6 January 2022

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

I thought I’d confuse you by preempting your letter with one of my own.  No, you are not behind, I am simply ahead.

Best wishes for a speedy recovery! And I use that exclamation point with great precision. Your last Rant on overused plants was wonderful.  The surgery sharpened a delightful edge which I very much hope lasts at long as the scar tissue.

As I mentioned in the comments, I hate that you wrote it and I didn’t.  I did much of my laughing through clenched teeth. 

Writing a subjective, yet authoritative, list begs criticism, rebuttal, and haughty opinion; but by and large the comments were extremely kind. I can only assume it is because much of what you said is uncomfortably true, but diffused by that ridiculously affable personality of yours. 

Your remark on Metasequoia was particularly funny – and disturbing – and I must now second guess my adoration of the species as evidence of my numerous personality flaws.  I currently have three planted, including the golden ‘Ogon’ which has struggled due to poor placement. The straight species do so well in my loamy, often moist soil, and are the closest thing to Sequoia I can grow as the winter winds turn even the hardiest (‘Atlanta’ perhaps?) into a dwarf conifer.

Regardless, it did spark in me the desire to fool around with an opposing list of underused plants which I typed into my phone in the back seat of a car bound for a Christmas light display — until nausea and self-reflection got the better of me.  

foliage plants in spring

The sweet blue blossoms of Brunnera macrophylla against autumn fern and variegated Solomon’s Seal – one of my favorite spring shade combinations.

First on my list, Brunnera, Crinum, Podophyllum… but I realized soon after listing Carex pensylvanica and some choice cultivars (Heliopsis ‘Burning Hearts’, Deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, Pyracantha ‘Silver Lining’ to name a few) that I wasn’t being fair, as singling out species and cultivars gave the impression that everything else in that genus was meh except the one making the list.  And it’s not as if Carex isn’t fantastic and possibly one of the best genera out there, it’s just that cultivars like C. morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ and C. oshimensis ‘Everillo’ are overused (mostly by me) so they throw off the purity of the list. 

 

Carex 'Ice Dance'

A flagrant overplanting of Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ under my pergola. But boy is it low maintenance. Until it isn’t.

 

Brunnera?  I never see it overplanted in home gardens, and I’m in the shady Mid-Atlantic where it thrives and is never bothered by deer. Or gardeners, apparently.  Podophyllum pelatum is severely underappreciated unless you’re Mt. Cuba, and the only people who could be accused of overplanting any one of the numerous, fascinating Asian species/cultivars (P. pleianthum!) are planting them under Metasequoia.  ‘Nuff said.

podophyllum pleianthum

A very new P. pleianthum in the midst of a lot of foliage by the front door – including that wonderful ‘Everillo’ carex – and ‘Chardonnay Pearls’ deutzia. And now that I think about it, Tricyrtis formosana ‘Autumn Glow’ should be on that list too.

Now THAT would be a fun list for you to compile if you wished to annoy all your friends:  Hackneyed Choices for Plant Geeks. Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ tops that list and the moment I can get hold of one cheaply I will.

Podophyllum pelatum

Native podophyllum unfurling in a colony on a bank behind the kitchen window is such a cool sight in spring.

In any case, by the time I painfully typed Trachystemon orientalis, tried to dictate Arachnoides standishii four times and gave up (Google says” “A rack knows these, stand this year I”), I realized the many reasons (apart from nausea and middle-age) I had to stop.

1.  It’s so regional

This by the way is the obvious flaw in your own [Midwestern] list which you no doubt recognize, but which neither of us can fully rectify without an expense account and a year’s sabbatical. 

You’re lucky you didn’t get more flak on that point. Your affable personality aside, perhaps it has something to do with a homogenized big-box, big-brand, national plant palette making most of these plants way too recognizable from sea to shining sea. (More on that someday perhaps.)

