Saturday, January 22, 2011

P. Whippleanus?

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Thomas Edison, American Inventor

If you've ever met a gardener who claims to have never killed a plant, they're either a liar or only grow silk flowers. I've lost track of all the plants I've killed, either accidentally or through utter ignorance. I once killed a huge patch of rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' by having the sheer audacity to enrich their soil with compost. They do not want compost. Ever! They want to be watered and ignored. I was guilty of loving them to death and they rewarded me by dying quickly, leaving a gaping hole near the phlox where their sunny yellow faces should have stood.


The foxgloves were magnificent for a season but didn't return, the pink windflowers disappeared, and the lithodora died. I survived the brief visit by the foxgloves, forgot about the anemones, but was irritated about the  lithodora. Were they too dry? Too moist? Their broken plant tag peeks from a brown paper apple bag, reminding me of our abrupt affair. I shove it to the side, determined to grow them again. I save plant tags like a horder saves junk. They are reminders of what I've planted, of gardens I no longer tend in states I no longer live.

Of all the plants I no longer grow, my favorite is penstemon whippleanus.  A tall penstemon with deep wine colored bell shaped blooms, it was said to grow well in moister, acidic soils across the eastern US. The pictures are alluring and the descriptive text seductive, but to be honest, I bought it because of its name. I just couldn't resist a plant with the name of P. Whippleanus. I imagined standing in polite society and commenting to the person next to me, "My whippleanus is simply enormous. If I'm not careful it will probably takeover. I can offer you a cutting, if you'd like." I can only imagine their reactions.

I dig through the bag, closing my fingers around an oddly shaped tag. Red Valerian Centranthus Ruber. I've lost track of how many times I've tried to grow this in Virginia. I love everything about this plant and was determined to make it happy. I flip the tag over and read: A short lived perennial that usually self- seeds (OK, I could live with that.) Fragrant, old-fashioned, excellent for cutting, good choice for hot, dry sites, attracts butterflies, full sun in average to poor soil, zones 4-9. It seemed perfect. I would ammend the soil to help it drain faster and then spend the summer watching it grow until its glory was eclipsed only by the sun and moon.

The valerian died. I planted it again, researched its needs, scratched my head to inspire a solution to a perennial problem, and watched it die again. I am patient by nature, until suddenly I'm not, and the lava of frustration was begining to flow. On a summer trip to California to see a family friend, red valerian grew everywhere. It spilled from behind fences and tumbled onto sidewalks. It mingled with the poppies and phlox and flirted with the cactus. I stopped in my tracks and stared.

"What are you looking at?" Bea asked.

"Valerian!" I shouted. "It's everywhere! All I do is kill this at home!"

She looked around dismissively and shrugged. "It loves our dry climate. Isn't VA too humid?" I looked back at the valerian. Hasta la vista, baby. Next!!

15 comments:

  1. Substitute a few plant names and Texas for Virginia and you're singing my song! I agree, never trust a gardener who says they've never killed a plant! You are such a gifted writer and your sense of humor shines!

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  2. Cat - I'm glad you can identify and appreciate my wacky sense of humor!! :o) I'm thriled that I"ve reached the point where I grow more plants than I kill!

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  3. I really enjoyed your post. So much humor and real life gardening adventure. You sound like a real gardener to me.

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  4. I too would love to drop whippleanus in conversation--I loved your imagined dialog! My failures were documented in a big database of all my plants until I was horrified one day to see how large the list was. I deleted the failures, and only keep records of the successes now. We learn from our failures but we don't need to see them every time we look at a list of what's in the garden. Thanks for keeping us all humble in this amusing post!

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  5. I haven't heard of Penstemon whippleanus before. You've peaked my curiosity.

    I've lost a lot of plants too but prefer not to say that I killed them. :) Sounds less drastic.

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  6. I agree -- your posts are most entertaining and real! Thanks for the down-to-earth (no pun intended?) descriptions of your planting adventures!

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  7. Hilarious! I found myself thinking back on all my own many disasters, not including the recent ones with Dahlias and Pelargoniums. Tradescantia, devoured by slugs. Monardas planted to closely and succumbing to disease. Beautiful Camassias, never happy. The list goes on and on... I'm much more hard hearted now, and tend to grow from seed more so that I don't feel the pain in my wallet as well as my heart. Its when you really think you have done all your homework and come up with something that should love the conditions that you are giving it and it STILL ups and dies that I get cross.

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  8. I wish I had read this yesterday because I just bought a packet of red valerian and thought I'd try it again, because like you it has died on me too. I now know the secret-too humid I guess. Sigh. I have to look for that whippleanus for sure as I love penstemons!

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  9. You are certainly not alone in your failures! I had a large patch of Valerian one summer, but it disappeared over winter. After several further attempts to get it established, I came to realize that, in my northern garden, it is an annual. Same with penstemons. There is a pink one that I love and buy when I can- but it never, ever makes a reappearance in spring. I have never had a whippleanus, but think the name has a offbeat, yet magical sound to it. I can just imagine the face of a fellow gardener, if you were to offer to share your whippleanus.

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  10. Haha! Surely you haven't met a gardener who claimed never to have killed a plant? What a scoundrel! I love your joke about offering someone a whippleanus. :)

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  11. Everyone - I would love to redo the sign in front of the huge, overpriced nursery near my house to read "P. Whippleanuses for Sale". It would be hysterical to watch the reaction of people driving by or hear their comments in the store. :o) Snort! Chuckle! Laugh!

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  12. I still have a lot of flowers and plants going away so fast I didn't even notice they did. But that is part of gardening. If we dont try we can't succeed

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  13. The University of Trial and Error is definitely where I've learned the most. I doubt I'll ever graduate. :o)

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  14. I did google P. whippleanus because I love penstemons and the name is so improbable. :) It's very beautiful, now I'm tempted to try it too.

    You asked about the Baptisia -- it is the host of Frosted Elfin and Wild Indigo Duskywing Butterflies. The flowers attract butterflies although they are an especial favorite of bees.

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  15. Love your post! I admit-I've killed more than I can count!

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