Bizarre Plants Only a Mother Could Love
Reprinted from American Nurseryman Magazine 1997
by Tony Avent
Have you ever seen a plant so bizarre that you thought no one would ever buy it? Many nurserymen have become so convinced that customers want nothing but taxus, thuja, and ilex, that they miss out on some of the most fun and exotic plants that the Plant Kingdom has to offer. When we hear from a poll that 68% of the gardening public wants to spend less time in their garden, we assume that we should grow more boring plants and make them easier to maintain. Sorry, but I beg to differ.
I feel we need to encourage people to have more fun in their gardens! Let's get real...how many people want to spend time in their gardens if all they have to do is the hedge clipper shuffle and the sprayer sprint. As nurserymen, we have done our best to promote and produce the most boring plants that money could buy. No wonder folks don't want to spend more time in their gardens...starring at a Japanese holly for an hour is not my idea of a leisure activity.
People are constantly surprised at the rise in popularity of perennials, but not those us who are perennial nuts. Let's face it, perennials as a group are fun! With perennials, there is always something changing, highlighted by anticipation. I'm certainly not going to tell you that all perennials are fun, but let's look at a few really bizarre plants that are sure to make your customers take notice.
There is probably no group of plants that evokes more emotion and curiosity as the amorphophallus or voodoo lilies. This primarily Asian genus loosely translated indicates that the flower resembles a sexual part of the human anatomy...you guess which one. You are likely to remember the "stink" that was raised last summer when Amorphophallus titanium flowered at Kew Gardens in England. Every news magazine, newspaper, and news television show featured the grand event. No plant has ever received such press...except maybe Cannabis sativae.
Amorphophallus konjac (syn. A. rivieri), hardy from zone 7b-10 is the most common species in the trade, and is beginning to pop up even in "reputable" catalogs. The giant hand shaped leaf to 3' across is held atop a mottled fleshy stem that arises from a giant tuber (5-10 lbs). When the bulb gets large, it flowers a couple of months before the leaf emerges with a bizarre 6' tall stalk of purple fleshy vinyl sitting atop a 3' wide vinyl cup. While the odor is the stuff great stories are made of, the smell of rotting flesh is quite evident for at least one day during the bloom cycle. Since the bulb will bloom without being potted, many of our customers play practical jokes on their family by hiding a bulb in the house during the winter time and watching with delight as family member try to locate a "dead animal".
Amorphophallus bulbifer, zone 7b-10 is another wonderful species, but without the odor. The 2' tall shell pink flower has a similar habit to Amorphophallus konjac. Amorphophallus titanium (hardiness unknown) is the most spectacular of the genus with it's potentially 15' tall inflorescence. Amorphophallus titanium is still quite rare in the trade, although tissue culture breakthroughs are promising.
A first cousin to Amorphophallus is the wonderful aroid Sauromatum venosum (syn. S. guttatum). This voodoo lily, hardy to zone 5b-10 is equally as bizarre with the same blotched green and black stem, topped with a giant hand like green leaf. In very early spring, the flowers emerge 1" wide x 3' tall. Each flower is beautifully patterned yellow and purple. This easy to grow aroid has an equally as disgusting smell as Amorphophallus , but again, only for a day.
When talking about bizarre, I could include nearly every plant in the aroid family, but the one that couldn't be omitted is Arisarum proboscideum (mouse plant). This bizarre aroid (zone 6-9) emerges with a flower in late winter (early spring in the north) that resembles an upside down small purple mouse with a white posterior diving into the ground, while its 6" tail waves in the air. After the bloom fades, the arum like green leaves make a small mat to 6" tall. The foliage dies down like spring bulb foliage, only to re-emerge the following late winter.
Dasylirions (sotol) are another group of underappreciated strangers. These natives to the heat and sun of the southwest US and into Mexico should certainly be welcomed where Yucca are used. I like to refer to Dasylirions as "gussied up" Yucca. The most common species Dasylirion wheeleri (zone 7-10) is a Yucca like grower with powder blue slightly twisted leaves, eventually making a 6' wide x 4' tall clump. Dasylirion longissimum although less hardy (zone 8-10) is one of the most spectacular species with rigid long arching stems of pencil thin leaves, radiating from the slowly developing palm like trunk.
There are a number of other Dasylirion species, many of which are a botanist's nightmare to identify. Dasylirion leiophyllum (zone 8-10 at least) is powdery blue like Dasylirion wheeleri, while Dasylirion texanum (zone 7b-10) has green foliage.
While we are discussing natives, one of my favorite groups are the Amsonia or blue stars. For strange, you can't get much better than the vertically challenged Amsonia ciliata v. filifera 'Georgia Pancake'. This native to the sandhills regions of central Georgia has very narrow leaves...much finer than Amsonia hubrechtii and a ground cover like growth habit. With a maximum height of 6" and a spread of 2- 3', this ground cover blue star is perfect for a sunny mound. In spring, the clumps are topped with the typical clusters of light blue flowers. Since it is fairly new to cultivation, hardiness is unknown north of zone 7.
Another bizarre native plant selection that amazes all of our visitors is a little erigeron found by Dick Weaver, founder of WeDu Nurseries. While walking along the railroad tracks near his home in Marion, NC, Dick spied a crinkled mound of green that he assumed had been a victim of railroad herbicide. After moving a piece to his nursery, Dick realized that this corrugated gem was indeed a worthwhile selection of the native Erigeron pulchellus. Realizing that it most closely resembled a green "cow chip", Dick opted for the name Erigeron 'Meadow Muffin'. This slow spreader makes 5" wide green muffins to 1" tall. In spring, the clumps are topped with single stalks of 1" pink daisies to 6-10" tall. If your customers like bizarre and cute in one plant...this is it!
