Sparked by Elizabeth’s zinnia post this week on the merits of plants she once considered to be the “low rent versions of dahlia,” I spent some time this morning considering the many plants I have dismissed out of hand only to be surprised by joy years later.  

I cannot virtuously say that each and every prejudice has been bested; but there have been so many humblings, that it is not quite as easy these days to wrinkle my nose and label something deplorable unless I have had numerous unfortunate experiences with it. One must move beyond the first or even second impression, or risk eating one’s words without salt.


I have always adored zinnia. It’s dahlia I had to learn to love.

The Hive Mind

Sometimes we are simply told what to like and what not to like, and in the early years of gardening, this is fine and tolerable and perhaps helps us avoid the plants that would disproportionately consume our energy – however bottomless it may be. 

But the human condition being what it is, and courage being the rarest of the virtues, expressed opinions are very seldom original, and often build upon those held by the most strident. Thus we are inexorably and comfortably drawn into the rarefied circles that proclaim one plant common and vulgar, another, exquisite and life changing. 

Not convinced that the Emperor is clothed? When we break from the hive mind and begin to study individual plants on their merits – and perhaps more importantly – within the context of our own gardens, opinions we have parroted for so long may become insupportable.  

For me: Forsythia x intermedia. Proclaimed a shrub for “non-gardeners” by gardeners of my earliest acquaintance, the butchered hedges and incongruous lawn-balls of suburbia only confirmed the bias. Yet allowed to grow with wild and graceful habit under the auspices of a watchful gardener with pruners in hand – a glorious herald of spring.

prejudice against forsythia

Forsythia at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington D.C.

The Right Place

Sometimes our first impression of a plant is through growing it, and growing it badly.  Make no mistake, there is a plant for every place, yet gardeners spend an inordinate amount of time forcing round plants into very square holes, aided and abetted by clever marketing departments who hand them the hammer. 

If we are observant, and fortunate, and happen to see a plant growing in its ideal or native conditions, we are transformed and then transfixed by love of something for which we previously felt contempt.  What an extraordinary feeling this is – shared by thousands who tour gardens and wild spaces all over the world and experience eureka moments on their knees in a moist meadow – or on a dry outcropping ten thousand feet above sea level.

For me: Camassia leichtlinii – Mine never came to much on dry, partially shaded soils; and seeing the occasional three or four blooms in friends’ gardens did not sway me. But witnessing them en masse in moist sunny meadows in the UK at the height of spring made me understand what they, and what I, were missing.

Camassia with bee

I’m not the only one smitten.

Changing Perspectives

Sometimes our senses are deadened to a plant by its overuse or misuse. These are those once new, once special plants given the unfortunate gift of extreme adaptability. They are the “landscaping solutions” – the “workhorses” that adorn countless suburban and urban landscapes without objection or applause.  To see a workhorse brushed and trimmed and running in a show ring changes one’s mind as to its full potential, and sets the brain racing as to the unusual ways it might be used in one’s own landscape.  Context often breeds contempt.

For me: Agapanthus praecox.  I blame too much time spent as a jogger on the streets of Pasadena where this and strelitzia are as ubiquitous as white teeth and yoga pants. I have only begun to come round to the idea of planting it thanks in part to cultivars such as Southern Living Plants’ Ever Twilight

ever-twillight agapanthus

That’s Nice for You but Not for Me

Sometimes we recognize that a plant works well in the context of someone else’s heavily stylized garden or design, but feel that it cannot possibly work in our own. It becomes stereotyped in our heads – forever part of a garden that we might profess to love (within the earshot of the resident gardener), but could never live with (later in the car driving home).  

Thus an incredible plant that might create a spectacular accent in a dull corner is overlooked – right up until the moment one is uncomfortably offered a division and can find no where else to hide it other than a dull corner. 

More eureka moments follow – and the inevitable proselytization of others by a zealous convert.

For me: Weeping trees of any genera. For years I saw them as overpriced, bizarre accents for pretentious high-end landscapes. Then I was given a tiny Juniperus rigida and enjoyed the soft pendulous texture it brought to a pot display. Now I grow everything from weeping deodar cedars to weeping beeches.

weeping redbud

A newly planted white weeping redbud in front of the usual bloomers. Wish I’d planted it years ago.

Fear of Failure

Sometimes we are uncomfortable with the unknown.  It is easier perhaps to dismiss a plant, or a species, or a genera, based on what we have heard or not heard. What skills will be asked of us? What will be gained?  How uncomfortable will be the journey?

There are millions of comfortable gardens across the world. They bring their owners joy and provide green spaces in an increasingly urbanized world. But for those whose pulse quickens at a challenge, comfortable is rarely enough.       

For me: Tropical and subtropical plants. Yes, I know. I ended up not only growing and loving them, but writing a book about them.  How’s that for eating one’s words without salt? Or pepper.

tropical plants in garden

That’s a lot to crow about, and a lot of crow to eat.

One Man’s Trash…

And sometimes we are just hard-headed.  I still have plants I do not like and do not care to like, even were I to be shamed by my horticultural heroes. 

What is more, I confess to delight in hearing the secret and personal loathings of fellow gardeners. In watching the dismissive look of a designer, or the mumbled malice leveled at perfectly reasonable plants – plants  that cannot otherwise be diminished by the moralistic labeling we effortlessly and liberally deploy these days.  

I am interested by these observations and prejudices and do not necessarily seek to change them, though I may drill down a little in conversation to find out why, exactly, that begonia sends you into fits of madness.  

Never for me: Dianthus. Squatty, ragged, bouquet fodder. Interestingly it is one of the first flowers I remember from my childhood – simply because I didn’t care for it. Perhaps I was still smarting from a spanking when I first glimpsed them – we’ll never know.  

And it is no good telling me that your beloved grandmother grew them.  Everyone’s beloved grandmother grew them.  I mean to raise my grandchildren with better standards.

Whew. That felt really good.


Got some prejudices you’ve overcome…or chosen to ignore? I think we’d all love to hear them…. – MW