February 16, 2022

Cincinnati, OH

Dear Marianne,

The one time I had truly committed to writing back in a timely fashion, you go and break convention by rushing out another letter like an extra edition. And I had one almost ready to go too. Didn’t like it much, but it was ready. So when your second letter prompted ideas for a better, new letter, I had to start over. And then I had to let the first draft of it marinate a bit so I could come back at it with fresh eyes and proceed to rewrite it 100 times.

All this was going according to plan when the craziest thing happened. The Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC championship. Suddenly, the entire city, including me, went ape shit crazy and collectively made so many social media posts that it caused a brown out. Then, when power came back on, it caused a surge which fried every computer in the county older than a Commodore 64. Fortunately, I had emailed myself the rough draft as a precaution for just such a thing and so had access to it once I had saved up enough for a used IBM PS-2.

My Joe Burrow victory cigar which we tried to smoke after the Bengals win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Another cigar we bought for the Super Bowl hangs in limbo while we decide on what to do with it. 

So, after a number of rewrites, here is my letter. I hope you like it, but, first, I thought of a horticultural joke the other day and I’m wondering what you’ll think. Here it is:

If trees are like a matrimonial spouse, and if shrubs are like a common law partner, and if perennials are like the girlfriend your crazy uncle keeps telling you to “put a ring on,” then annuals are like what?

Pause for comedic timing.

Then annuals are like groupies!

Because they’re flashy, fun, relatively cheap, and come with a pre-agreed upon planned obsolescence. 

Annuals: fun, fast, buxom, and brassy.

I thought it was pretty good and tried it out on a roomful of Michigan landscapers two weeks ago but, damn, it dropped like a bomb. Not like a bomb in that it killed as in comedian parlance, but as in like a bomb that is a dud and lands with a thud. There were a few polite chuckles but nowhere near what I had expected and thought it deserved. Sure, it was a little early and the audience might not have been ready for such talk, but mostly I think they were just uncomfortable with the word “groupies.” 

Of course, I couldn’t just let it go and move on when this room full of green industry professionals just sat there squirming, so I asked, “Hey, seriously, if we could, we’d all want groupies, right?” I was met by tidal wave of vibe that seemed to beg, “Please leave us alone.” Being hard headed, I tried this joke again to a different audience in Chicago a week later. Slightly better results, but nothing like the hearty roar of laughter I had imagined. 

Marianne, is the very mention of the word groupies so wrong? We know they exist. I didn’t disparage them. I didn’t cast judgment on anyone. I just made the comparison in a fun and positive way. I worried for a few minutes that using that word might have been construed as sexist and thereby had run counter to the world views of landscapers, but I had carefully chosen my words to be gender non-specific and I’m sure that groupies of all sexes chase stars of all sexes. It seems perfectly reasonable that the Go Go’s might have experienced some groupies. And Joan Jett probably had her share, some of which, I expect, were never seen again. Me, personally, I would have gladly been a groupie for Chrissie Hynde except that she is from Cleveland.

Holden Arboretum, outside of Cleveland.

I’ll explain that last part. Cincinnati and Cleveland, located at opposite corners of Ohio, don’t much like each other. In fact, they kind of hate each other. Never ending barrages of insults hurled back and forth. There have been ugly incidents. So that is what makes that Chrissie Hynde joke so funny. Or possibly funny. There’s some rule, I’m semi-remembering, something about if you have to explain a joke… But I can’t remember all of it. Anyway, as of a few weeks ago, I’m particularly conscious of jokes that go clunk in the night and hope more than anything that this one delighted everyone.

But here’s the thing. After many, many years of dutifully hating Cleveland, as all good Cincinnatians do, I finally had to go there. And, you know what, I was totally stunned to find that it’s actually very nice. Sure, your first impression comes from a terribly frightening, huge, dark, Satanic steel mill as you roll into town, but, apart from that, it reminded me a lot of Cincinnati.

Beautiful neighborhoods. Lovely parks. The lake. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Plenty of beer. Decent enough people. Horticulturally, it is very rich. The Cleveland Botanical Garden and Holden Arboretum are both amazing. So, since that unexpected revelation, I’ve tried to hold my tongue about something until I actually have some firsthand knowledge of it. In fact, I’d like to encourage others to do the same thing. In fact, I would urge all the people living in Cincinnati and Cleveland to end this nonsense. Enough! We both have great cities. We both have great people. We should be proud of our hometowns and we should do great things together. First among them, take all the anger and hatred we have cast at each other for many, many decades and target it all squarely at Columbus. What a truly loathsome place that is! Miserable, ugly, soulless. Never go there. Anyone.  

Cleveland Botanical Garden is small but sensational.

