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Plant Profile

A spectacular aurora photographed by Ryan Fisher in Canada's Northwest Territories on January 11, 2015. Click image to link to the aurora gallery at Spaceweather.

A spectacular aurora photographed by Ryan Fisher in Canada’s Northwest Territories on January 11, 2015. Click image to link to the aurora gallery at Spaceweather.

When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant. ~Author Unknown

House sparrows bathing. Photo Zachary, Creative Commons.

House sparrows bathing. Photo Zachary, Creative Commons.

Cat Grass for Cats – good or bad?
Though no one can deny that cats eat grass, there are only theories as to why they do. Some claim it is to get extra niacin, a B vitamin abundantly available in most fresh young grain grasses. Perhaps cats eat it to make themselves vomit. Some people believe cats eat it to help pass fur balls along while others say they just need the fiber for other nutritional purposes.
Geoff Stein/Dave’s Garden

Rise in mass die-offs seen among birds, fish and marine invertebrates
An analysis of 727 studies reveals that there have been more instances of rapid, catastrophic animal die-offs over the past 75 years. These mass kills appear to have hit birds, fish and marine invertebrates harder than other species.
Science Daily

Unusual number of UK flowers bloom
Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day. They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.
BBC

Together, humans and computers can figure out the plant world
As technology advances, science has become increasingly about data–how to gather it, organize it, and analyze it. The creation of key databases to analyze and share data lies at the heart of bioinformatics, or the collection, classification, storage, and analysis of biochemical and biological information using computers and software.
EurekAlert

The Sustainable Sites Initiative
Landscapes are considered sustainable if they reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, improve air quality, improve human health, and increase outdoor recreation opportunities.
United States Botanic Garden

Nectar of the Gods
The Exotic Love Vine (Ipomoea lobata) is proving to be the most vibrant and heavy bloomer in my fall garden — just when I think it can’t possibly get any better, it does.
Great Stems

William Curtis and “The Botanical Magazine, or, Flower-Garden Displayed”
The world’s longest running botanical magazine was (eventually) named after its founder William Curtis (1746–1799), who was an English botanist and entomologist. From 1771 to 1777 Curtis worked as demonstrator of plants and Praefectus Horti at the Chelsea Physic Garden…
New York Public Library

A Garden Aristocrat
The U.S. National Arboretum’s National Boxwood Collection is one of the most complete collections of boxwood in the world.  There are around 150 different species and cultivars planted in this verdant corner of the Arboretum.  Some have blue-green leaves, others have leaves variegated with splashes of cream or yellow.  Some are dwarf and mature at a height of less than two feet.  One variety, ‘Graham Blandy’,  grows upward in a narrow column like an exclamation point in the garden.
United States National Arboretum

Search the Botany Collections
The plant collections of the Smithsonian Institution began with the acquisition of specimens collected by the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842). These formed the foundation of a National Herbarium which today numbers over 5 million historical plant records, placing it among the world’s largest and most important.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

20 gorgeous peonies
Our guide to favorite varieties in pinks, reds, yellows, and more.
Sunset

Designing with Dwarf Conifers
My tiny lot did not afford much space for full-size trees and shrubs, but I knew I could make room for a few dwarf conifers, which usually don’t get taller than 1 to 6 feet in 10 years.
Fine Gardening

Horticultural Artists Grow Fantastical Scenes at the Montréal Botanical Garden
The process works a bit like this. To start, horticultural artists build metal frames for their sculptures. They cover the frames with soil netting and then plant seeds of different flora in that soil, much like a ceramicist lays tiles in a mosaic.
Smithsonian Magazine

Sex and the single evening primrose
Sex or no sex? Using various species of the evening primrose as their model, researchers have demonstrated strong support for a theory that biologists have long promoted: Species that reproduce sexually, rather than asexually, are healthier over time, because they don’t accumulate harmful mutations.
Science Daily

Detail of the roof of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California. Photo Almonroth, Creative Commons.

Detail of the roof of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California. Photo Almonroth, Creative Commons.

