Sunday, March 6, 2011

Scroffy? Yes! Scruffy? No!

I agree it doesn't exactly knock your socks off...I doubt you know this plant: Scrophularia chrysantha from Western Asia. but their are plants whose quiet charm creeps them into your affections. The genus Scrophularia contains more strange, negligible plants than almost any other I know of in its namesake family (which botanists are busy busting up and parcelling elsewhere: Penstemon, for God's sake, is NOW classed as a Plantaginaceae: a friggin' plantain!) If there's one genus homelier than Scrophularia, it's Plantago. I cannot tell you how many homely brown-black-gray flowered Scrophularia I have seen across Eurasia and America for that matter. Some are so ugly that they are actually interesting. Scrophularia macrantha has achieved an apotheosis--I shall deal with her anon. Plantago is the epitome of dowdy by and large (plaintain flowers are usually GREEN, not even brown or black). Both genera have their winners...and believe it or not, this is one. What makes this rather modest little thing a star? The foliage for one thing: those wonderfully flannelly, rugose, hairy leaves form a rosette that lasts pretty much all winter. And they are starting right now in Colorado's frigid March to unfurl. I recommend the winsome combo with hyacinths highly: it's a show in one woodsy corner of my yard for much of March and April. At first the yellow nosegay is huddled near the ground, but they expand and stretch and by May they are dangling a foot or more in the air.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I am an endless font of stories. My history with this plant has a story to tell as well. I obtained it decades ago from some European Botanic Garden (don't make me look up which one!) possibly twenty years ago. I planted it in an out of the way corner of the Rock Alpine Garden where it did pretty well for a few years. Saved a bit of seed, and tried it in another scree-like spot--same story. In the interim I obtained seed of a form of this from Central Asia collected by Josef Halda which made quite a dense cushion with more creamy flowers: I grew that as well, and it too went away. And has yet to return. Life went on several years quite cheerfully...when you grow thousands of species of plants you hardly notice when a rather modest little thing like this disappears. I didn't even realize I missed it. I was visiting Bob Nold (redoubtable author of Penstemon and Aquilegia tomes, not to mention High and Dry--which you ought to get): he had a thriving stand of these in his garden: his plants might even have traced their ancestry to mine. It just happened Bob had some in pots! That was many years ago: I happened to plant these in a woodsier soil and an exposure that suited them so that now they have settled down to a long life, produce enormous quantities of seed and look as though they're here to stay. It took twenty years or more for me to find out how to grow this plant. This sort of saga could be repeated for almost any plant in my garden--or in your garden for that matter. The romance of seeking plants, learning to grow them, creating interesting combinations with them and finally succeeding beyond your expectations--this is what makes gardening so intriguing and satisfying a pursuit. Maybe it is a tad scruffy, but I love it all the same!

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