Cultivating a Culture of Gardening™

Monday, November 2, 2009

Weird and Wonderful Winter Plants

“Mom, you’re weird…but weird in a good way.” This was the response I got when I was pulling my sons outside to dance with me in a rare summer rain shower. Weird is in the eyes of the beholder, and a much needed rain deserves some celebration. Let it be known: There is a time and place for a little weirdness, especially in the plant world. Carol Reese, Tennessee’s specialist in ornamental horticulture, has spoken around the country about all the unusual plant material available to us to enjoy. She’s inspired me to explore the world of weird plants and celebrate their display in the winter garden.

Hardy Agave (Century Plant): Agave are not for the faint of heart. These plants could easily be classified as lethal weapons with their needle like points and spiny leaves. But while planting them requires protective eye-wear and Kevlar clothing (or at least leather gloves), that’s about all the care this plant takes. Artistic form, cool blues or greens, and a spectacular summer bloom are qualities that will lure you to risk planting this in a corner garden, a focal point container, or maybe under your teenager’s window. These plants are a piece of artwork that grows. Look for Agave americana ‘Blue Steel’, or Agave parryi 'J.C. Raulston', or check out Tony Avant’s great selection from

Contorted Filbert (Corylus avellana contorta or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick): Twisting branches with corkscrew-like habits make this plant a conversation piece for the winter garden. Betsy Bergman, Southern Land’s manager for commercial floriculture, will be using these for architectural interest in several of the floriferous bowls that stand out on McEwen Drive in Franklin. But this plant has more than just unique winter interest; this plant has some interesting history. Harry Lauder was a beloved Scottish entertainer in the early 1900’s who entertained not only for kings and presidents, but he would also strap a small piano to a jeep and drive to the front lines during both world wars to entertain allied troops. This performance for the troops was a task that Lauder began after his only son was killed in the war effort. A twisted knobby walking stick was always a part of Sir Harry Lauder’s performance, inspiring his name to be associate with this fun and fabulous plant.

Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet) or Calycanthus floridus (Sweetshrub): While wintersweet can be a little tender in our area, these late winter flowering shrubs provide odd looking flowers that will get you thinking spring with their delightful fragrance. Calycanthus ‘Athens’ is a yellow flowering shrub with a sweet strong scent.

Hamamelis sp. (Witchhazel): The winter flower on this shrub looks like velvetta cheese squeezed through a garlic press – very cool and slightly weird. My favorite it ‘Arnold’s Promise’ but there are some redder varieties like ‘Red Cascade’.

Yucca ‘Color Guard’: In a container or in the ground, these gentle spikes bring great color to the winter landscape and interesting form to your garden design.

Lonicera ‘Edmee Gold’: This shade loving ground cover brings a different texture with its mimosa-looking fans that drape over pots or banks. Use this to brighten up a dark area.

Euphorbia ‘Nothowlee’ (Blackbird spurge), ‘Red Wing’, and Euphorbia x martinii: You’ll think your Euphorbia’s been drinking martinis when you see the red flush that these plants get during the winter months. Euphorbias are one of my favorite plants due to their drought tolerance, year round color, funky form, and because they have a name that just begs to be sung rather than spoken.

Heuchera villosa: While this plant fits more in the wonderful category rather than the weird category, this is one plant that thrives almost better in a container than in the ground. Heuchera remind me of myself as a six year old girl – so proud of my ruffley petticoat and brightly colored skirt that I wanted to twirl around so folks can see them both! Windy winter days are heuchera’s friend, showing off the colorful undersides as they contrast with the rich upper color. My favorites are ‘Caramel’, ‘Palace purple’, ‘Georgia peach’, and ‘Green Spice’.

Also in the wonderful category for winter interest are red or yellow twig dogwood and the beauty of lagerstroemia species – crape myrtles. When certain landscapers decide to
quit “murdering” crape myrtle and start limbing them up while pruning out suckers, the pure beauty of the crape myrtle winter bark will be able to shine through. Take a walk through Cheekwood’s crape myrtle area during the winter and feast your eyes on the glory of crape myrtle colorful bark display.

Last of all, never underestimate the impact of evergreens like juniper, chamaecyparis, boxwoods, or fir shaped into pompoms or spirals for creating interest. Dr. Seuss must have drawn his inspiration from these. He knew that weird, when “weird in a good way”, was quite a compliment.


At November 3, 2009 at 1:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Barbara, all wonderful plants. We grow several of them here at Fairegarden, including Arnold's Promise, new last year. We also have Diane, several years in the ground. Both are excellent additions to Tennessee gardens. Thanks for showcasing these and the others. :-)

At November 8, 2009 at 6:23 AM , Blogger Gail said...

Barbara, Fantastic plants...I don't think I've seen a better Harry Lauder. I am going to try heuchera in a container...I've had pretty fine luck with H villosa Autumn Bride in the garden...but forget the rest! They shrink away! I know euphorbias would be happier in a container then my garden! Gail


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