Green fingers are the extension of a verdant heart. ~Russell Page

Limonaia in Tower Hill Botanical Garden, Boylston, Massachusetts. "Preservation of citrus and other tender plants started out as crudely as building a pergola over potted plants or beds or simply moving potted plants indoors for the cold season. Known in Italy as limonaia, these early structures employed wood panels in storerooms or open galleries to protect from the cold," says Wikipedia. Photo Muffet, Creative Commons.

Limonaia in Tower Hill Botanical Garden, Boylston, Massachusetts. “Preservation of citrus and other tender plants started out as crudely as building a pergola over potted plants or beds or simply moving potted plants indoors for the cold season. Known in Italy as limonaia, these early structures employed wood panels in storerooms or open galleries to protect from the cold,” says Wikipedia. Photo Muffet, Creative Commons.

 

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*garden 2014 windowsill

September 2014. Photo Dayton Segard.

 

garden 2014 garage bed spring

Kitchen garden, mid-May 2014. Photo Dayton Segard.

garden 2014 garage bed mid-july

Kitchen garden, early August 2014. Photo Dayton Segard.

*garden 2014 deer leg

Found this under the peach tree in early Spring 2014. Photo Kerri Conan.

*garden 2014 brush fence

Honeysuckle path in the woods. Photo Dayton Segard.

Seed-swapping is one of the great traditions of gardening and gardeners are generous souls. I’m very pleased to be growing plants from seeds obtained from gardeners around the country–specifically Nancy Ondra at Hayefield, Alicia Maynard at Sweetbay and Rob Broekhuis at Rob’s Plants. They have introduced me to many fine garden plants–several now indispensable. Here are some that did well in my northeastern Kansas garden in 2014.

HAYEFIELD
Verbascum thapsus ‘Governor George Aiken’ (Click title for photo at Hayefield.)
I had long heard tales of a white-flowering Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, and came across a picture of V. ‘Governor George Akin’ on the Hayefield blog in 2013. As luck would have it, Nancy was giving away seeds of that same Verbascum, and even more luck produced nine healthy plants set out last Fall. I’m hoping for five-foot spires of snow-white flowers from June through September but V. thapsus is tricky in the garden. These are not plants to be coddled. They grow in profusion in sun-blasted, bone-dry rubble along train tracks and riverbanks, but too much shade and water in the garden and they soon rot away. I planted them in sun-scorched earth but Kansas winters are wet and mucky, so fingers crossed for the Governors.

One Plant, Three Seasons: Amsonia hubrichtii (Click title for article and photos.)
“Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, Arkansas bluestar comes into bloom in the first or second week of May and continues into the first or second week of June. Its light blue color looks great with white, silvery, and pastel partners. …After the bloom period, the key summer features of Arkansas bluestar are its rich green color, its fine texture, and its dense, mounded habit. …Toward the end of the growing season, Arkansas bluestar really takes center stage.” – Nancy Ondra, Hayefield.

A Winter-sowing of Amsonia hubrichtii yielded 13 plants, nine making it through to wispy, foot-tall youngsters in gallon pots, now buried and mulched to overwinter. Amsonia seed need cold to germinate, barely covered and pressed into the soil. Sow seeds in pots no later than early January (I sow in Autumn), put them outside, and start looking for seedlings as weather warms up at the end of March. My two-year-olds should make airy 3′ x 3′ mounds in three years, with pale blue, star-like flowers in May and brilliant yellow foliage color in Autumn. The young plants hinted at their forthcoming glory last Fall, bright yellow threads in the dying grasses. I’ll follow Ondra’s lead and inter-plant my patch of Amsonia with blue asters. You can’t go wrong with yellow and blue.

One Plant, Three Seasons: Patrinia scabiosifolia (Click title for article and photos.)
“Is it possible for any gardener to have just one favorite plant? For most of us, I imagine, it’s tough to get closer than a top 5 or top 10. But if you asked me that question at this time of year and insisted on one top pick, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Patrinia scabiosifolia (or scabiosaefolia, as some sources prefer to list it).” – Nancy Ondra, Hayefield.