But back to your letter, which eventually beatified a robust list of underused plants. I have to admit, it was a fabulous retort to my post which had randomly and unfairly hurled insult upon insult on about twenty perfectly okay but perhaps “overused” plants. Oh, and also upon the hapless masses who plant them. Among these, of course, I counted myself.  And then you. Because, you know what? I know I’m guilty. And I know you’re guilty. Hell, we’re all guilty. In fact, the only thing worse than comfortably reveling in the hackneyed is being so snooty you only allow yourself things you can barely afford or otherwise attain.  But, admittedly, there have been times I’ve been guilty of this too. Marianne, I am guilty of a lot of things. You should know that. I’m pretty sure you already do.

Anyway, I was surprised by how many comments my cruel and ruthless post prompted. I had feared my post might offend a number of my green industry friends whose ability to feed their families chicken on Sundays  is entirely dependent  on the continuing brisk sales of all the most popular plants, but so far no one has said anything. To me, at least. Some folks wanted to argue with me about some of my choices and I get that, but, honestly, I never had close to enough conviction in anything I said to feel the least need to defend it.

The only comments that worried me were the ones where folks expressed feeling guilty for liking plants I named and vowing “to do better.” As one who is—as I might have mentioned—guilty of a lot of stuff, I can truly say that it was never my intention to make anyone feel bad about things they like. Honestly, could there be anything worse than turning someone against the things that bring them joy? Unless, of course, the things that bring them joy are beating people up or murdering them. Apart from that kind of stuff, I don’t think there is.

I know this because, yes, I’ve done it! Yep. Go ahead and check that box too. And so, for anyone who stopped loving their weeping willow because of my post, I apologize. And if anyone laid waste to their Cotinus because of anything I said, I offer my sincerest regret. And for all those other comments about all those other plants too.

The weeping willow. Salix something. Others can argue which something.

And to you, my dear friend, who admitted being troubled by your abundance of Metasequoia, which was on the list and the butt of maybe my best joke in the entire blog, I also beg forgiveness. “The hackneyed choice of plant geeks who cannot imagine doing anything hackneyed.” Yep, rude as that is, that’s exactly what I said. I was just typing along and, boom, I wrote it. And I knew it was good from the beginning because I could imagine how it would go down. Dedicated plant snobs the world over, alone in their hovels, speed reading my post and enjoying the hell out of my finger waving and snorting through my snark, when, out of nowhere, there on the list in plain view is the word Metasequoia. A favorite plant! With a great story. Mocked! And them, too! In that instant, world over, having beaten down the masses by hating on red maples and having slashed and burned the elite with my slander of Metasequoia, I realized that I alone was left snorting in my hovel. It felt weird.  

But, again, it was just a cheap joke. Metasequoia is a great plant and many of my best friends are plant snobs. No one should be ashamed of liking it or growing it. Not them. Not you. Actually, especially not you, because you, like me, are very likely to have a long rap sheet of transgressions far more deserving of shame than simply having a dozen a Metasequoia struggling in your floodplain.    

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, Dawn Redwood.

One example of your transgressions, for instance, would be calling me “affable” in your last letter. Three times! It’s time to dispel this here and now. I am not affable. Not even close. I’m dark and mysterious, and, yes, I just totally stole that line from Almost Famous, one of my favorite movies. And dark and mysterious people like me hate being called “affable.” In fact, even affable people hate being called “affable.” Which, I’m certain you knew. And why you said it. And, guess what, I forgive you. Yes, I forgive you. Because sometimes you’re a good person.

Like when you read my negative, unfair, and ugly rant which cruelly mocked some perfectly good plants causing millions of good people question their choices and used that as inspiration to create a positive and constructive post about a number of underused plants. What a beautiful thing to do! It wasn’t funny or entertaining, but neither, apparently was my groupie joke.

Brunnera macrophylla, Siberian bugloss.

I loved your list and agreed with everything on it that I knew. Totally, totally agree with your inclusion of Brunnera macrophylla, Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa,’ Syneilesis aconitifolia, and Begonia grandis. By the way, that first photo you used was beyond beautiful.

And listing Podophyllum peltatum was genius.  Why the hell not? People are desperate for shade tolerant, deer-proof, drought-resistant, native plants. How does our common mayapple always get overlooked? At some of the hipper garden centers, you might occasionally find one of the Asian species. They’re okay. In a novelty sort of way. But for pure garden presence and usefulness, the American rides above them like John Wayne on a horse smoking a Marlboro. Or Dale Earnhardt Jr. being affable.  Your discussion of Carex was smart. A genus with all kinds of good plants already on shelves, thousands more in the pipeline, and a million more still to be identified and evaluated out in the woods.  

Podophyllum peltatum. Mayapple.

So good for you for choosing nice. And helpful. And polite. I’ve decided I’m going to post my own list of underused plants even though I’m not hopeful it will be any more entertaining than yours. But I’m going to try. But since I am already at 100,000 words, it will have to wait until my next post. Maybe this weekend.

Major ice storm here last week, severe thunderstorms maybe tomorrow, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear me, or anyone, express concerns about weather that is aggressively trying to kill us. Snicker.