Sunday, March 25, 2012

Of pigsqueak and Megasea...Queen of Bergenias

George Orwell once wrote a book Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a condemnation of Victorian bourgeois values symbolized, epitomized and practically embodied by Aspidistra, a dusty, indestrucible and usually quite prosaic houseplant that was universal in Victorian houses... had George been a bit more of an outdoor gardener, he might well have picked Bergenia instead. These dusty, musty, often slug-nibbled, plasticky mostrosities are universal in English "rockeries", and everywhere in rocky strewn cities on the left coast: as thick as wheat in Kansas, bergenias are everywhere in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco etc., clambering and slopping onto pathways and over rocky walls wherever you look. Any self respecting gardener rightfully might eschew them...

But not me: I love bergenias. Given the right spot, and a little T.L.C., they can be cheesecake in the garden. I grow a dozen species and special forms and have barely made a dent in this genus. But I only encountered this queen of Megasea (a dreadful old scientific name that has been superceded: but I love the nautical idea of a "Mega-Sea" nonetheless) a few days ago at Suncrest Nursery in Watsonville, possibly the finest wholesale nursery in the world. (At least, that's how I feel about it: I am astonished how much in the way of really unique and choice plants they crank out)...they had a number of bergenias, all choice, but this amazing species, with the largest, nodding flowers of the genus, and such a graceful habit stunned me. How can I have lived my stuffy, Victorian, bourgeois little life so long without it?

This is Bergenia emeiensis, from Mt. Omei, in Szechuan. The climate there is none to rigorous, but something tells me this plant will do just fine in Denver. I am coming home with a gallon pot, and Orwell be damned, it shall get pride of place in my rock garden. Although I confess, I am drawing the line at Aspidistra! No mother-in-law tongues for me!

If you beg, I might tell you what other treasures I brought back from Suncrest, from Annie's and elsewhere...or you can just let me sit here and titter and gloat all on my own. Haw haw, heee heee ho ho...


  1. A dozen species of bergenias! That has the suspicious sound of a collection ;-)

    Although where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the USA bergenias have a well-deserved reputation as slug food, I have always loved them. They were stalwarts of my late-Victorian grandmother's garden. It hadn't occurred to me to try them now that my garden is in zone 5B, but your blog entry certainly offers enticement. Thanks.

  2. Bergenia emeiensis (n.b. spelling!) is a great plant but its flowers usually get zapped by frost here. I think it's best to grow it in a cold spot to delay them.

    Do you know the collection details for this clone? I think we only have Mikinori Ogisu's collection in UK.

  3. Bergenias are simply AWESOME when sited well in colder climates. They are everywhere at Denver Botanic Gardens, and beautify each spot. And they are tough here too. I was shocked at how widespread Bergenia stracheyi was in Pakistan: grew by the mile. Turns out it is unpalatable, so technically it was a weed there...but not at my house. For me it is a gem!

  4. Thanks for the correction, John. Will update...I will ask Nevin about data on it. They had hundreds of gallons in bloom: an inspiring site! Bergenias can get frosted here too, but when they don't they are a delight. May do another blog on them soon...

  5. I thought Aspidistra was known as Cast-Iron Plant. Sansevieria is usually the houseplant thought of as Mother-In-Law's Tongue.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. You are very observant, Anonymous: I substituted the tongues for cast iron for reasons of scantion and because the two are synonymous on a spiritual level (if you get my drift)...and because I don't always take common names too seriously. And perhaps because I made a mistake (Heaven forefend). Accept my apologies (and glad someone reads this stuff).

  7. Quite a late comer to this discussion, writing from the UK so sorry if everyone has packed up on this. I happened across these exchanges while looking into when 'Megasea' became 'Bergenia' - research into Gertrude Jekyll really, who used Bergenias with great style in all of her gardens over here - practically a signtaure plant(almost certainly not B. emeiensis though). But I also noticed the reference to Orwell and his flying Aspidistra. It seems not many people know that its ubiquity in Victorian houses had nothing to do with style or fashion - it came from its ability to survive the atmosphere created by the combination of domestic gas lighting and the burning of coal: in effect it was reliably air-pollution resistant. Apparently most other plants dwindled and died. A useless, but interesting, piece of social history you don't get from Orwell.

  8. I never put two and two together regarding Aspidistra in Victorian times--your explanation rings true. I wouldn't worry about being a late-comer: I het hundreds of hits on older postings every week! I'm sure people will note it and your good info. Thanks!


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