plant lust: when was your first time?

hardsoft-brighterIT WAS THE MORNING AFTER, WHEN THE CONVERSATION finally turned to confessions about our first times—the morning after my longtime garden mentor and I attended a garden lecture and dinner together, I mean. Back at my place the next morning, over toast and coffee, we made our confessions one by one: plants we’ve lusted over, and the first time we’d laid eyes on each seductive creature. Sigh.

We’d been to hear another old friend, Dan Hinkley, speak at nearby Berkshire Botanical Garden’s annual lecture with several hundred other winter-weary types, and afterward gone off with Dan and friends to eat.

We didn’t really talk plants at the meal; nine crazy gardeners traded pet stories. I know—insane. Either we are getting old and soft, or have spent too much time on Cute Overload. But the next morning my breakfast guest and I shifted from zoology to botany, stirred up by a few of Dan’s slides, including one of Mukdenia rossii ‘Crimson Fans,’ a shade plant Dan’s helped bring to market as part of his relationship with wholesaler Monrovia nursery.

My breakfast companion remembered his first Mukdenia…but he knew it by another name.

It was 1967ish, and the plant was then Aceriphyllum rossii. “I remember sitting by a stream in the New York Botanical Garden rock garden and seeing it for the first time,” said Marco Polo Stufano. “A good plant.”

At that moment I was feeling preoccupied with the one-trick genus Sciadopitys, and just finishing up a post on the umbrella pine.

“When was your first umbrella pine?” I asked, suspecting Marco’s “first” had been the same individual plant as mine. Yes, indeed, he’d been taken in by the same specimen at Planting Fields Arboretum as I, though we would have been strangers and seen it separately, years apart.

my bleeding heart And off we went from there: first sightings of really good silver-leaved things like Stachys and Ballota, first fill-in-the-blank…plants that touched our hearts (or made them bleed). Of course many of my first were at Wave Hill, where Marco made a career and an entire landscape of his pioneering plantsmanship.

“The first time you see a plant makes an impression,” said Marco, who always kept a little notebook with him on his travels to England and elsewhere, with a heading called “GET” for the ones. “You never really change your mind about the plant.”

So tell me, what were some of your memorable first times that rated a “GET” on your list? Was caused that instant and irresistible chemistry, and has the feeling lingered on?

February 23, 2009


  1. Keith Alexander says

    Oldest love-at-first sight: My grandmother’s deep purple crocus at age 4. I had to have one of my own. She potted one up in a stout, clear glass vase and l took it for sharing time in Kindergarten. I remember every detail.

    Most recent: With a slack jaw, I marveled at deeply variegated ‘lion’ forms of Rohdea japonica from a Japanese convention in 2007. Love was intense and instant, and so, so sweet.

  2. says

    I remember it well. I hadn’t really gotten “into” gardening just yet. My mom had invited me to go with her to the Cleveland Flower Show in May 2005. I saw a Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea ‘Clear Sky’) for sale and I knew I had to have it. I didn’t even ask if it was hardy to my zone (5b), nor did I even care at that point. That thing was going home with me. The Flower Show and that Passion Flower were the beginning of my gardening obsession. Apropos, don’t you think? Oh, and I still have it. Right now, it’s residing in its winter home, in the living room south window.

  3. Linda Smith says

    A friend of mine and I began gardening at the same time. We were on a quest for heavenly scented roses and over the years bought many lovely rose bushes. My favorite of all my roses is still Jude the Obscure. The scent is beyond description. Each spring when the roses bloom I am thrilled when Jude blooms. The color of the bloom matches the scent.

  4. says

    Welcome, Linda, and thanks Keith and Kylee for your “firsts,” too.

    I do not know the rose ‘Jude the Obscure,’ Linda, and now you are sending me off looking for it and more news of its heavenly scent…hope to see you soon again (all of you!).

  5. says

    I had just dipped my toes into my first garden when I first realized that people could get obsessed with plants reading Ken Druse’s book The Collector’s Garden, and his loving description of jack in the pulpit. I poured over that book hundreds of times, finding something new to love every time. It’s what stirred up the plant hunter in me, that makes me fall in love with any plant I come across that I’ve never seen before. It has led me to countless “firsts,” and it’s a feeling that never gets old.