When reading your list, the first overplanted genus I thought of was Agapanthus (which hearkens back to my Southern Cal days), but which ignites fires of passion in Mid-Atlantic gardeners who continue to tell me of hardier and hardier cultivars no matter how hard I roll my eyes.  Stephanandra incisa – underused here, apparently overused in the south.  Ditto Plumbago. Texans roll their eyes, Pennsylvanians get breathless.

agapanthus

I will admit to feeling tempted by Agapanthus ‘Ever Twillight’ by Southern Living Plant Collection.

I’d love to see more overplanted contenders from readers commenting from different regions, but perhaps your Midwest-centric list was the final narcissistic straw and they’ve left us for less biased pastures?

2.  Do tender perennials count?

Yes, in my book – and apparently yours, as you mention zonal geraniums – but not everyone north of 7b/8 wants to containerize Plumbago, or dig Hedychium, no matter how in-your-face gorgeous it is (‘Tara’), how unusual its foliage (‘Tahitian Flame’), or how it scents summer evenings better than a rugosa rose at full bore (well, not hardy H. coccineum, but no genus is perfect).

hedychium

An unnamed hedychium in my garden last year. Unbelievable scent.

 

3.  Motives may be suspect

Are plants listed because they are underappreciated, versatile species, or because the writer wants to show off knowledge of obscure and bizarre species otherwise discussed in dark corners of plant society meetings? I confess to a cynic’s heart. But I also confess to a heightened desire for approval, and a subscription to Gardens Illustrated.  

Syneilesis aconitifolia

Ticking the strange and unusual, but very cool, box — Syneilesis aconitifolia. Saw it at the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden and fell in love. So did the deer, but despite their attention, the clump is slowly growing bigger.

 

4.  It’s begging to be challenged

There is so much moralistic gardening going on now that any list that singles out great plants for their ornamental or ‘garden’ qualities in anything remotely resembling a hierarchical structure will definitely face righteous opprobrium at high volume. The smart writer with a Twitter account and their next job in mind chooses plants for their ability to feed voles and leaf cutter bees. Native leaf cutter bees mind you. ‘Attractive to humans’ is so 20cen.  

begonia grandis

Begonia grandis – but how long will I be allowed to love it? These at Plant Delights Nursery/Juniper Level Botanic Gardens in North Carolina.

So, while I think your Overplanted List was a good one, I’m not going to counter it as it is just plain easier to throw stones than stand in a circle awaiting them. And besides, I was far too tempted to mention beautiful Asian temptations such as Begonia grandis or [the horror] Tetrapanax papyrifera (which almost bloomed in a friend’s Rehoboth Beach garden this year and made me fall in love with it a little more and envy his beach house a LOT more). 

 

textrapanax

John Boggan @DCTropics was chronicling this tetrapanax inflorescence at his Rehoboth Beach home through November. I never see even the hint of a bud on mine by the time winter comes around. T. papyrifera ‘Steroidal Giant’. Photo credit: John Boggan

 

I even fiddled with the thought crime of mentioning Viburnum dilatatum, but it’s clearly on the ‘don’t even think about it’ PDF I have tacked to my wall and I don’t want to find myself selling pencils outside the convention centers I’m supposed to speak at this year.   

All this said, I wait in joyful anticipation of your Underplanted List, as you do have that affable personality etc. etc. and will no doubt pull it off. 

A warm winter thus far. Rain has replaced grey tones with rich tawny shades on the hillsides, and the scent in the air in the morning makes it a pleasure to open the door and step outside.  And no I didn’t get trapped on the 95 with that crazy snowstorm – we didn’t get more than a flake here.

Yours,

Marianne

P.S. No forsythia on your list? No buddleia?  Or were you pulling your punches after all? 

P.P.S.  Got to the end of the letter and realized I have a picture of a metasequoia planted smack in the middle of your garden.  In fact I think you have several.  Have you no shame Mr. Beuerlein?

metasequoia trunk

“J’accuse!” shouts the face on this metasequoia in your garden.