I now have seven plants of Hayefield’s Patrinia, four of which bloomed last year. The tallest reached seven feet before toppling in a storm. The flat-topped clusters of small, chrome-yellow flowers looked great against vines of white morning glory and orange black-eyed susan, and the foliage turned bright red in October. Like the chartreuse bracts of the Euphorbia clan, Patrinia‘s bright flowers complement most color schemes. A good see-through plant–I have several at the front of a border so passers-by can observe the great variety of insects swarming the flowers. So far in this garden, Patrinia rivals Sedum x ‘Autumn Joy’–now Hylotelephium telephium ‘Autumn Joy’–as a bug attractor.

Patrinia transplants best in early Spring, just as the leaves emerge, and goes into a deep sulk otherwise. I agree with Nancy Ondra: this is a Top 10 plant.

Sanguisorba tenuifolia var purpurea, Japanese Burnet (Click title for picture at Hayefield.)
Sanguisorbas are the height of fashion right now, and deservedly so, for they provide flowing movement and have an elegant willowy presence. They have finely toothed pinnate foliage, above which long-lasting flowers hold themselves high on wiry stems. They associate brilliantly with equally tall, airy grasses, spired and whorled veronicastrums, and taller daisies.” – Telegraph

I planted four young Sanguisorba tenuifolia purpurea, Japanese burnet, among Miscanthus, Gaura, Nepeta and white Verbascum last Autumn, germinated from a Winter sowing in early January 2014. Might be too hot and dry for them in Summer, though extra mulch and water will help. I’m hoping they’ll be as tough as Hayefield’s Patrinia.

SWEETBAY
Fields of Gold: Bidens aristosa (Click title to link article at Sweetbay.)
“April/May and September are peak months in my garden. In September the big star is Bidens but there are other things in bloom too. All of that golden yellow needs some contrasts.” – Alicia Maynard

Bidens aristosa in full glory at Sweetbay. Photo Alicia Maynard.

Three years ago, Alicia Maynard of Sweetbay sent me seeds of Bidens aristosa after I expressed admiration for her spectacular Bidens borders. I now have plenty of Bidens and the September garden shimmers. Almost too much of a good thing; Bidens self-seeds easily and several species are considered invasive. In garden beds, it takes diligent weeding to keep in check but three-inch seedings pull up easily and transplant fairly well. Bidens is a great asset to the Fall garden, masses of mustard-yellow flowers, and an end-of-the-season boon for insects. I did some research on Bidens in a previous post: Three Bidens: aurea, aristosa, coronata.

ROB’S PLANTS
Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master (Click title to link article at Rob’s Plants.)
“Scattered along the stiff, upright stem of this unusual perennial are tough, blue-green, yucca-like, parallel-veined leaves. Smooth, rigid stem bearing thistle-like flower heads made up of small greenish-white florets mingled with pointed bracts. The individual, greenish-white flowers cluster into unique, globular heads. These occur on branch ends atop the 6 ft. plant.” – Native Plant Database

Flowers of Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master. Photo Crazytwoknobs, Wiki Commons.

Flowers of Eryngium yuccifolium, Rattlesnake Master. Photo Crazytwoknobs, Wiki Commons.

Seed for Rattlesnake Master–Native Americans reputedly used it as a snakebite antidote–came from Rob Broekhuis of Rob’s Plants four years ago. I now have a 5′ x 4′ clump of three plants that bloom reliably in late July–insects love the branching scapes of spiny, spherical flowers. A member of the Carrot family, it does indeed resemble a fleshy Yucca with barbed, glaucous leaves–a somewhat modest plant after flowering when it tends to flop and flatten smaller neighbors. Plant something substantial around Eryngium yuccifolium or use twiggy branches for support. Good mingling with roses.

Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta, Lesser Calamint (Click title to link article at Rob’s Plants.)
“The LESSER CALAMINT (Calamintha nepeta) is a variety of the herb possessing almost superior virtues, with a stronger odour, resembling that of Pennyroyal, and a moderately pungent taste somewhat like Spearmint, but warmer. It is scarcely distinct from C. officinalis, and by some botanists is considered a sub-species. The leaves are more strongly toothed, and it bears its flowers on longer stalks. Both this and the Common Calamint seem to have been used indifferently in the old practice of medicine under the name of Calamint.” – Botanical/A Modern Herbal

Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta. Photo chhe, Wiki Commons.

Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta. Photo chhe, Wiki Commons.

Rob sent seed of the species Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta three years ago and Calamint is now an indispensable plant in the garden–over two dozen plants to date. Fragrance, flowers, butterflies and bees, tough and compact, great filler, makes good tea… A beautiful, useful, care-free plant. Mine get to about 18 inches tall and wide, a bit sprawly but smaller and bushier if cut back by half in May. The cultivars ‘Blue Cloud’ and ‘White Cloud’ are tidier.

Drought-tolerant Calamint prefers full sun in its Mediterranean home but in Kansas requires little water when mulched and grown in some afternoon shade.  If it wilts, water quickly, nip off withered stems and all will be well. It seems to like my barely amended clay soil and starts blooming here in early July, tiny bluish-white flowers borne in thousands, a low haze in the border. Calamint propagates easily through division and cuttings, and regularly self-sows–it is a mint, after all. If you don’t want volunteers, shear the plants immediately after flowering.

 

Bidens in full, bug-humming glory at Sweetbay. Click image to zoom. Photo: Alicia, Sweetbay

recent post about Bidens by Alicia at Sweetbay inspired unabashed garden envy. Located in central North Carolina, the Sweetbay garden is very close to my ideal – loose, lush and beautiful. It is a true country garden: comfortable, expansive and attuned to its environment. Grass tracks wend through broad clumps of healthy, vigorous plants teeming with wildlife. Alicia, Sweetbay’s curator, is no “pretty flower” gardener either – she knows her Latin, knows her critters, and is fluent in color theory and composition. Her garden expresses her awareness of her surroundings, and even her non-native plants look  natural in their tall masses and billows.

The Sweetbay garden awash with Bidens in September. Alicia uses pink seashore mallows to complement all that yellow.

I was smitten when I saw the Sweetbay Bidens. Tough, floriferous plants ring my bell, and, to go one better, Alicia notes that Bidens is a reliable re-seeder. Too reliable, many gardeners say. Alicia identifies her plants as Bidens aurea, but I found contradictions when I went looking for B. aurea seeds, for which there are surprisingly few sources in the United States. The problem was that B. aurea is described as having a five-petalled flower, occasionally six, but upon scrutiny, the Sweetbay Bidens have eight petals. That got me digging.

Here, then, is a  quick overview of the genus, and descriptions of three garden-worthy Bidens species native to the United States – one of which is likely the Sweetbay Bidens.

Bidens species are found across the U.S., often labelled weedy or invasive.

Bidens is a genus of approximately 280 species in the family Asteraceae, close relatives of Cosmos and Coreopsis. Africa and the Americas are each home to about 100 species, with 65 species restricted to Eastern Polynesia. The remaining species range from Eurasia through the Malay Archipelago, New Guinea, and Australia.

Bidens seed are zoochorous – they are primarily dispersed by animals. In Latin, “bidens” means two teeth, referring to the two (sometimes more), barbs on each achene that readily attach to feathers, fur and clothing. This efficient dispersal trait is responsible for Bidens‘ global range.

The barbed achenes of Bidens stick to feathers, fur and clothing, dispersing hem easily across the globe. Photo Aelwyn, Wikimedia Commons.

“Single plants produce 3000 to 6000 seeds, many of which germinate readily at maturity, making possible three or four generations per year in some areas. Seeds three to five years old may have 80% germination.” Source: World of Weeds

Bidens seeds are relished by ducks and are eaten by bobwhites as well. This plant also serves as brooding cover for chicks, which are attracted to the cool, insect-rich environment in which it grows.” –  University of Missouri Extension

Bidens are of special value to many species of bees, producing a dark, highly prized honey.

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Bidens aurea is native to Arizona in the U.S., reaching south to Chile.

– Bidens aurea (formerly B. heterophylla); Arizona Beggatick, Bur Marigold.

