We all know people who have issues (some more obnoxious than others). They may be close loyal friends, and we choose to overlook annoying habits and continue to shower them with affection and attention. Others have such pervasive problems we walk in another direction.
When I think about it, I realize plants share those same human traits.
I just read in Dear Abby about a person who overwhelmed her co-workers with behaviors that proved to be out of bounds. Some plants share that habit, encroaching into every square inch of the garden, happily covering up anything close by. For example, the old-fashioned charmer ‘Ryan’s Pink’ chrysanthemum can wander aimlessly, even climbing right over neighboring plants.
Plants (like people) can be prickly or have sharp edges, causing us to tread carefully whenever we get close.
Then there are people (and plants) who are just plain toxic. We think twice before we add them to our gardens or our circle of friends.
There are plants that, without proper care, can cause maintenance nightmares. People can do the same thing.
A plant, like a friendship, can stubbornly refuse to thrive despite our best efforts. My winter daphne did that. One day I thought everything was peachy. Two days later it was wilted and leaning to one side. “Sudden Daphne Death,” they call it.
After more than 40 years of gardening and my unrelenting passion for plants, I think I have run into just about every problem a plant could have. More than 30 years ago, a friend offered me a little piece of something. All these years later, I am still trying to get rid of it.
Many gardeners add hundreds of new plants to the garden every year. We may research a specimen to look for quirks; other times, however, we are so overcome with plant lust that we provide a spot in our landscape for a plant we eventually wish could be uninvited. That is when we drag out the shovel and the Round-Up, two successful ways to get rid of an unwelcome growing guest. (Unless it is a chameleon plant, which never leaves no matter how many times you dig it up or spray it.)
I am sharing the following list of plants that could be troublesome. Please do not be offended if one I call quirky is a personal favorite of yours. Some, like the ginger lily, are so fabulous that we love them regardless of their toxicity issues. Everyone views their plants (and their friends) differently. What drives one person to distraction is quite acceptable to another.
The number of common garden plants that are poisonous is almost staggering! Some cause problems simply by being touched; others are life-threatening if parts are eaten.
When I realized the level of toxicity in some plants, I started to feel like a potential serial killer. Many, such as castor bean and angel’s trumpet, can actually be lethal.
Eating just one of the beautiful beans from a castor bean plant can cause major illness. Castor bean is an absolute no-no if you have small children or inquisitive pets.
Every part of the angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) is highly poisonous. The glorious exotic flowers bring drama to the flowerbed, but can be deadly if eaten.
Nerium oleander is another perennial with possibly deadly consequences if eaten.
The Southern Living Garden Book includes a plant’s level of toxicity and what part or parts are actually toxic. Knowing the toxicity level of a plant is almost as important as knowing whether it likes sun or shade.
We adult gardeners would not eat anything in our gardens unless it was bought for the explicit purpose of providing food. If, however, there are children or pets, all bets are off; awareness of a plant’s growth habits is essential.
For example, the berry-like fruit that appears after a lantana has finished blooming might appear to be a perfect treat to a child preparing a tea party. Eating those little black berries, however, can cause serious illness.
There are varying levels of toxicity in plants, from major toxicity (such as a castor bean) that can cause death to minor toxicity that can cause gastrointestinal illnesses (such as the wild onions that pop up all over our lawns).
Plants (such as begonia) with oxalate crystals in the sap or juice can cause irritation in the skin, mouth, tongue and throat (even causing the throat to swell). Admire the begonias, but wash your hands after you touch them and do not be tempted to decorate a cake with the blooms.
Another form of toxicity well known to most gardeners is dermatitis, an itchy skin rash caused by touching something allergenic (think poison ivy or even chrysanthemums). I develop an angry rash after I prune my azaleas, but that may just happen to me.
After seeing the number of toxic plants that have taken up residence in our landscapes, I realized the importance of gardening gloves. If you are teaching young children the joys of the garden, provide them with gloves and tell them not to eat the daisies.
I might now incur the wrath of many gardeners because there are just some plants with parts that I choose to avoid. I am not a fan of sharp or sticky plants. I prefer not to garden around cactus.
There is good reason why the term “prickly as a cactus” is often applied to people with difficult personalities. Be careful!
There are cacti with thorns and without them. If you are a cactus admirer, seek out the thornless ones; you can prevent some painful interactions. There is nothing sadder than a puppy in a patch of cactus.
Yuccas can also be painful. I do enjoy growing them, especially ‘Colorguard’. They are tough, colorful, bullet-proof plants — but those tips can be mean. I have been in a many a battle with a yucca after which I was bloodied but unbowed. Use them in places where close intimate contact with people can be avoided.
One of the most difficult garden problems to contain is a plant that spreads happily. I am not necessarily talking about invasive plants, as that is a much more difficult issue requiring different solutions. I am referring to the vigorous creepers, the ones that get started and then just keep going.
My nemesis is the chameleon plant, a cheerful little groundcover with multicolored leaves and small white flowers that spreads underground and by seed. Once you have it growing, it is yours. I have spent years on my knees pulling energetic perennials such as this one.
Mexican petunias are unloved by many gardeners, but I have a friend who is delighted that they spread like crazy. The flowers are a nice shade of purple, but it will go anywhere it wants. Anywhere. They do make a nice display if you or your yard can handle their propensity to multiply seemingly overnight.
Liriope spicata, with its narrow dark green leaves, can be a tough ground cover in the right place. In the wrong place, it borders on the invasive as it sends out underground stems. I spend a lot of time digging it up to try to control it.
Ligustrum, otherwise known as privet, is a terror in the garden. Each spring, it bears white flowers that have an heavy unpleasant scent. Small blue/black fruit follows the flowers. The fruit is easily spread by birds and breezes. Everywhere one of these seeds touches, a new ligustrum sprouts. Ugh! They can take over and quickly eat the neighboring plants and even entire gardens.
I have a gardening friend who has limbed hers up into trees, and their twisted trunks are even pretty.
There is a new ligustrum on the market that is supposed to be sterile; only time will tell if it lives up to its press.
Bamboo is another prolific spreader. Gardeners either love bamboo or hate it. The secret is to know what to buy; clumping bamboo has much better manners than running bamboo.
Be careful of plants that are vulnerable to disease or pests.
Euonymus actually has a disease named after it: euonymus scale, a nasty-looking problem that requires chemical management.
Ever spent an entire summer trying to get rid of black spot on a rose?
Was that lemon worth the squeeze?
Odor — not the sweet smell of the gardenia or the rose — can cause a plant to be a real stinker. The fruit of the female gingko is fairly disgusting, smelling like vomit. It is essential to purchase a male ginkgo, i.e., grafted from another male. The female does not begin bearing fruit until she is a fairly large tree. At that point the homeowner has a problem plant.
I am not fond of the scent of mimosas and can often smell one from blocks away. They are excellent trees in a variety of situations — just not in my front yard.
Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.