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?

  1. Jeni says:

    Growing up on a ‘true’ family farm – aka kids equal labor force. The sheep where our lawn mowers for many years and it never failed that someone would forget to shut the gate – no more flowers….. But I can remember going to visit my Grandma K. with her yard outlined with peonies. Oh, the smell of fresh cut grass and peonies. Why isn’t that scent in candle form??? So, everywhere I have lived with soil attached has to have a peony… Thanks Grandma K.

  2. Marcus says:

    That article title made me laugh. I guess I am different. I get more fired up over corn and tomatoes than any other plants or flowers. I guess it has to do with how I was raised. You grow it, pick it, eat it, and then can the rest.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Marcus. I have written, “I never met a pumpkin I didn’t like,” and if there is one kind of botanical thing I never tire of it is the ones in the wild world of winter squash/pumpkins. So I hear you. Glad to provoke a laugh, and also to entice you to share your observation: “You grow it, pick it, eat it, and then can the rest.” Yup.

  3. Chloe says:

    Absolutely Foxglove. I love the bells. The romantic colors are beauties! In a mass planting these biennials are worth it even if you get no volunteers and have to replant. Bonus for me is that the critters don’t snatch them out of the ground or eat them due to their toxicity. No wonder the medicinal purpose is for heart conditions. They won my heart from first sight. i

  4. Linda P says:

    My passion started with peonies, a flower seen in “old aunt” gardens of my childhood. My x was from the UK and when seeing gardens there, and the collections of herbacious and tree types that were planted in masses, it just clicked. I proceeded with about three hundred varieties as my historic property had some that had been planted for about fifty or so years. it felt right with the style of house and type of garden.
    This happened with roses, hellbores, euphorbias, lillies, and about anything else i grab onto. I love them all. I’m an antique collector and dealer so the collecting habit runs deep and now that there is dirt and trowel to dig deep, there is really no end in sight!
    The feeling I get when I see a plant that gets me going is strong and makes me happy each and every time!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Linda P. I am also a collector, a habit I inherited from my grandmother, and it has definitely influenced my behavior with plants as well. Uh-oh. When I bought epimediums I bought 10 kinds; euphorbias, ditto. Viburnums, ilex verticillata varieties…and on and on. That must be some spectacle at peony time. See you again soon, I hope.

  5. Deirdre says:

    I’ve lusted in my heart after a lot of plants. Among other things, I am a sucker for glaucus plants. One I can’t live without is Rosa glauca. I’ve given up on roses in general, but I still grow this one; the purple glaucus leaves , the violet stems, the pink single flowers followed by red hips. It’s a beauty in every season.

  6. susan says:

    I first began gardening when my elementary school offered vegetable gardening to 4th graders. That summer I grew typical tomatoes, carrots and radishes. My favorite, however was Swiss Chard. I had never seen this veggie before, but the red leaves with bright green veins was so beautiful. And bonus, my mom knew how to cook it and it was delicious.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Susan. ‘Ruby’ chard is a fantastic plant, isn’t it? Chard, along with kale, are the greens I always grow…so prolific and so delicious. And every year, even at this age, I look at those chard leaves in the sunshine and can’t believe the color is real. Thanks for visiting, and come again soon.

  7. chigal says:

    Count me in on lilac. But I also loved milkweed, as a kid. And my most vivid vegetable growing memory is turnips. We’d rinse them off with the hose and eat them right there.

  8. Garden Lily says:

    Trish’s comment is so true. We can fall for any plants we want, bring them home without having any idea where we will plant them, and still find room to cram them into the garden somewhere. One of the joys of gardening, for sure.

  9. Meghan says:

    The first plant I ever loved was a bleeding heart. I don’t even know where I would have seen it because my parents never planted it, but for as long as I can remember it’s been my top choice. As for vegetables, I love tomatoes. Way back in my elementary school days if I forgot my house key I’d take a tomato from the garden and eat it like an apple until someone came home to let me in. I never complained and I especially liked the hint of earthy/dirt flavor on the tomato.

  10. Brenda says:

    I’ve had many loves through the years, but my first was the bearded iris. The scent simply transports me back to my early childhood. All the kids in the neighborhood used to play hide-and-seek as soon as the weather warmed up. I can remember hiding behind old Mrs. Wilson’s spiraea bushes which were fronted by a bed of purple iris. To this day a deep whiff of iris takes me there and I am once again crouching against the house with the smell of wet dirt and iris. This primitive olfactory sense seems to directly connect me to that time.

  11. wickerparker says:

    This is a lovely site and I’m so glad I found it. My current obsession is with lilies. Used to be they were the one cut flower I actually disliked — the stargazer type you see most at the florist was always just too much for me. In the garden, I was firmly for foliage over flowers. But then I saw my first martagon lily — and online, in a picture, not even in person. Ever since, I’ve put marts and other species type lilies wherever I can squeeze them in, which is pretty much everywhere. Love the bulbs in the fall; get far too much pleasure looking at photos of them all winter; and in the spring I literally watch their stalks grow. That’s all pleasure enough. The actual blooms are almost too exquisite.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Wickerparker. Did you say Martagon lilies? Oh, my. Love them here as well. They should be happening mid-June or thereabouts. Thanks for your visit, and do come again soon.

