t ask to be born when I was four, a faint frisson of resentment remains. (No one ever said joyful self-sacrifice is a defining characteristic of my personality.)  

            Today, as the first brisk days of autumnal weather blow across southeastern North Carolina and remind me it’s almost time to bring in this year’s keepers (knock wood), I pause to remember the great plants of the past, the ones I loved and lost. (Remember, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.)

Anisodontea x hypomadara
            First, there was Anisodontea x hypomadara (ah-knee-sew-don-TEE-uh high-poe-mah-DAR-uh, African mallow). This standard came from White Flower Farms in Litchfield, Connecticut, as an anniversary present. It cost the once-inconceivable-amount-to-spend-on-a-single-plant of $90, including tax and shipping. It was love at first sight. I moved it from a one- to a three-gallon pot, and stuck it in a beautiful but drain-holeless cache pot, on top of two inches of gravel. Alas, 2003 was one of the wettest early springs on record in these parts. I failed to bail out the cache pot quite often enough. My beautiful, one-of-a-kind Anisodontea drowned. I’m still kicking myself.

Colocasia gigantea,  Thailand strain  

            I’m not a huge fan of elephant ears in general, partly because I garden in a small space, partly because if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Then Tim and I attended one of Plant Delights’ fall open houses. As we wandered the nursery’s Juniper Level Botanic Garden, the sight of the oh-so-appropriately named Colocasia gigantea, Thailand strain, put a halt to our perambulations. The individual leaves were—no joke—six to eight feet long. After winching our jaws off the ground, we scurried back to the greenhouses to ask where the babies were hidden. Turns out some bad-mannered visitor had pinched the seed pods earlier in the season—can you imagine!—so propagation was delayed. Damn!

            It took two years, but I finally got my hands on three of the beasts. The two we planted for some clients failed to survive their first winter in the ground (whaddya expect for a species from Thailand?); my own darling did well in its pot on our sheltered south side, but… Where in the world would something of that scale fit in our little yard? I dithered and dithered until the hard facts sank in, and finally gave it away to our irrigation guy, who owns a property large enough to showcase this enormous plant.

            All the rest of my lamented lovelies came from the deeply mourned Singing Springs.

            Pam specialized in tropicals, so I knew from the outset the plants would need a modicum of attention to make through our Zone 8/9 winters. Sadly, sometimes unbridled optimism can be fatal.

Manihot esculenta 'Variegata'
            Consider the case of the variegated tapioca, Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’ (MAN-ee-hoe ess-kew-LEN-tuh, variegated tapioca). The first one I just left outside in its pot. Why? Because I’m a) lazy; and b) obviously none too bright. The second one I brought into the Fitzgerald Kitchen-of-Death in late October, where the expected happened—but, heartbreakingly, not until March, when the last leaf and the last little shoot turned black and crumpled. The third one never materialized because that was the year Pam threw in the towel. Every February, I scour the Internet looking for a source: every February, I don’t find any from a climate remotely like mine.

            Pam introduced me to many delightful Acalypha (ack-uh-LIE-fah) and Euphorbia (you-FOR-be-uh), plants whose foliage can take fanciful forms. I blew through three or four each of Acalypha wilkesiana ‘Cypress Elf,’ Acalypha ‘Twisted Pencil’ (the large-leaved plant in the photo is a Plectranthus) and Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ (a.k.a. pencil cactus), never suspecting for a second my source would dry up.

Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'
Acalypha wilkesiana 'Cypress Elf'

Acalypha 'Twisted Pencil'

Euphorbia cotinifolia


            Toward the end of what would be her final season, Tim and I visited Pam at the nursery. As she led us on a tour through the greenhouses, the pile of plants she pressed on me grew and grew. Of all that largess, the longest lasting was her stock plant for Euphorbia cotinifolia (ko-tie-nuh-FOE-lee-uh), Caribbean copper leaf. It survived three winters in the kitchen, totally defoliating by spring, but rebounding eagerly once placed back outside. By the fourth year, though, it had grown to be six feet high with an equal spread. Space in the house is even more limited than in the yard: the copper leaf had to spend the winter on the back porch.

Solanum pyracanthum
             It froze.
         Another group of plants I knew nothing about until dealing with Singing Springs is the wonderful wacky world of Solanum. The family Solanaceae encompasses ho-hum potatoes (S. tuberosum) and eggplant (S. melongena), but—‘way more interestingly—includes a clutch of super-cool punk-thorny species. Solanum pyracanthum is as prickly as its specific namesake, pyracantha. It defensively sports wicked orange (orange!) thorns on its stalks and its leaves. My specimen stayed lanky, but I didn’t care. The blue potato-like flowers produced some viable seed: the plant propagated itself for about two years before fading away.

Solanum quitoense foliage
            My all-time favorite Solanum, no question, is the Peruvian potato, or naranjilla, botanical name S. quitoense. This hulking plant gets big, even growing in a pot. Its stems are clothed with stiff hairs, not exactly prickly, but moving in that direction. The white flowers produce edible fuzzy orange berries, which our resident squirrels loved. But the pièce de résistance has to be those crazy purple spikes studding the also-fuzzy hand-sized leaves. 

Solanum quitoense fruit
            Solanum quitoense (key-toe-EN-see) reproduced itself too, for a few years, and we had another few pop up where squirrels buried fruits and forgot them. But the last seedling arrived in 2008: since then, nothing.

            The last lost love is a variegated flowering maple—also called a parlor maple—Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ (uh-BYOO-tih-lon). This one overwintered on the back porch for three seasons: when I cut it back for its fourth go-round on the deck, I added a little A. megapotamicum (meg-uh-poe-tah-MEE-kum) to the pot. The following year, the A. megapotamicum out-competed poor ol’ ‘Souvenir de Bonn,’ who disappeared without a trace. 
Abutilon 'Souvenir de Bonn'
            This season, A. megapotamicum has been elbowed out of the same pot by a volunteer groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia—bac-KARE-iss hah-lee-mee-FOE-lee-uh), a native fall-blooming shrub hereabouts. A seed must have blown in from somewhere. I take this turn of events to mean there is, in fact, a certain balance in the universe.

            So there you have it, my most-missed plants. Maybe I’ll be inspired to look harder for sources. Or maybe I’ll remember there are still about a quintillion genera I’d like to try, and go rack up even more lost loves.

            Hoping you find balance in your universe, I thank you for dropping by.