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Maximizing plant personalities

by Timber Press on May 15, 2017

in Design, Gardening

Repeat personalities, not just colors, for a satisfying, unifying sense of repetition. Here, spicy hot flower spikes of Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ swim through likeshaped seed heads of Pennisetum. Two nearly equally charming personalities are married together, underscoring the elegant simplicity of making vignettes—less, so often, is more. All included photos by the author.

Which plant divas are people most smitten with? And how do you optimize their potential in your own garden?

Collecting, planting, and maximizing plant personalities—their particular aesthetic charms—is the truest expression of a gardener’s self. Assembled into harmonious vignettes, they form the weft of the modern eclectic garden. And the dynamic natures of these personalities, in the snapshot moment and over time, are expressive in a way that words can’t describe. Whether we stage them solo or en masse, on a small or large scale, it’s our relationship with characterful plants that makes a garden personal.

In the world of plants, nothing is democratic—all plants are not created equal. Some are divas, stage-hogging rock stars who need their time and space to put on a show. Others are dancers, subtly flitting between their strident co-stars, just hoping to keep up. Yes, plant personalities scale along the lines of a casting call. The interplay between these characters makes for entertaining gardening.

Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ is the drama queen here. Oh, and her little sister? ‘Black Negligee’, a newer hybrid with lacquered black foliage and a slightly more compact habit. Both are essential divas worth top billing.

It’s hard to ignore the biggest personalities in the garden. Some plants have gravitational pull, owning the stage through the duration of their performance. They are loud in color, large in size. They are the stars, the talking points on a garden walk—they need to be shown off. Plants with black foliage are the ultimate punk divas, daring to challenge the green paradigm while simultaneously bewitching the soul. Effusing shades of purple and red that border on sooty and satin, the leaves of these punks stand out like a defiant hipster with too much eyeshadow—these plants beg for attention.

Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ bowled me over the first time I discovered this drama queen in a garden—I mean, the first time I was in her audience. Bold and dramatic, there’s nothing quite like a five-foot-tall vixen dressed in black to make your head turn. Late in the summer, white spires add to the stagecraft of this denizen of partial shade.

Kolkwitzia amabilis ‘Maradco’ (Dream Catcher).

Effusing chartreuse is an equally punkish thing for a plant to do. Kolkwitzia amabilis ‘Maradco’ (Dream Catcher) gives most Tiffany lamp shades a run for money in terms of luminosity. In generic terms, it’s a focal point, but planting one will do more than draw the eye in its direction. It will redefine the vignette, slowly growing into a five-foot-tall profusion of brushwood that breaks bud in spring to reveal little drops of acid green leaves burnished with a bit of bronze. As shrubs go—vase-shape, dazzling leaves, subtle flowers—this is the stuff of dreams.

One gardener’s weed is another’s weird and this weird weed is big. I happen to be a huge fan of the hulking framework of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), which grows up to six feet tall and wide. Few perennials offer as much architectural interest as these botanical mobiles, especially the variegated ‘Silberstein’. Cream-splattered leaves cloak purple stems until pendulous, tube-sock white flowers overtake the plant in late summer. Saving dessert for last, the inedible and highly poisonous fruits are juicy temptations for birds, but not until late winter, when their astringency has faded (though most have likely fallen to the floor by then). Weed out unwanted plants. As a variegated weed, I think it qualifies as an exception.

Crinum ×digweedii ‘Bolivia’.

Some divas own the stage before they even leave the nursery pot. Harnessing their marquee personalities requires maximizing their physical stature and showcasing the boldness of their leaves and flowers as much as it requires an understanding of how they grow. Golden comfrey (Symphytum ×uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold’), for example, emerges from a tough, densely budded crown that bulks up into a horticultural mastodon after years of growth. Its annual ritual of flagrant foliage succeeded by ascendant flower spikes quickly accomplishes the plant’s evolutionary commandment: flower and get out of the way. Cut back in early summer, it returns for a reprise, a showy camp of leaves that last through early autumn. As a planting choice, it’s a lamppost for shade vignettes, rising up from the garden floor in stark contrast to its companions.