Bidens aurea is native to southern North America–Arizona in the U.S.–extending south to Guatemala, though at least 12 species have naturalized in Chile. It is hardy in Zones 5-8, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Habitat: A spreading, perennial prairie plant, mostly indifferent to soil types, though purported to run in loose soil. Drought-tolerant, generally thriving on rain water. Full sun is the standard recommendation, but with the record heat we’ve had in the U.S. the past two summers, some afternoon shade would probably be beneficial.

Bidens aurea var. wrightii, flower and leaf. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

FormB. aurea reaches three or four feet in height, with a spread of two to three feet. Finely divided leaves similar to Coreopsis. Abundant one- to two-inch flowers are yellow, darker in the center and lighter at the tips of the rays, often fading to cream or white.

As a garden plant, B. aurea is far more popular in the U.K. than in the Americas, where it is commonly regarded as a weed. Hannay’s Lemon Drop, a cultivar released by the now-defunct Hannay’s Nursery in Bath, is a staple in British autumn gardens.

Propagation: By seed or cuttings, though B. aurea reliably self-seeds in it’s range. Germination takes about 20 days. Cuttings can be taken in late spring and early summer.

How to grow: Bidens aurea; Val Bourne, The Telegraph.

Bidens aristosa ranges over the eastern half of the U.S.

Bidens aristosa (syn. Bidens polylepis); Bearded Beggarticks, Tickseed Sunflower

RangeB. aristosa‘s range covers the entire eastern seaboard, excepting Florida, north into Canada, west to Colorado and south into Texas and Mexico. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

Habitat: According to the Native Plants Journal of the University of Kentucky, “B. aristosa is found in non-forested areas within temperate deciduous forests of North America.” It prefers damp places and low ground, and is often found in roadside ditches and abandoned fields. B. aristosa also colonizes woodland margins, thriving in strong, dappled light and some afternoon shade.

Bidens aristosa, flower and foliage. Photo Wazowski collection, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

FormB. aristosa grows from three to six feet tall. The pinnate leaves are divided into sharply toothed leaflets and are oppositely placed on the stem. The flowers are two-toned yellow with seven or eight petals, one to two inches in size, produced from mid-summer to early fall.

Propagation: Like much of it’s clan, B. aristosa is a freely self-seeding annual, occasionally biennial, listed in some places as weedy or invasive (wetlands in particular). The seeds need cold stratification and light to germinate.

Here is the Bidens aristosa profile from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

U.S. distribution of Bidens coronata. Photo USDA Plants Profile.

Bidens coronata (syn. B. trichosperma); Crowned Beggarticks, Tall Swamp Marigold, Tall Tickseed Sunflower. Listed as a plant of Special Concern in Rhode Island.

Range: Like B. aristosa, B. coronata is found along the entire eastern seaboard (except for Florida), north into Canada and west to Nebraska. Hardiness accounts vary, generally Zones 4-8.

Habitat: A water-lover, B. coronata is found in wet meadows, marshes and swamps, hence the common name “Swamp Marigold.” It needs full sun and grows well in most soils, including clay.

Bidens coronata, foliage and flower. Prairie Moon Nursery has seed.

FormB. coronata ranges from two to five feet in height. Two-inch flowers are cadmium yellow in the centers, lightening at the tips of the petals, blooming from August to October. The narrow leaves opposite, pinnate and coarsely toothed.

Propagation: A re-seeding annual or biennial, B. coronata can also be propagated by cuttings in late spring and early summer. Seeds require cold stratification and light for germination.

USDA Plants Profile

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

I’m guessing that B. aristosa is the species growing in Sweetbay’s North Carolina garden. Like the Sweetbay Bidens, it has eight petals and similar foliage. B. aristosagrows in the dappled shade of pines in the Sweetbay garden, suiting the species’ range and habitat standards. And, perhaps the clincher, B. aristosa is referenced in a publication titled “Wildflowers on North Carolina Roadsides.” But whatever the species, Bidens is a tough, low-maintenance plant for dramatic fall color, and is attractive to honeybees and all manner of bugs. As soon as I locate a reputable source for seed, B. aristosa will have a home in my garden.

