gunnera new

A friend recently posted a picture on Facebook of her Washington-state yard. Like most Washington-state yards at this time of year, it was mostly under two inches of water. Off to one side, however, was the most spectacularly huge-leaved plant:


gunnera manicata

I mistook it for a Philodendron selloum, which was unlikely, even in warm wet Washington, but my friend quickly corrected me. It is, in fact, a Gunnera manicata.

Gunnera’s glory is its foliage. The leaves, as you can see, are comically gigantic. It’s sometimes called “wild rhubarb,” as the leaves very much resemble those of rhubarb, and some gardeners call it “dinosaur plant,” for obvious reasons. Can’t you just picture a brontosaurus peacefully chomping on it?


The more I studied the picture, the more I knew I’d seen it before. I went through some old photos and found it in Adare, a picturesque Irish village Partner and I visited in 2007; it was growing at the boggy end of a public park, and its leaves were so spectacular that I had to take a picture of it. I discovered online that it’s a moderately common garden plant in Ireland; locals sometimes pick the leaves and use them as umbrellas.


gunnera ireland 2007

Gardens should always be a mix of old and new, common and unexpected, big and small. We love to see a hundred daffodils in bloom, but we need the darkness of tall ominous pine trees behind them to make them shine. We cherish our one-blossom-at-a-time borders, but we need something big and splashy to give them drama.


Gunnera, with its rich green tablecloth-sized leaves, will give your garden all the drama it needs.


Just don’t blame me if you start attracting dinosaurs.




I wrote recently about hostas, those garden-foliage favorites with dull purple flowers, and how dull they are.



Cannas are the opposite of hostas. They are the opposite of dull and ordinary. They are exciting and unusual.



I first saw them growing alongside my grandmother’s house in Selleck, Washington, back in the 1960s. I found them unbelievable: five-foot stalks with blazing crimson flowers, and gorgeous dark-green foliage.



They are huge and dramatic, and what’s the matter with a little drama in the summertime? They also seem to grow easily; I see them in sidewalk pots all over the city of Providence.



They always make me smile when I see them. Here, in Providence’s Wayland Square, merchants put them in pots, and they thrive.



They are the torches of summertime.



Rejoice in them.




In Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (which you should read, if you haven’t), there’s a character – a Hemulen, if that means anything to you – who collects stamps. He finally collects all of the stamps in the entire world. He despairs, because now his life has no purpose anymore. But then he realizes: he can start collecting plants instead! His life has meaning again!

I love plants. I don’t have a garden, which means I subsist on a few houseplants and a few office-grown things (which I’m very proud of, as they’ve grown extraordinarily). So, when I walk back and forth to work, I examine the gardens and yards and fields I pass by, and I identify the plants I know, and I puzzle over the ones I don’t know.

The one above, for example. What is it? Yellow vetch? Alfalfa?

Nope. I finally identified it. It’s Lotus corniculatus: bird’s-foot trefoil.

I walk by a field full of it every morning on my way to work. First I noticed them out of the corner of my eye, thinking I knew what they were. Then I took a closer look, and realized I wasn’t so sure.

I checked the leaves the other day, and now I’m sure. It’s L. corniculatus, all right.

Any day upon which I identify a strange plant is a good day. It gives my life a tiny bit of added meaning.

I think I must be a Hemulen.

The monkey-puzzle tree

monkey puzzle

When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school. I spent forty-five minutes on the bus every morning and every afternoon. I was the first kid on the bus in the morning, and the last kid off, because I lived farthest away from the school.

The bus route was very scenic, actually. It was mostly deep forest where I lived, alternating with pastures and farmland.

The halfway mark between home and school was a kind of double-turn in the road: if you were driving east from Battle Ground, you took a sharp right, then a sharp left. I don’t know why. Property lines?

It had a double name. The sharp right was “Johnson’s Corner”; the sharp left was “Gravel Point.” (Who knows about these things?) This is what it looks like on the map:

gravel point johnsons corner

There was a big white house at Johnson’s Corner, or at least it seemed big to me as a kid. I passed it twice a day on the bus, so I should have a vivid memory of it. But – you know? – I just remember a big white house.

But I remember the monkey-puzzle tree.

It was huge – taller than the house, I think. It was the only monkey-puzzle tree in the whole area. Did the owners (whether or not they were named Johnson) plant it? Or was it already there? At any rate, it was awfully big when I was a kid.

