Garden Designers Roundtable: Plants and Memory

by Andrew Keys on November 27, 2012

The GDRT topic this month is one I’ve given a bit of thought. As I said in the intro to this month’s series, I even wrote a book about it! Sure, it may seem like a simple enough concept, to offer up “right plant, right place” alternatives to plants that are problematic that we insist on growing for whatever reason. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I had to think long and hard about why we insist on growing those problematic plants. Quite often, the reason is that these plants hold some intrinsic sentimental value we may never have consciously articulated to ourselves. Sometimes, that intrinsic value is passed down generations. The interesting thing is that other plants can be evocative of that intrinsic value too, and sometimes those other plants work better.

For me, it was mostly a problem of hardiness. My grandmother in Mississippi grew some plants I could never grow here. They’re not necessarily the customary plants a lot of people wish they could grow, but they’re part of what got the gears turning in my mind. Allow me:

Banana Shrub and Carolina Allspice

Banana shrub (Michelia figo, Zone 8) is a plant my grandmother wanted for years. She knew it as Magnolia fuscata, I remember her describing it and its fragrance when I was a child, and I thought it was called “magnolia for scatter.” Years later, when I figured out what it was, I bought her one from my college job at a nursery. Michelia is not hardy here in Zone 6, not even a little bit. What IS hardy to Zone 6 is Carolina allspice, another classic southern shrub with flowers that smell of ripe fruit. Is it the exact scent? No. Does it remind me of my grandmother’s love of magnolia for scatter? Yep. And thrives in my climate. It’s also a pretty decent stand-in, scent-wise, for one of my other loves, sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans).

Southern Maidenhair Fern and Himalayan Maidenhair Fern

Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris, Zone 8) was the plant of my grandmother’s my mom wanted most. Every time she’d try to bring a piece home, it presented as DOA. (I told her to plant it anyway.) It’s much lacier, in my opinion, than hardy-for-me northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum). But look at this! Himalayan maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum) is WAY more like the southern variety, and it’s becoming more available in the trade all the time. Even better, it’s hardy to Zone 5. This one’s almost a ringer.

Southern Magnolia and Oyama Magnolia

A huge old southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora, hardy to Zone 6 if it doesn’t get pummeled by snow, which it usually does, and doesn’t thrive) grew near my grandmother’s house, because of course it did, and I used to climb all the way to the top of that tree. My tree-climbing days behind me, I mainly miss the flowers, and I don’t miss the leaf litter from those messy trees. There are a few reputedly good cultivars of this tree for Zone 6, but I can get amazing magnolia flowers in spades from smaller, deciduous Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii), a tree that’s much better adapted to my Massachusetts yard. Bonus: cultivar ‘Colossus’ has huge leaves too. Neither Oyama makes the mess of those big magnolias.

Are the gears turning yet? There are many, many more “solution” plants to tickle those sentimental memory banks in my book, and I hope you’ll check it out. In the meantime, see what plant memories my GDRT colleagues are conjuring up this month:

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.
Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA

Images that aren’t mine or copyright-free: banana shrub, Wikimedia Commons user Midori; himalayan maidenhair fern, WC user Kembangraps; southern magnolia, Pamela Price of Red, White & Grew.

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