It's the Plants, Darling

In Search of the Perfect Plant

Bob’s perfect plant

We are all forever perched on a learning curve in the horticulture business. There’s always way more to learn than any of us will ever master – and always more room to fall than we will ever know.

Which brings me, of course, to the endless quest for the Perfect Plant to deal with all that.

It’s a fun scene played out almost daily in the nursery business, where all level of experts and neophytes come through the doors.

Its opening act goes like this: A customer comes in looking around at all the plants. He or she is wearing an expression of concerned confusion.  They are new to gardening. They are leaning environmental. They wear Buck Naked Underwear from Duluth Trading. They have now subscribed to Fine Gardening, Organic Life and Garden & Gun and are making plans to visit Winterthur.

For the most part they are all early garden romance and no research. Their friends are coming over for a garden party next week. They need instant results. A garden in seven days. With just the perfect plant – or plants.

In many cases such customers are likable, willing to learn and know just enough to be dangerous to even marigolds, baptisia and Joe Pye Weed.

Maybe they have seen a picture of their perfect plant in a magazine ad. Its name was something like “The Amazing Yukon Yew.” The copy was in fine print. The accompanying picture was a tribute to bald-faced lies that come with computer enhancement. Three Eskimos and a dog team are perched under a 30-foot conifer. The customer’s cost is only $3.95 for each “Amazing Yukon Yew” plus $11.95 shipping and handling.

As we talk, the customer’s final goal becomes clear. What’s actually needed is a plant that will mature at maybe three feet tall and three feet wide – and it would be all the better if it came that size to begin with.  Yes, three feet by three feet would be perfect. No bigger. It would fit very nicely right there between the Knock Out Roses and the aluminum deck chairs.

We talk. The customer feels the need to garden – but doesn’t have much free time. As a result, their perfect plant must take full sun or shade, be disease- and pest-free, rarely need watering and remain a trusty vibrant green from April to October.

And what’s all this about pruning?

But short and tidy is not always perfect. Other customers will seek a monk-like plant for the corners of the house. Yes, precisely six feet tall is fine – but no taller. Bring it on with fragrant white flowers in spring and bright red berries in the fall. No pruning. No watering. No cedar wax-wings. Great fall color.

I bite my tongue at those marketing moments. The temptation is to ask the customer if the plant must also be trusty, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave and clean in thought and word and deed. A little fragrance would be nice, too.

Many of these Perfect Plant-Seekers are well aware of their shortcomings, and not the least bit self-conscious about it. They are willing to learn, but just to the point where their garden must learn to take care of itself.

The truth has risen: The customer wants a garden. He or she just don’t want to have to garden all that much to get one. Bring in the lawn services and weed whackers.

Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’

And yet, there are those who find themselves trapped in this voyage of garden discovery and sail through to victory. They purchased an Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ and found themselves enchanted by the pinkish-white spring flowers, the later red fall berries and the screaming red autumnal foliage.

And what do you know, it will fit nicely in some sunny corners and can be kept about six feet tall. Not quite perfect, but three good seasons out of four ain’t bad.

Acer triflorum

If it’s all four seasons they want, they should consider the Acer triflorum ‘Three-flowered maple’ with its 365 days of amazing exfoliating bark and striking fall colors.

Bob’s perfect plant – Parrotia persica

More perfection for me is the Parrotia persica, or ‘Persian Ironwood’ which is utterly incapable of having a single bad day all year. Its leaves emerge reddish-purple in the spring, go glossy green all summer and finish with a yellow, orange and red flourish in the fall.

Oh yeah, the gray bark exfoliates over time, adding interest all winter, and its uprising limbs are so thick and stout no one could possible fall from one while climbing.

Totally, absolutely, wonderfully perfect.

Photo credits: Aronia, Acer triflorum. Parrotia persica foliage. Other Parrotia photos by the author.

Posted by on April 25, 2018 at 7:08 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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9 responses to “In Search of the Perfect Plant”

  1. We also grow and sell plants for the public. A favorite description of what a customer is looking for: three feet tall and wide, evergreen with year round bloom. My response: have you considered plastic?

    • Laura says:

      That’s so funny! Here’s a true story along the same line. Mother-in-law was in the hospital for months. This left my father-in-law to fend for himself. Because he loved her A LOT, he religiously watered her flowers in the flower boxes attached to the porch railing. They never wilted during the hot summer either. They were plastic.

      Back to the topic.–I don’t want no maintenance, low maintenance perfect plants. Where’s the fun in that?

  2. Mary Apodaca says:

    Fun article. I miss Zone and sunlight information in these posts. I’d love an iron tree but the Google machine tells me Zones 4-8 and full sun.

    I don’t think this plant thrives here in the Florida Panhandle. Plus how many years does it take to get perfect? ( I’m old, not a new gardener).

    And the Duluth underwear reference. Even though the commercial is hilarious, I’m left wondering … Do you mean these newbies are all men? (I’m not one, but still).

    • Susan says:

      Duluth Trading makes clothes for women, even jeans with pockets to hold knee pads which is really a great idea!

  3. Jacquelyn McG says:

    Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ would be perfect for me–except the deer eat it. Maybe I’ll buy another one (or an Aronia melanocarpa ‘Iriquois Beauty’), and cage it. I would never choose Acer triflorum or Parrotia persica, since they have little to no ecological value. Because these plants are from China/Korea and Iran, respectively, they do not support the native insect life that feed the birds, thus making a hole in the food web. Ecologically, maybe a little better than lawn, but not much (they probably sequester more carbon). They, along with Ginkgo and Zelkova and their ilk, are the living version of plastic, in our environment.

  4. Jean C. says:

    I suppose the world is big enough to allow for all types of gardeners. Sometimes the gardener you speak of finally decides to learn a bit more about how to garden properly and how to choose plants and trees for their location. Hopefully, they have kind and patient master gardener friends who can help them. To a large extent, I don’t think pollinators care too much whether their garden host is a brilliant gardener or a goofy amateur.

  5. Carol says:

    Exactly why I got out of the garden center business. I loved my customers, but could not spend all day, day after day, trying to answer these questions. But a lot of good gardeners start out this way. Good post, and it was a lot of fun to read this.

  6. hb says:

    Non gardeners think of plants as furniture. But more pressing an issue: how do you know what underwear your customers are wearing?

  7. Jeff Wood says:

    “The temptation is to ask the customer if the plant must also be trusty, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave and clean in thought and word and deed.” I had to laugh out loud when I read this! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve though nearly the same thing when dealing with some of my customers.