Update: Turns out Alicia knew all along that her plants were Bidens aristosa. Here’s an excerpt from her email: “Just wanted to clarify about the Bidens. I’ve always thought they were Bidens aristosa or polylepis. I think aristosa and polylepis may have been lumped by now, I’m not sure. Anyway the Bidens I have is a terrific native annual for wet places, although it’s quite drought tolerant too.
Thanks to Alicia for setting the record straight.

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis “Bella”. Click image to link to Select Seeds.

  • Four to six feet tall, half as wide, vase-shaped
  • In hot areas, some afternoon shade. Full sun in the north
  • Regular, moderate watering
  • A fairly rich soil with good drainage
  • Hardy to Zone 8 (10 t0 15F)
  • Native to Brazil

Another member of the Solanaceae family and another wish come true, thanks to Select Seeds. I first learned of this Brazilian flowering tobacco from garden designer Deborah Silver, one of her favorites for large containers. Silver possesses that rare and invaluable gardening trait: restraint. Her gardens, though often formally structured, look natural and peaceful. Her plants look comfortable and healthy.

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis Bella, in France. Click image to link to Au Coeur du Jardin, where they, too, love nicotianas.

I tried the woodland tobacco, Nicotiana sylvestris, in morning sun in the woods out back a couple of years ago, and, as Silver notes, it was an aphid magnet. I don’t think it likes this Kansas clay either, or the humidity. “Bella,” apparently, is tougher, though likely not tough enough to take our full summer sun. Placed at the edges of clearings in the woods, it will have morning sun–maybe a couple more hours than the columbines get each day–and filtered light in the afternoon.

I’m attracted to Bella’s habit, fragrance and flower color. Hot pink and magenta are not colors suited to this particular garden context, where most of the color blobs are blood-red, white and deep orange. But Bella’s flowers, flared trumpets about an inch long and wide, are held in profusion on wiry green stems, opening white and aging to a clear rose-pink. That color transition isn’t a unified choreography, so the blooms are always in differing color transitions–hence the epithet “mutabilis,” the changeling. In bloom, which runs late July to frost here, Bella produces a haze of soft color, one of my favorite garden effects.

Bella has a loose habit, a woman who lets the wind style her hair, though optimal height–four to six feet and half as wide–is best attained in a sheltered position. But, like many plants, if you get them in the ground early enough, its amazing how resilient they become. The incessant Kansas winds promote strong stems, which might be of value to plant breeders. Your new Dahlia hybrid too floppy? Send it to Kansas for a few generations.

Nicotiana alata x mutabilis in one of Deborah Silver’s container plantings. Click image to visit “Dirt Simple,” Silver’s fascinating blog.

Many nicotianas are intensely fragrant in the evenings. Fragrance, I believe, is the reason nicotianas were first brought into the garden. The species plants are rough and weedy, making poor garden subjects–but what a scent! Like jasmine and musk, especially after a hot day. Now, nicotianas are bred for both flower and fragrance, and their looseness of form is more welcome in today’s informal garden style.

Rabbits and deer, I’m happy to report, want nothing to do with nicotiana’s broad and sticky leaves. Even baby rabbits, who readily eat morning glory and datura seedlings–both highly psychoactive–steer clear of tobacco. Too bad humans don’t have such natural wisdom.
All parts of this plant are toxic to humans.Bella is hardy to Zone 8, which makes it an annual in Kansas. Now that the USDA has pushed us to Zone 6, I’ll probably try to over-winter a couple of plants against South-facing masonry with a heap of mulch, but I have low expectations.
Like most of the Solanaceae, flowering tobaccos like sun, heat, deep soil and regular water. I’ll put clumps of five in the sunny verges of clearings in the woods, maybe front them with Datura inoxia and Mirabilis longiflora “Fairy Trumpets,” a white, trumpet-flowered Four-o-Clock to echo Bella’s trumpets overhead. I’ll stick a plant by the front steps, too, where it can sprawl on the banister and scent the night.

The formidable Solanum atropurpureum a/k/a Malevolence, Purple Devil or Five-Minute Plant

  • Four to six feet tall, two to three feet wide.
  • Full sun, just like tomatoes.
  • Moderate to light water, less than tomatoes.
  • Not fussy about soil. Likes fair drainage.
  • Hardy to at least Zone 8. Can go as low as -10F for a few nights.
  • Native to South America.

