I coveted these fascinating plants the entire length of my summer high school garden center job. I mean they were BOLD in your face plants, like nothing I had seen. I wanted a bunch of them. I envisioned a portion of the space my parents let me garden in the yard laced with these spiny, spiky monsters. But they were expensive. I couldn’t afford one. So as soon as I got my first real job and my very first yard, I bought one of these and planted in the rich garden soil that had been trucked in by the previous owner to grow lawn. I didn’t research this plant, I was smitten with its architecture, I was instantly taken in by the plant. I brought it home and planted it in my garden and watched it slowly die.
This is the trouble with so many trips to the garden center. They carry what is in bloom, what looks terrific right now and they reel you in with jewel-toned blooms, shiny lush foliage and hypnotizing fragrances. Before you know it your trunk is full of plants and your wallet is considerably lighter. You have no designated places for these plants and you’re not really even sure of they will do well, but they are so stunning you just have to have one. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.
During a trip to Greece I had an “Aha!” moment, that moment of clarity where you want to slap your forehead for not realizing something so simple much sooner. On the island of Zakinthos I saw, blooming there along a gravelly roadside in part shade on the side of a hill, a beautiful clump of Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus spinosus). Right there! In the wild! It what looked like crappy soil. In the Mediterranean climate. “Aha!” this is why my plant didn’t do well in the rich soil of my humid Northern NJ garden. This was my awakening.
From that day forward I vowed to investigate the native growing conditions of the plants I wanted to grow – before purchasing them. This led me to a greater interest and understanding of the plants growing in my region and to the native plants of the area. If I wanted to grow plants that did well in my soil and climate – why didn’t I just look around me and see what was growing? This led me to the beautiful and intriguing plant palette of the northeastern United States.
This experience also led me to learn more about my growing conditions. How much rain DO I get? What type of soil do I have and how quickly does it drain? Where are those warmer areas and cooler areas? Where are the shady and sunny spots? Do I have a dry gravelly area where a Bear’s Breeches just might do well? Having these answers at hand I can tell immediately if a plant should thrive in my yard, regardless of where it is from. When researching plants you are interested in introducing into your landscape you should also make sure it doesn’t get out of control once introduced to the conditions of your space. What seems like a well behaved beauty in one region can turn into an aggressive thug in another. (My favorite place to learn about plants I am considering planting is the Missouri Botanic Garden’s Plant Finder.)
How nice would it be to travel around the world to see, in their native environments, the plants you are interested in growing? There you can see what it takes for them to thrive. If trips to see plants in the wild just isn’t in your budget, Google and some good books will certainly do. Spend more time in your garden observing than planting at first, get to know your space and its inhabitants inside and out. The money you save in the long run may just fund those plant finding trips all over the world!
I photographed the flowers above in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Poppies and sea lavender are plants I have attempted in various gardens. The capers and campanula were too pretty not to put in!