There was an article in a recent Financial Times about the monkey-puzzle. It’s Araucaria araucana, from Chile / Argentina. I had no idea! I assumed it was a foreign import, but not from so far away!

But no wonder it grew so well, and felt so much at home, in warm wet Washington state. Its home country was volcanic and warm, like the coastal Pacific Northwest.

The monkey-puzzle tree at Johnson’s Corner was beautiful and strange. It always fascinated me.

And it whispered to me that the world was a big place, and that there was more to life than what I saw around me.

Smart tree. It was right.

Bees, and why you need to care about them


I have been hearing about colony collapse disorder since the mid-1980s, when I lived in Tunisia and actually knew some beekeepers. Their hives were dying, and they had no idea why it was happening.



It’s now a worldwide problem. The European Union is voting on the subject soon, and I hope they vote sensibly.



Do you realize that our crops – our food sources – almost entirely depend on bees? Bees are the key to pollination. We farm bees just as we farm crops like corn and beans, but the bees are not so reliable anymore, because of this damned colony collapse disorder.



It may be a fungus. It may be the overuse of certain insecticides. It may be some mysterious illness. It may be Gaia’s revenge on mankind.



At any rate, the European Union is taking steps by banning certain pesticides which seem to be implicated in the colony collapses. An English friend of mine, Oma, recently posted a blog about the movement to ban these pesticides.



I know what you’re thinking: Who cares about bees?



Answer: if you don’t care about bees, you’d better change your mind, and fast.



You can follow this link to sign an American petition to ban certain chemicals connected to colony collapse disorder.



Please sign.





I’ve been fascinated with cacti and succulents since I was a kid. They’re always odd-looking, and sometimes they reward you with beautiful flowers.



One of the easiest to grow is Sempervivum tectorum. My mother called it “hen-and-chicks.” This refers (I assume) to the plant’s growing habit: there’s generally a fat rosette in the middle of a planting, surrounded by its children, which peek out like happy faces. Sometimes the “hen” puts out a long chicken-neck blooming stalk in midsummer. The plant can deal with dry climates and wet climates; as with many succulents, if the weather goes the wrong way, the plant simply quiets down for a while and stops growing. As soon as conditions improve, however, it bounces back.



The ancients believed it protected a house from lightning and sorcery, and even planted it on their (thatched / peat) roofs. (“Tectorum,” its species name, means “of the roof.” Charlemagne recommended that his subjects plant it on their roofs, to protect themselves from various evils.) In England and Wales the plant is called “houseleek,” literally “the house plant.” Old botanicals and herbals say that its juice can be used to alleviate or cure a long list of ailments: fever, erysipelas (does anyone get erysipelas these days?), dysentery, thrush, burns, scrofulous ulcerations, corns, warts, neuralgia, migraines, shingles, and insomnia.



In brief: it’s a sweet benevolent plant that likes to live where people live, and seems to get along with people very well.



And it has more common names than any plant I’ve heard of: Thor’s beard, devil’s beard, sengreen, thunderplant, St. Patrick’s Cabbage, and a dozen more.



The best of these, and the longest (for the knowledge of which I thank Richard Mabey) is “Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk.”



Now where do you suppose that name came from?


Carpet bugle

carpet buglev

Here in New England, spring comes in with a roar. Everything seems to bloom at once, in the space of a week or two: the daffodils, the tulips, the forsythia, the cherry trees, the magnolias.



Then there are the quieter flowers, buried in the grass. Crocus are done by now, of course. Dandelions are back, blooming as brightly as they do in July. I saw my first violet about two weeks ago. Catmint is blooming from cracks in the sidewalk only a few blocks away.



And just yesterday evening, I spotted one of my favorites: the carpet bugle.



Don’t you just love that name?



Carpet bugle is a half-weed half-garden plant. It’s springy and green, and bounces when you tread on it like – well, like a thick carpet. It raises little green flowering heads, studded with little purple flowers. It spreads like mad and creates its own landscaping, and its combination of dull green and soft purple is very nice.



Its Latin name, Ajuga, is uninformative, but its English name is perfect. It spreads like a carpet, and the flowers are little violet bugles.



It requires no care: it simply grows. Our courtyard is full of it, and violets.



And now we’re ready for summer.


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