  12. Every year the have to have list gets bigger… When I bought my first home about six years ago, the first thing I just had to have was a hydrangia. Now I have about six of them all different varieties – love those giant globes of color. A couple of years ago it was the Forest Pansy – Don Egolf. I HAD to have one. Standing only about a foot tall today, I visited him each moring untill it was in full bloom. Now I have to wait a full year to see its lovely,vivid blooms again :)

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Linda. Ah, yes, the list gets bigger, does it? Never happens to me. :) See you and your growing family of plants soon again, I hope.

  13. Paula says:

    Bobster, I’m with you – the coveted Ladyslipper we’d stumble upon in the woods as children in Massachusetts was like stumbling upon a fairy’s treasured possession. The sight of translucent green gooseberries in the summer garden or bright pumpkins bursting through their giant leaves in the fall was also magical. No matter where I live, I plant a garden, if only to stir the feelings of my childhood. This year, my yard is tiny, so I am planting small raised beds to fill with herbs and vegetables (There is a raised bed tutorial on my website, Quackadoodle.com). I also filled the side of my yard with perrenials, including the shrubby gooseberry bush. A pumpkin plant climbs my border fence, and I still walk the woods in search of ladyslippers.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Paula. For me, Grandma’s zinnias and even marigolds…they look so familiar, and remind me of her and all those years ago. Thanks for visiting; see you soon again.

  14. ann says:

    OK, Wayy back when I was at home on the farm.
    Mom raised callifornia poppies in DAKOTA!
    Do you believe everyone has memory of first garden
    hidden somwhere in their mind?
    This year, I started these 4 petaled fragile
    golden beauties with ferny leaves in long pots.
    Not blooming yet – but they are thriving..

  15. Deborah says:

    Margaret, I am in lust with peonies. I haven’t met one yet that I haven’t wanted. My nana used to cut her first peony in flower and decorate my (June 6th) birthday present with it. So this became twice as nice! I have moved too many times to really make a collection, but my husband and I just bought our “forever” house, so I am going to start now.

  16. Karen says:

    Expanding from flowers to veggies, I planted zucchini this year. Sadly, only male plants…no fertilized females so no fruit. I thought zucchini practically grew by themselves and the biggest problem was the enormous size of the harvest. What did I do wrong?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. This is a great question…and often the answer is “nothing.” Pollination, when not possible or not complete, can cause fruit to abort (or even flowers not to be fertilized at all). Weather and lack of pollinators (honey bees) can be factors. Some varieties pollinate themselves, but do you know what variety you planted (and what has your weather pattern been)?

  17. Karen says:

    Hi Margarget,
    Thanks for responding to my comment. The zucchini seems to be Ward’s house brand. The card states only zucchini squash. And we have the same weather pattern. I am your neighbor in Ancramdale. Such a difficult and disappointing year! Still, we have been self sustaining with lettuce and other greens for about 2 months. It’s divine.

  18. vivian smith (bobbi) says:

    I was happy to see your tomatoes. I have heard that this is not a good year for tomatoes or peppers but, to my surprise and amazement, I have a beautiful tomato plant growing in my daughter’s memorial garden. We had dirt brought in and the seeds must have been in there, as we have five or six throughout the flowers. But, this one is of particular interest as it is huge with many tomatoes. We have had so much precipitation here in Iowa, over 35 inches and normal for the year is 38 inches and with four months to go with cooler than normal temps, I just hope we have a long fall so my tomatoes will ripen. I do not have a garden, just flowers, but I did plant four green bell pepper plants in my flower bed, and have enjoyed some beautiful tasty peppers. I enjoy reading your articles, this is the first time I have responded. The tomatoes got me. Thanks Bobbi

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Vivian. I am so glad to hear from you in a comment, and to learn of the memorial garden and the erratic weather there (here, too) and all of it. “The tomatoes got me,” you say. That made me smile. Thank you. See you soon?

  19. Catherine says:

    I was raised in apartments by a single mother. Mom took care of the houseplants. I was a late-bloomer to plant romance, but I remember when true plant love really hit me. I’d been a WSU Master Gardener for years, and grew veges and herbs. But the first time I made the acquaintance of the the Chinese tree peony ‘Purple Robes in Temple Courtyard’ it was love at first sight. Later, but with a deeper, more mellow love, I met Brugmansia ‘Charles Grumaldi,” and that has been the true love of my life since.

  20. Madeline says:

    I grew up in a rowhouse in Philadelphia with no backyard and a postage stamp sloped lawn in front. All my friends and relatives lived in houses like mine so my knowledge of flowers and trees were quite limited. But my mother planted irises in front of the hedges that bordered our tiny patio and every year I was allowed to cut a few for my teacher. I have such wonderful memories of irises (which we called “flags,”) to this day when I see them I smile. There are other flowers too; my grandmother had lilies of the valley in her postage stamp garden….love them….and my aunt brought me daffodils when I was a very little girl sick in bed with chicken pox. I still remember my delight and they are favorites of mine. My mother loved lilacs and pussy willows….I have a mother plot in my garden with those planted there. And walking home from school, taking shortcuts, I found someone’s small garden with honeysuckle growing over the fence! My neighbor across the street had a hydrangea which we called, “snowballs.” I amaze myself that even with my very limited experience with gardening as a kid, I can have these memories and loves.

