I was among those who suggested My Favorite Plant as a selection for the Garden Bloggers Book Club, and I am sorry to hear that so many found it not to their liking. I was an English major in college. I loved writing and I loved reading, so I thought it was a perfect fit. My idea of Literature was Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, but it turns out that’s only one semester of an English major, and they throw an awful lot of Charles Dickens in there as well. Once you know Charles Dickens got paid by the chapter, it’s a little easier to understand why he wrote that way, but still. The other semesters, hoo boy. The more modern it got, the less I liked it. Somehow, writers who aspire to a Higher Plain got it into their head that it was artistic to dispense with literary conventions such as plot, sentence structure, or punctuation. Sometimes all three. I am actually a rather conventional person and discovered that, despite being an English major, I do not much care for Literature.
Now, see, Jamaica Kincaid, the editor of My Favorite Plant, she writes Literature. And you will notice that the subtitle is “Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love.” So half the book is written by those who write, or aspire to write, Literature, and the other half is written by people like us, Gardeners. And there are a few, such as Maxine Kumin, who bridge the gap. Any writer who can say, as she did in her essay, “Forty years later, slave of my garden, I have grown intimate with beans,” and “I regret that my life will not be long enough to try them all, but I’ve done some experimenting,” is surely a Gardener. Actually, I believe Kincaid is also a gardener, because all the gardeners she chose for this anthology are very good gardeners.
I bought this book in 2002, and to tell you the truth, months can go by without my remembering that I own it. But when it does come to mind, I always remember that it contains two essays that I especially love. One I love for the way it is written, and the other for what I learned.
It is no secret that I enjoy Wayne Winterrowd’s writing. To my mind, he writes Literature that just happens to be about gardening. I just love the way he puts sentences together, the way he structures his thoughts into an essay, the images he uses to make his meaning clear. So it was almost inevitable that I would eventually buy My Favorite Plant, once I learned that his writing was included. “Meconopsis,” as it turns out, is the very first essay in the anthology. Winterrowd, while confessing that when given his first Meconopsis he didn’t know what he had, brings the reader along on his education, discovering that the “fabled Himalayan blue poppy . . . is to all other garden flowers what a milk-white unicorn might be in a barnyard.” Lest we distrust such hyperbole, he quotes several authoritative sources, each one pining more piteously than the last about the flower’s great beauty and difficult culture. And then there it is, growing in his garden, easy as pie. (Okay, rich decayed leaf mold and an altitude of 1800 ft. definitely helped.) But–and it’s a big but–for the plant to bloom perennially one must pinch out the first bud.
To have in my garden such a plant, and to know that one gesture of delayed gratification, one tiny painful pinch, would mean years of perenniality, years of returning pleasure . . . years of unweening pride and smug superiority and the most heartfelt sadness at the bad fortunes of other gardeners . . . well, I pinched.
At this point in the essay I am grinning from ear to ear, because I love honesty in garden writing and I love the quick about-face from plant lust to horticultural one-upmanship to undisguised hypocrisy. I have to admit this is the high point of the essay for me and from here it is all downhill. Winterrowd goes on further about the genus, how not all of them are blue, and how many of them will never become perennial, no matter how often you pinch, and how some are actually easy to grow (not the blue ones, though).
And then he appears to change the subject. Many gardeners quite rudely ask why in the world does he garden where it’s so cold. He correctly observes that the question “hides within it a certain smugness, a tone of self-congratulation born of the conviction that they–from luck, chance, or choice–never have committed such a folly, and never would.” He enumerates the many plants he can grow and the confluence of climate and soil that makes it possible. But in the end, he returns smugness for smugness:
But still, if I had to name–if I were positively required to name–one group of plants I grow that justifies where I garden, it would be meconopsis. How dreadfully sad I am for other gardeners who cannot have them.
Yes! Score one for cold climate gardeners!
The essay that taught me much and gave me hope for my own garden (in a way that “Meconopsis” did not) was “Delphiniums” by Thomas Fischer. Fischer was the editor of Horticulture when he wrote this essay, and he is currently the executive editor at Timber Press. He is no slouch with a pen, but it is what he tells me that endears this essay to me. Did you know that the most commonly available delphiniums in the U.S., the Pacific Giants, weren’t bred to be reliably perennial? When Fischer found out, he started searching for better, and he found it the delphiniums bred by the German plantsmen Karl Foerster.
In his breeding work with delphiniums, beauty was only one of Foerster’s goals–equally important were vigor, disease resistance, strong, upright flower stalks, and true perenniality.
Sounds like the Holy Grail of delphiniums to me, and it did to Fischer, too. But no nursery in our country sold these delphiniums. Eventually Fischer found himself at a nursery in Germany, where they offered 52 named cultivars of these beauties. He bought two to import on the spot. When in the following growing season they proved to be repeat bloomers, he wrote to the nursery and ordered 28 more different cultivars. With only a quarter-acre garden to his name, I don’t know where he fit them all. And I wonder who got them when he moved across the continent to work at Timber Press? Is it possible he packed them up and shipped them?
Fischer wrote his essay in 1998, but the German delphinium situation hasn’t changed much. I still can’t find any named cultivars of Foerster’s delphiniums being sold here, though I can find plants grown from a seed mixture. New Zealand and England are now breeding the delphiniums that everyone desires (see here and here for more information). Anyone out there have experience with Dowdeswell delphiniums, or other delphiniums sold as plants that are not Pacific Giants or Magic Fountains? I know Judy Miller offered many kinds in her catalog last year, but I believe they are all from seed. I did purchase three of Foerster’s plants from her a couple of years ago. I didn’t realize delphiniums prefer alkaline soil until after they were planted. Two of the original three are still hanging on in my most fertile, free-draining bed, which also happens to get some shade. The color is gorgeous but the plants haven’t had the vigor I expected, quite possibly for all the reasons I just mentioned.
For those of you who didn’t find the book enjoyable, I hope you try again with some of the well-known gardeners when you are not so busy with holiday preparations. Surely Ken Druse on Arisaemas, Tony Avent on Hostas, Nancy Goodwin on Cyclamen or Dan Hinckley on Hellebores will have something new or at least interesting to say to you. Perhaps their favorite plant will become your new favorite.