  6. balsamfir says

    Really the very first time was when my mom let me order Madame Backhouse(spelling?) for the hill of daffodils behind our house. But I didn’t garden again for twenty years. And then one day I saw an iris blooming at Smith Botanical Gardens; it was dusk and pale pink and tailored not ruffled. I suspect now that it was Vanity (I’ve been through a number of not quite the same thing orders since then). But once I get something, then the next thing becomes vitally important, life won’t be same with out it …. First it was perennials and then when I bought a house it became trees and shrubs. Right now it’s centaurea dealbata seeds but next winter it’ll be something else. Is there a cure for this?

    • says

      Well, dear Stacy, welcome. I am sitting at my kitchen table laughing about the “*still* wonder where they’ve been all my life” part. Perfect. So true. So you are a lover of those flashy daisy-type flowers, aren’t you? Hope to see you soon again, and hear more about your Composite Family love. :)

  7. Christina Salwitz says

    I will NEVER forget the first time that I saw a Robinia Pseudoacacia at the former Heronswood Nursery. It was breathtaking! I have since planted them at every home I have owned.
    That was also the same time that the Heronswood Hybrid Hellebores were just coming out for the first time too.
    Ah, those were the days!

    • says

      Welcome, Christina. I assume you mean the gold-leaf form of Robinia, ‘Frisia.’ Was a gem. I tried 4 times to grow the tree here…and failed. We have a borer that loves a good black locust when he or she can get one. Death. I hope you will be around in a few weeks when we start the hellebore show at A Way to Garden. We have some real goodies. :)

  8. Bobster says

    I remember visiting the old family farm in northern Idaho at about age 12 in late April/early May one year. The piny woods were full of showy ladyslipper orchids! (and morels…which was entirely the reason for visiting)

    Pure Magic! The woods that I loved and knew so well had been hiding something all those years. My first distinct memory of ephemerals. I’d heard stories from my mother about picking a bouquet of orchids for mothers’ day, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of those tiny fuchsia beauties scattered over the forest floor.

    I think I’ve been infatuated with ephemerals ever since. The sight of a bloodroot in the woods still feeds my soul.

  9. says

    Count me as odd but mine was for edible plants. Lettuces of every kind. When I was little my parents had a large garden in the wide open spaces of Montana.

    I would spoon a little sugar into my hand and run outside to the garden and tear off some red frilly lettuce leaves. They would still have morning dew on them which held the sugar crystals magnificently for a few seconds til I devoured them. It was loose leafed bronze lettuce.

  10. Heather Bell says

    It seems a little mundane after all the beautiful and exotic plants I’ve since seen, but as a young girl who grew up in an apartment in the city there wasn’t much nature around. So my first love – the simple lilac…..I distinctly remember at about age 12 going to an old abandoned school house whose yard was rimmed with mature lilac bushes. My friend and I cut down a whole bunch, brought them home and put them in a vase. The sight and smell of lilacs still bring me back to Zion Public School in North York, Ontario. There’s been one in every garden I’ve had.

  11. Trish says

    There have been so many-but unlike, say, animal lovers, we can fall for a plant and not worry about how many we have at home. Here in my usually temperate/sometimes extreme Jersey Shore garden, the debate over whether we are 7A or 7B gives me just enough wiggle room to search north or south. Dangerous but fun!

  12. says

    Pansies, I was addicted to them the first time I saw them. They seemed to smile endlessly at you. For years I would plant them by the hundreds, very sad when the heat set in and would wait again for the fall. Their rainbow of colors are endless, I plant them all, but purple is my favorite. My obsession got so bad I collected everything vintage with a Pansy on it, even named one of my dogs, Pansy. My obsession has lessened over the years, but not that much.

  13. says

    So you are a lover of those flashy daisy-type flowers, aren’t you? Hope to see you soon again, and hear more about your Composite Family love. :)

    They are my passion, yes. So much variety…yarrow, cosmos, coreopsis, ZINNIAS!! They love the stupid hot we get down here, too. I do miss hostas, and painted ferns, but all this lovely color somewhat makes up for it.

  14. Keith Alexander says

    Heather, your memory is lovely. As much as lust for and cultivate with exotics, the memories of my grandmother’s farm and the simple horticultural pleasures there are unmatched. Nothing can compare to the wonder and amazement I experienced when she taught me the essentials as we worked with her roses, peonies, spring bulbs, apple trees, vegetables, etc.