As a devotee of sinister plants I number Solanums among my favorites, with Solanum atropurpureum the holy grail. My quest has finally ended, thanks to seeds provided by Rob Broekhuis of Rob’s Plants in Allentown, Pennsylvania (Zone 6).

When I’m researching plants, Rob’s site is a first stop. And I warn you, the hours will evaporate once you start browsing his plant portraits. Rob is a true botanist, growing well over a thousand different plants on a half-acre of land. He’s a good garden photographer–to me, good means one or two pictures that show the plant in the garden, full shots that give a clear sense of habit and scale. For my purposes, close-ups of bees nestled in dewy blossoms are best suited to greeting cards. Thankfully, Rob uses photography to help describe a plant. See for yourself. Here’s Rob’s take on Malevolence.

It looks delicate, it looks dangerous. Photo Wikimedia

Three years ago, the two beds alongside the front porch were overrun by Vinca major. On the south side, by the trellis, it was strangling a couple of Yucca filamentosa and an adolescent Miscanthus “Morning Light.” Farewell, vinca. I moved most of it to the back woods, in areas controllable by mowing, and began enclosing the porch beds in boxwood (x “Green Velvet,” I believe). The yucca moved to the sun-baked gravel near the road, the miscanthus came out, and in went purple coneflowers and black hollyhocks; pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), and Salvia greggii “Gray”–both flowering bright red in fall; a white Iceberg rose found in a tsunami of wild euonymus out back, and a six-foot arborvitae which should make around 12 feet in 10 years.

Rosa “Red Cascade,” a profusely flowering miniature used as a climber or groundcover. Click image to visit the Antique Rose Emporium.

The trellis on the south side–five feet wide by nine tall–was once home to a Spring-blooming, cherry red climbing rose, a scentless, small-flowered variety which has naturalized all over town. I had seen pictures of that rose in bloom and I liked the look of that bright red flower with the barn-red of the house and all the white trim. But a rose with repeat bloom, at least, and fragrance, if possible, would improve the composition–“Don Juan“, “Dortmund” and the robust miniature “Red Cascade” are good candidates for this year.

Because I want this garden to be somewhat wild-looking and sinister, Solanum atropurpureum has long been on my mind. I’ve grown it before, in California sand, where it reached nine feet and half that in spread. At a distance, the deeply cut leaves make it look almost frilly and a bit weedy–until you get close enough to see those magnificent purple thorns. The first thing most people say when they get close to Malevolence is “Oh!”

Malevolence is a member of the Solanaceae family, kin to tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, peppers and belladonna. As such, it is cultivated in much the same way as tomatoes: plenty of sun and heat, and regular, deep watering–though Malevolence, a plant not far from wild, does better with less water and much less fertilizer than your tomatoes. It is hardier than tomatoes too, taking several nights in the teens to finally knock it down.

Depending on conditions, Malevolence ranges from three to six feet tall and two or three feet wide. It can get lean and leggy, so consider tall, leafy companions to hide the bare ankles. In this case, I’ll be teaming it with Crocosmia “Lucifer,” Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Bishop of Llandaff dahlias and a plant or two of Lacinato” kale in the front beds. If there’s room, some borage and calamint. Lots of busy foliage, some dark and shadowy, and a majority of bright red blooms contrasting with the white rose, the haze of calamint and the deep burgundy hollyhocks. The dusky purple-pink of the coneflowers and the dark stems of Sedum “Matrona” should be easy complements to Malevolence’s deep purple thorns.

Immature fruit of Solanum atropurpureum

Like all Solanums, Malevolence blooms and fruits, but in a manner so discreet that the thorns are always the plant’s primary feature. The flowers are small and yellow, much like a tomato, and they produce currant-sized, golden-yellow fruits–certainly no detraction to my color scheme. It is best to assume, however, that all parts of Malevolence are poisonous, much like belladonna. And you definitely don’t want to handle Malevolence without sturdy gloves, but don’t let the thorns deter you from growing this tough, remarkable plant. Is there beauty without suffering?