Gardeners are individualists. Our tastes, our time, our budgets and our gardening spaces differ.
I once knew a gardener who resorted to placing silk daylilies in her garden. I complimented her, saying I could never get my daylilies to be so pretty. She admitted they were fake. To each his own.
Gardeners can also be traditionalists, enjoying the tried-and-true.
Then there are the adventurous gardeners, always searching for the unique, the “cool,” the bizarre, the strange plants that give them immense pleasure because the plants are “off the grid.”
What gives a plant the wow factor?
Size can make a plant stand out. Some are fully grown at 3 feet tall and wide, while others — such as the voodoo lily — have weird flowers reaching 15 feet.
There are drop-dead beautiful plants (for example, angel trumpets) that could actually cause an owner to drop dead if eaten; they too can still be seen as prizes.
There are plants with contorted, twisted, columnar or other unusual growth habits. Others have branches that weep, almost touching the ground, and still others appear “otherworldly.”
Some have fruit with distinct smells designed to attract insects (they may actually stink); others create magic when they bloom.
Some have very strange names. Some actually make us laugh out loud.
Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ (Coral-Bark) maple has earned a place on the unique list. The green bark on this distinctive Japanese maple, which has brilliant yellow foliage in the fall, turns an amazing coral-red in the winter.
LIFE SAVER PLANT
Heurenia zebrina is a succulent. Its dear flowers closely resemble Life Savers candy, giving the plant its nickname. Even without the flowers, the Life Saver plant is an “out of the ordinary” houseplant thanks to its dark green pointed leaves.
Venus fly-trap (Dionaea muscipula) is one of the many extraordinary carnivorous plants. Talk about an oddity: a plant that eats insects, instead of the other way around. At the end of the leaf is an interesting set of hinged lobes that open, then close to trap insects drawn to the smell of the plant’s nectar. This plant is a marvel. It eats insects to make up for the lack of certain nutrients in the soil. It requires constant moisture (but not soggy) and high humidity to survive and absolutely no fertilizer. I have purchased many a Venus fly-trap at the big box stores and have had no luck getting them to survive. They supposedly do well in a terrarium — my next project.
Pitcher plant (sarracenia) is my favorite carnivorous plant. It performs best outside in a sunny location. Insects are attracted to the plant’s nectar and fall into its hollow tubes, never to emerge again. Pitcher plants are well suited to bogs. I made my own version of a bog garden by planting them in a pot without holes, yet keeping all excess water drained. Although they should not sit in water, they require constant moisture. Do not give this insect eater fertilizer or meat! The actual blooms on a pitcher plant are unique, eye-catching and short-lived; the hollow modified leaves, however, last all year, providing an unusual but beautiful show.
HANGING PITCHER PLANT
The hanging pitcher plant (Nepenthes) is an unusual treasure. I met mine (love at first sight) displayed on the porch of a garden center in Seagrove, Fla. The gorgeous drooping pitchers captured rainwater and insects. It can be difficult to grow. It does not tolerate low temperatures (like other pitcher plants); it likes tropical warmth and humidity. My goal is to keep this hanging wonder alive in the house until it can go outside in the warm weather to snare its dinner and drink rainwater. Sadly, it is currently struggling.
Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is easily found at garden centers when spring plants begin to fill the shelves. This charming perennial comes alive in spring in a woodland setting, only to go dormant in the heat. Its unique flower has a striking resemblance to the two lobes of a heart (a bleeding heart at that). I just noticed one in a catalog with chartreuse foliage; it has a place on my must-own list.
Sago palm is not a palm but a cycad. Its stiff evergreen leaves and growth habits make it a standout for the garden. What truly sets the sago apart is the different physical appearance between the male and female sago. One might even hazard the word “odd.” The male produces cones. Enjoy both the males and the females as they are conversation pieces. Someone suggested the male plant looked like an aardvark.
HARRY LAUDER’S WALKING STICK
Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ or contorted filbert) is perhaps the most unusual plant in my garden. Its branches curl and intertwine, forming a mass of magnificent twisted limbs reminiscent of an abstract sculpture. Catkins (the male flowers) droop from the branches in winter. A Father’s Day gift for my husband, this tree was bought when I was an inexperienced gardener and mistakenly planted in the wrong place, not nearly large enough to accommodate its spreading gnarled limbs. It can reach 12 feet high and almost as wide. Winter is the time for this eye-catching deciduous tree to shine. Its crinkled leaves drop, allowing those twisted limbs to become the center of attention. This is a plant that definitely could inspire plant lust.
CASCADING JAPANESE MAPLE
Cascading Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), whose graceful limbs weep toward the ground, are exceptional specimens in the garden. As the hosts say on the home and garden network, these trees “provide the pop.” In the fall, the branches are showstoppers covered with vivid yellow leaves. Completely bare in the winter, the curved limbs and branches make them even more special. ‘Waterfall’ and ‘Tamukeyama’ are remarkable examples of cascading maples. For those seeking a sun- and heat-tolerant maple, ‘Tamukeyama’ is an excellent tree.
NIGHT BLOOMING CEREUS
Although I have never personally seen a night blooming cereus, I have watched dozens of YouTube videos showing this plant (often called the “Queen of the Night”) come into bloom. This plant, which resembles a sack of sticks, blooms only once a year with a fragrant, fabulous bloom. The term “night blooming cereus” is the common name for at least four night-blooming cacti. Thus the need to know the scientific names to get the one gardeners seek: Hydrocereus undatus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, Peniocereus greggi and Selencicereus grandiflora (don’t these scientific names just roll off the tongue?). The plants all look different, but they do share an exquisite flower that only blooms after dusk and typically only one night a year. By morning, nothing remains but a wilted blossom. Every year, the Tohono Chul Botanical Garden in Tucson, Ariz., hosts “Bloom Night,” when 250 Cereus greggi bloom on the exact same night! Thousands visit to see it.
The voodoo lily is a strange, unique, yet amazing plant. Even its scientific name is a bit odd: Amorphophallus. The name comes from the Latin “amorpho,” for “deformed,” and “phallus.” (We’ll assume you get that one.) Translated, the huge flower resembles a deformed male sex organ.
This R-rated plant is in the aroid family. Amorphophallus titanum (also referred as titan arum) grows from a corm (similar to a bulb) that can weigh 200 pounds. It produces one inflorescence (flower) and can reach 15 feet tall. (I enjoy seeing photos of people standing next to the titan with a measuring stick.) The leaf surrounding the flower can grow to 15 feet wide.
The plant is also referred to as the “corpse flower”; it smells like death. The stench is putrid, but it blooms rarely and the bloom lasts only a few hours. The smell (which I have seen described as “rotting-fish-with-burnt sugar”) is strongest at night to attract the insects that pollinate the plant. Visitors flock to see this monster in bloom.
Most homeowners do not have room to plant this enormous specimen in their gardens and if they do, the right place is far from the house. Good news! There are other cultivars on the market that do not reach such gigantic proportions and can be purchased online. I am going to try several in a shady area of my yard. I will keep you posted on the smell.
Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.