  15. says

    Welcome Caldylei, Heather and Trish.

    Candylei, when the first Cook’s Garden catalog of Shep and Ellen Ogden’s came out decades ago, and the first years of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and I got my first look at the potential diversity of salads, I felt the same way. Wow.

    Heather: Yes, the lilacs still overwhelm me with their beauty every May here, even though they are the most familiar of old-house shrubs that in the dooryard bloom, as the poem said. Preposterously beautiful, and the fragrance…

    And Trish: an omnivore! I think there are many among us here at A Way to Garden whose lust transcends genus and is just plain plantlust.

    Thanks to you all for visiting, and come again soon.

  16. says

    First, I have to say that your photos for this post are just lovely! I got interested in gardening via Elizabethan embroidery, not the normal approach. Loved the fact that the flowers that were in those textiles were real and I could grow them.

    On my blog I was just writing about what we wear in the garden and posted a snapshot of Marco’s garden clothes from a 1998 exhibit at Wave Hill of what the staff wore to work in!

  17. bluearrow says

    Chamaecyparis Nootkatensis Pendula…it reminded me of the character ‘Goofy’ and still does.
    and then the second was just that Sciadopitys/Umbrella Pine…
    but then Peonies. They are something.
    …then orchids.
    then green tropical things.
    I guess I have had a few more ‘first times’than maybe I should admit?

    MR –
    Hope you can come out and play w/me sometime.

  18. says

    Excellent post and question!

    Kalmia latifolia and Illicium floridanum, both growing wild and in close proximity — which seems improbable now that I know both plants, but there you have it.

    • says

      Welcome, Andrew. I have never managed to make Kalmia happy in the garden, but on the slopes behind my house, in the woods, it seems perfectly happy in the toughest spots. The Illicium isn’t hardy here for me, but it does have the most exotic red flowers. Great choices; can see why you “fell” for them, especially if they double-teamed you. See you soon again, I hope.

    • says

      That’s two votes for lilacs (plus mine), Meg, and welcome. Drunk is a good word. Now I am getting anxious, not sure I can wait till May. Did you two HAVE to bring up lilacs? :)

    • says

      Welcome, Plant & Gardening Tips. A real rose-lover joins us! I have almost no roses: one or two R. glauca (with blue foliage and single, small hot pink flowers, but good hips) and maybe a rugosa type or two. But yes, roses have bitten many a gardener. Hope we see you again soon.

  19. joyce says

    I remember sitting in the (Woodie)stroller, at age 4, being pushed to my grandfather’s house several blocks away. We would pass an empty lot where hollyhocks were growing in great abundance. I would dream about them at night, I loved them so much. To this day I think they are the most romantic flowers- my first loves.

  20. Angie says

    Similar to Joyce, hollyhocks were my first love. They grew in the flower beds on the edge on the red one-room school house I attended. I planted them in the tiny yard of my first home, a cottage in town. I carefully chilled and then germinated the seeds and was rewarded with those uniquely shaped flowers and impossibly tall stocks.

  21. Sharon says

    oh, the saucer magnolia. I saw a very old one in bloom in Marietta, Georgia. It was as big as a house, with the most beautiful pale pink blossoms all over it. Ever since, I have planted one in every garden (we move often) though it took quite some time before I found a pale pink variety(whose name escapes me), that wasn’t the fuschia/purple of the newer ones. And even though most years the blossoms get burned by a late frost here in TN, just a few days of those huge, pale pinks flowers on my current 9-foot specimen make the winter worth the wait.

    • says

      Welcome, Sharon, and welcome, Angie.

      Yes, Sharon, a big old saucer magnolia is a sight indeed. So are hollyhocks, Angie–the texture of the flowers and the happy colors. Thanks to both of you, and please visit with us soon again.

  22. says

    Delphiniums. Without a doubt. I was instantly enchanted by the brilliant blues and the spiky shape and still am. Had to have them in my wedding bouquet. Can’t grow them to save my life, but I keep trying.

    • says

      @Christine: I bet that for every thousand delphinium sold in America, only 11 are still alive the next year. I just made that up, and it might be too optimistic, even. :)

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