April 4, 2019

Spring Dreams, Summer Realities

As long as there are people like Betty around, the horticultural magazine business will prosper.  No fewer that four publications arrive each month by subscription, and several others find their way over the transom unbidden.  Each gets scrutinized for interesting new plants as well as for anecdotal gardening information.
The gardening magazine industry
is alive and well
Oddly, these magazines aren’t always read when they first arrive.  Rather, they accumulate until the (hopefully) last snow of the season is melting.  Then, they’re brought out and savored like a fine wine (and are occasionally accompanied by a glass of same or a rich dark chocolate).  This is a perfect time of year for such an activity: nothing is yet growing, and the garden palette is nothing but grays and browns.  The garden centers and nurseries are just getting their earliest spring stock.  In the New England gardening world, all things are still possible in early April.

It takes more than a pretty face to sell a plant to my wife.  First, with a commitment to creating a garden that is 95% native, lots of plants are rejected even though they’re cute as a button.  She flips past most of the Asian imports and focuses on cultivars with their roots – figuratively and literally – in North America. 

What did this Echinacea give up to
get such a prolific bloom?
Even native plants are subject to scrutiny.  That new coneflower with the bright green center (most Echinacea eyes are brown)?  It certainly looks attractive, but the description says it ‘matures to a bushy mound with a ratio of blossoms to foliage of nearly 1:1.’   The green center can be a naturally occurring mutation encouraged by good propagation.  However, plants can’t expend that much energy in creating blooms without giving up something.  What did the breeder lose in gaining all those flowers?  If it is pollen, the plant will be pretty for humans to admire, but of no use to pollinating insects.  She says she’ll look at it, but the perennial had better be covered with bees if it is to go home with us.

This is the 'traditional' Calycanthus,
not many flowers but oh, that scent!
Similarly, Carolina allspice, also known as sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), has undergone a metamorphosis.  A few decades ago it was a rangy green shrub with dull reddish-brown flowers that bloomed prolifically in the spring and sporadically in the summer.  But oh, that scent.  You closed your eyes, inhaled, and you were transported to a South Seas island.  

Propagators have bred for prettier
flowers, but lost much of the scent
Then, the breeders got busy.  More compact cultivars were introduced and, even better, the flowers became brighter, redder, and near-continuous. We have three ‘original’ specimens on our property and were ready to add more until Betty stopped to sniff the new specimens at a garden center.  That was when she discovered plant breeders had been willing to give up scent to get more flowers.  A plant has ‘x’ amount of energy to give over to flower production to attract pollinators.  The ‘old’ Calycanthus wasn’t such a great bloomer, but what blooms it had were pollinator magnets.  The new plants?  Prettier to look at, but the scent was nothing special.  We’ll stay with what we have.

Betony 'Summer Crush' is at the top
of Betty's 'to-buy' list
But there’s a double blue circle drawn around a new betony offering pink and white blooms.  Betony (Stachys) is a native that found its way into our garden two years ago. Last year, our five plants exploded with a burst of foot-high flower stalks that attracted every bee and butterfly in a mile radius.  The purple blooms were attractive, but we already have a lot of purple in our early summer garden, and Betty was hesitant to plant ‘more of the same’, especially given that our betony was spreading nicely on its own.  The new cultivar, ‘Summer Crush’ is at the top of her ‘to buy’ list.

Our garden continues to grow and mature each year, and we have a budget to bring in new plants that complement what we have and fill in the shrinking blank spots in our canvas.  The barrier to entry is getting very high, but those gardening magazines help get us ready to be discerning consumers when the nurseries begin filling with their new offerings.