  21. Spending some time on your blog I came across this post (which I read when you first published it) and it reminded me of the first time I saw ceanothus in bloom at the tender age of 16. Surprisingly, it was in my English aunt’s back garden where it had pride of place just off their large terrace. Funny that I had to go all the way to England to appreciate a west coast native. I planted C. thyrsiflorus ‘Victoria’ at my last home, and I have two three-year-old teenage Victorias busy trying to camouflage a chainlink fence in my current garden. I’ve also acquired C. ‘Diamond Heights’, a gorgeously variegated lime green and dark green specimen (zone 9, but I’m giving it a chance.) And I still want more!

  22. Destiney says:

    Mine was actually the hibiscus that lined the small pebble-filled walk from my condo the the beach in Souther Florida growing up. They were so vibrant and seemed HUGE to me. It was like being in a fairytale.
    I have forever memorialized them with a tattoo actually.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Destiney. Love the tattoo story! Guess you really fell for that plant. Hope to see you soon again.

  23. Michelle B says:

    My very first love affairs were with flowers.

    The one that started this long series of making my heart beat faster continuing with no end in sight was a single, huge, deep-blue morning glory that managed to scrabble above a chain link fence which separated the non-used scrap of land directly behind my family’s garage in New York City from our neighbors garden. At the age of 5–in desperation because our rather large back yard was completely cemented–I was actively searching for some dirt that I could become acquainted with and found this wondrous apparition, half in shade, half in sun, winking at me in full abandon.

    Then pansies followed, struggling to keep their velvety petals shining true to their rich, marvelous colors from the wet mud that surrounded them, then lilacs, sturdy, squat bush upon bush, squeezed in a corner of a neighbor’s tiny back garden, upon which I would throw my small body, surrendering myself to their fragrance, on and on to the present day including the amazed meeting up with a huge patch of comfrey which I inherited in the abandoned 800 square meter garden that I have been busily and happily renewing for the last year in a small city located in the Charente department in South West France.

    I could not identify these textured, large-leaved, deep green plants, that grew with such confidence, wagging their clusters of blue-blushed tubular flowers in a friendly manner at me until my friend who I met on the net, formerly from Australia, now firmly settled in Scotland, visited last week and stated calmly, comfrey, they are comfrey, oh, you are so lucky!

    And aren’t we all.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Michelle. Comfrey was one of the first plants I grew here 25 years ago. After about 15 years it had attempted to take over the universe :) and now I have none, as it seemed tobe an all-or-nothing plant in my garden. I love the blue flowers and of course the big leaves — and your story is making me want to let it have its way in the garden again. See you soon!

  24. Susan Bakewell says:

    I remember the first time I saw hosta when my husband and I moved near Asheville, NC. We didn’t have anything like them in central Florida where I was from. I set about buying as many as I could in as many varieties as possible. Luckily, a local couple operated a hosta nursery from their home and that became one of my favorite haunts. We had to move back to Florida 8 years ago, so no more hosta for me. I miss them and have tried to grow hosta that are supposed to be able to handle the Florida heat, but that’s just false advertising. Now I have to content myself with peace lilies, which I’m told are the Florida equivalent.

  25. Elizabeth Thomson says:

    I was a child in south Florida helping my mother pick up after a serious ficus hedge trimming and there at eye level was the most amazing site–a gloriosa lily! I was smitten from that day onward. Years later, after my folks moved from the family home I met an artist at the Coconut Grove Art Festival who painted a series of gloriosas and I claimed one of the paintings for my own. The painting motivated me to attempt to grow my favorite lily on my apartment balcony but success eluded me. Years later, as my husband and I joined our realtor on a house-hunting expedition, I rounded the corner of a house of interest and there she was! The gloriosa lily of so many years ago was standing upright along the fence near the front door as if to say ‘welcome home’! We bought the house and lived very happily there until a recent move to Maryland.

    Having no gardening experience with anything remotely northern and having just spent my first gray/brown winter pining for sunshine, warmth, blue skies and anything green, I was about to call it quits when the spring rains finally quit. Hooray! I searched the grounds outside to see what Spring looked like and there was this odd, twiggy minature tree-like thing standing upright smack dab in the middle of a side garden bed. I didn’t have a clue what it was but waited patiently (not easy for a Florida gardener–we garden with machetes) and watched as tightly furled dark-reddish fists of leaves unfurled to be followed by large, rounded flower buds. Then, one warm spring morning as I headed outside for my daily garden walk-about, before children, husband and pets awoke, I saw across the yard the most beautiful, soft pink bud opening and discovered I had the good fortune to be sharing the garden with a most spectacular tree peony!!! As different as a flower could be from the beloved gloriosa but in no way inferior, I rejoice each Spring as the peony awakens.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Elizabeth. Thanks for your gloriosa lily story; sweet…and the image of gardening with machetes! :) See you soon.

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