Beware. Be afraid. Not of the plants themselves, but of the exotic seduction they represent. The biggest danger with most of the plants listed in Bizarre Botanicals is not that they’ll eat you (though some would give it a college try), but that you’ll actually try to grow them. Eventually, you’ll get so obsessed with goofy plants that you’ll ruin any chance you ever had of a coherent garden.
Sometimes it’s not even the plants—it’s the names:
•Love lies bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
Amaranthus actually makes more sense in the garden as a foliage plant. While the tall stalks of rainbow-colored leaves can add life to any border, the lax, stringy red tails that give this plant its name are best cut off immediately for some kind of ghoulish arrangement indoors.
•Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
After you’ve gotten over the thrill of the leaves folding up when you run your fingers over them, this tropical is a trap for the cold climate gardener. Indoors, it immediately becomes leggy, thorny, and—exposed to the rigors of central heat—dead.
•Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria cylindrica)
Despite its hilarious name, this spiky house plant—seemingly indestructible—is ubiquitous in office parks throughout the U.S. You’ve probably never noticed it blending in with all the pothos and philodendron hybrids that are equally able to survive in the inhospitable corporate environment. On its own though, sansevieria is unique—its striped, stately green columns deserve more respect.
Books like this are part of the reason my garden is what it is today. I am invariably sucked in by the promise of novelty, of having an annual, perennial, or shrub that is completely unlike anything growing in the less imaginative backyards of my neighbors. Books like this are also part of the reason I grow orchids, cactus, and rarities like night-blooming cereus indoors—with wildly erratic success.
The sad truth is that if you want to have a beautiful and successful outdoor garden, you’re probably best off growing some wisely selected shrubs and three to five hardy perennials with long blooming periods. A sea of daylilies, monarda or daisies can be more beautiful and maintenance-free than any gardener dared to dream. Unfortunately, few gardeners could ever be content with such a minimal selection. I never was—but I’m gradually learning that the best place for experimentation with weird plants is in containers or inside.
It’s no accident that most of the plants in Bizarre Botanicals thrive in warm weather. The majority can be grown outdoors in summer, but would need to be brought inside in any climate where temps can go below 60 degrees F—which includes most of the U.S. Plants like beehive ginger (Zingiber spectabile), black orchid (Fredclarkeara) or blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) are rarified creatures, meant for terrariums, greenhouses, or simply to purchase as a short-lived gift plants—if you can find them. Plants like this make me long for a conservatory—the kind that used to be attached to almost every respectable English mansion. I could put up with a good deal of inconvenience to be an Edwardian lady with a live-in gardener, a greenhouse and a conservatory full of exotic plants. Sigh.
Most of us will never be able or even want to grow blue oil fern or voodoo lily, but it’s a good idea to try at least one crazy plant each summer. This year, I’m thinking about the new black petunias. How about you?
Bizarre Botanicals, by Paula Gross, assistant director of the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens; and Larry Mellichamp, professor of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; with a forward by Tony Avent, horticultural explorer and founder/proprietor of Plant Delights Nursery. Timber Press.
Elizabeth Licata has been working as a professional journalist for over 20 years and is one of four bloggers at Garden Rant now contributing regularly to Kirkus. Her writing on the arts has been published in the Village Voice, the Buffalo News, Art in America, Art & Antiques and many other publications. Her writing on gardening has been published in Horticulture magazine and her blogs, the award-winning Garden Rant and her own blog Gardening While Intoxicated. Licata is the author of the book Garden Walk Buffalo and is the editor-in-chief of Buffalo Spree, Buffalo’s city/regional glossy.