Travel through the South in spring and early summer and it’s hard to miss one of the horticultural hallmarks of the region—crinum lilies (Crinum). If ever there was a foolproof plant, crinums are it. Tough as nails, deer-proof, and boasting sculptural mounds of silvery green leaves, these ditch denizens not only offer striking foliage but blaring trumpet flowers in variations of peppermint, pink, and white. Beyond the shelter of zone 8, crinum lilies make zinger container specimens. As an aside, C. bulbispermum, one of the more commonly seen crinums with large, scalloped leaves of pewter green, will overwinter in zone 6 with protection.

Symphytum ×uplandicum ‘Axminster Gold’.

Jenks Farmer, the Crinum dude by any estimation, is one of the genus’ loudest champions. Almost any crinum I’ve come into contact with has been thanks to Jenks. One, C. ×digweedii ‘Bolivia’, is a stalwart of southern gardens christened with a new name for modern times. It flowers abundantly in late summer and into fall. I’m smitten with ‘Menehune’ (Purple Dream) for its seductive purple foliage set against radiant sprays of pink flowers. This Sean Callahan hybrid (C. oliganthum × C. procerum ‘Splendens’) may not make a huge play in the American market, given its limited hardiness (to zone 8b), but it’s well worth the effort to find one. This diva rocks both flowers and foliage, and it is small for a crinum, reaching only about two feet in height (hence Menehune, a reference to the mythological forest-dwelling “little people” of the Hawaiian Islands).

In rich, heavily composted soils, Sun King aralia can reach gargantuan proportions, topping out at over six feet tall and wide. In more modest fertility, it’s a patient border plant, shin high and rounded in width. Siting it accordingly makes the difference between cussing it as a bully intent on clearing a way for itself or as a gracious superstar that knows how to support its cast. Exposure also effects its presentation—in full sun, it’s golden, while in part shade it’s lime. The proper placement of plants, regardless of the magnitude of their personality, goes a long way toward your ultimate enjoyment of them.

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’.

In my mind, true diva plants almost always offer more than outlandish foliage or flowers alone. But sometimes blatant flowers win the shouting match. Foxgloves, long overdue for a celebration, are now all the rage. No longer a relic of cottage gardens past, these charming, quintessential perennials have attained diva status, thanks in part to new varieties that have sauced up expired rhetoric about the value of these spiked plants. Digiplexis, the storied cross between Digitalis purpurea and Isoplexis canariensis, changed everything. It’s not in fact a intergeneric hybrid; rather, in a shocking twist of chlorophyllic drama, its parents turned out to be cousins, closer kin than originally thought. But the name stuck, partly because it just sounds so damn cool. Digiplexis. How Midcentury mod.

“How Midcentury mod.”

The hybrid wasn’t revelatory for its cool moniker though. It opened up an avenue of possibilities, demonstrating that foxgloves weren’t only those paisley-spotted purple things you saw tossed in the compost heap at the garden center (because who was really buying foxgloves?). The flowers of ‘Illumination Flame’ trump anything Grandma loved—thimble shot glasses of tequila sunrise that flow without end. Even the axils get in on the fun, sporting buds long into the summer after the initial flowers have developed. While it’s hardy only to the balmiest corners of zone 8, additional generations of hybridizing have revealed hardier types, so keep your eyes open.

Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame’.

Digiplexis did nothing more than to shed light on its fellows, awakening gardeners to a tribe of great perennials that for too long had languished in obscurity. Funny enough, one even carried the Latinized form of the word—obscura. Digitalis obscura, which offers untold riches of yellows, coppers, and ambers, indeed is an obscure dark horse in a genus otherwise replete with purples, whites, and lavenders. Its flowers invite gawking, and its Spanish roots underscore an essential insight into its culture: while surprisingly hardy (zone 4), it despises wet soils, particularly in summer. In xeric gardens, thriving despite water restrictions,few plants look more at home. Deadheading encourages repeat flowering and reseeding, both of which are desirable.

What Digitalis obscura does for the heart, D. ferruginea does for the brain. It’s like the bookish girl at the library that catches the attention of the all-star athlete, not because he’s bowled over with beauty, but because she’s interesting beyond a pretty face. Digitalis ferruginea (by another name, chocolate- or caramel-flowered spires of awesomeness) looks fetching in a border where it can rocket beyond its perennial companions to towering heights.


norris_kKelly Norris is a horticulturist, plant breeder, and plantsman who lives in Des Moines, Iowa. In addition to being the award-winning author of three books, he is the director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, a revitalized 14-acre public garden. He and his family also own Rainbow Iris Farm.



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