For a native plant that likes it wet, you can't lose with the white top sedge, (Dichromena latifolia). Looking like a typical sedge until mid summer, the clusters of foliage at the top of the 15" stems suddenly burst forth with spectacularly curious white bracts. This native from coastal Virginia into Florida is perfect for the bog garden, and can even be used as an aquatic annual in the frigid north (zone 7-10 at least).
In the new bizarre but incredible, I couldn't omit the Stokesia 'Omega Skyrocket' from the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Curator Ron Determann was searching for pitcher plants in Georgia, and came upon a stand (recently bulldozed) that also included this unusual stokes aster with 3' tall bloom spikes topped with unusually large blue purple flowers. Determann saved seed of this unusual strain and began distributing the seed and plants thru Saul's Nursery of Georgia.
I guess an article on bizarre plants would be complete without mention of our wonderful native carnivorous plants. Obviously the most popular carnivorous plant is our native Venus fly traps, Dionaea muscipula. These strange looking plants...probably left by visitors from outer space, make a flat rosette of stems that end in an fly trap like appendage. Each appendage opens to reveal sensitive trigger hairs, which when touched in sequence causes the trap to close on the unsuspecting prey. These full sun boggy soil lovers will flower when happy with 18" stalks of tiny white flowers, but trust me...these are grown primarily for the traps.
My favorite of the carnivorous group are the pitcher plants (Sarracenia). Each leaf on a pitcher plant ends with an opening that quickly fills with water like a drinking pitcher. As insects get a little too close, they fall in the water and drown. Unlike the venus fly trap, the flowers on pitcher plants are as bizarre as the pitchers themselves. Most species flower in early spring with dramatic flowers resembling a smashed pumpkin dangling underneath a miniature umbrella. The flowers are usually green, yellow, pink, or red.
The most common species of pitcher plants available in the trade are Sarracenia leucophylla (zone 6-9) (green pitchers with white tops and red veins), Sarracenia purpurea (zone 4-9) (green and red pitchers that lay flat), Sarracenia psittacina (zone 7-9) (green and red pitchers that lay flat with a pitcher resembling a cobra head), Sarracenia elata and Sarracenia flava (zone 6-9) (both green pitchers with chartreuse to yellow tops), and Sarracenia minor (zone 6-9) (green pitchers with a white window in the back of the hooded pitcher). As with Venus Fly Traps, pitcher plants prefer bright sun and boggy soils that are very nutrient poor.
One of the most stunning members of our weird but wonderful contingent is the coral bean, Erythrina x bidwilii. This bi-specific hybrid between our native Erythrina herbacea and Erythrina crista-galli probably occurred during some unprotected sex a few years back. The hybrid has proved to be the most cold hardy coral bean in our trials (zone 7-10). Erythrina x bidwilii doesn't emerge for us until late May, when it nearly jumps out of the ground. At the end of every 8' twisting stalk of trifoliate foliage is a 18" spike of gaudy red lipstick shaped flowers. For us Erythrina x bidwilii flowers non stop from June thru December when given plenty of baking sun.
For the truly bizarre nurserymen, you must try ephedras. I had my first encounter with these US and Asian endemics at the Atlanta Botanical Garden several years ago. The foliage of blue pencil lead size jointed branches most resembles a plate of blue spaghetti...or for you plant nerds, sort of like a equisetum that has been plugged into an electrical socket (horsetail). There is a variety of species (40), but the most popular is Ephedra sinica, from which the drug ephedrine (called Ma Huang) is derived. I wondered why we got so many new customers once we started offering ephedra. Some species only get 2" tall (Ephedra minima), while others get 5' tall (Ephedra equisetina). Despite the advantage/drawback of its herbal uses, ephedra makes the perfect groundcover for a dry sunny site, and is guaranteed to get your customers asking...what the?
Most of the really cool contorted plants are woody plants...the perennial world really got cheated. Our chief representative, however is the group of juncus (rushes). Despite your political leanings, corkscrew rush is too cute to ignore. These wonderful evergreens are great additions to any bog garden.
There are actually three different corkscrew rushes. The most common is Juncus effusus 'Spiralis'. This bizarre rush has glossy green stems that coil outward like a twisted unicorn horn to 12" long. From the base of each clump, you could have as many as 30-50 spirals heading in all different directions. This is one of those truly fun plants enjoyed by both kids and adults.
I picked up a dwarf form in England under the name Juncus effusus 'Curley Wurley', which is about half the size of the normal corkscrew rush. This dwarf to 6" has even tighter corkscrews than the normal and seems to retain a fair amount of bounce thru the growing season. The foliage is the same very thin glossy green of Juncus effusus 'Spiralis'.
The really bizarre member of the corkscrew rushes is Juncus inflexus 'Afro'. This giant corkscrew rush reaches nearly 2' in height with wonderful soft blue grey foliage. The foliage is nearly 5 times as thick as that of the other corkscrew rushes. This is a marvelous plant that I hope reaches the market one day soon.
If you're bored by the "bread and butter" plants that you have been growing and want to find a new niche, consider at least adding a little fun to your line up by seeking out some of the weird and wonderful members of the plant family for your customers.