Fashionable foliage

Sat, Oct 2, 2010, 01:00

IN THE MAIN, we gardeners are not renowned for our clothes sense. We’re comfortable in sober shoes (steel-capped for special, heavy-duty occasions), and warm, muck-covered garments. We run down to the shops forgetting that we’re armed, our secateurs tucked into a leather holster on our hips. But, while our wardrobes may be wandering aimlessly in the style desert, our plant sense is another matter. We don’t necessarily follow horticultural fashions, but we’ve a pretty good notion of what’s in and what’s out.

The idea of chic, must-have plants goes back a very long time. The best-known craze in history was “Tulipomania”, from 1634 to 1637 in The Netherlands, when bulbs (and indeed bulb futures) were traded for incredible amounts of money. At the height of the insanity, a single bulb could fetch the same price as a rather nice house in the better parts of Amsterdam.

In this part of Europe, the Victorians went nuts for ferns, collecting ever more bizarrely-shaped specimens, and displaying them in ferneries, or in the newly invented Wardian cases – glazed terrariums – in their drawing rooms. Our native Killarney fern (Trichomanes speciosum) was hunted almost to extinction by over-eager, amateur pteridologists.

Until recently, much of high fashion in the plant world was dictated by rarity, but now, with the internet and easy transport across the globe, it’s possible, in theory, for anyone to have anything they like, without too much trouble. However, according to a gardening friend: one-upmanship is still fierce at the higher levels of plantsmanship. It seems that the desire to retain exclusivity has engendered a spate of amnesia among plantspeople. Suddenly the names of rare, prized plants, once acquired, are forgotten or garbled, which – sadly – makes them difficult to find in the RHS Plant Finder or on the web. This unfortunate forgetfulness ensures that certain plants remain uncommon and desirable for longer periods.

Ubiquitousness is one reason that chic plants fall out of favour. Not reliably delivering the goods is another. Looking back on plant fashions over the last couple of decades, I can pick out several plants-of-the-moment that turned out to be the disappointments of the following years. The shell-pink-flowered shrubby Lavatera ‘Barnsley’, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, had brittle stems and the shoots tended to revert, producing the darker flowers of the species. The small lime-green tree, golden robinia (R. pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’), voguish at the same time, was also brittle, as well as disease prone. A later introduction, the jungly elephant-eared Colocasia from tropical east Asia, didn’t like our chilly climate. Vine weevils ate their way through many of the purple-leaved heucheras in the 1990s (although, undeterred, breeders still continue to produce newer and more violently-coloured varieties). And the pretty, trinket-like Corydalis with their little blue pendants, all the way from China: where are they now? (Pushing up the daisies, having mysteriously disappeared overnight: they were fussy about soil and conditions.)

Tree ferns, the plants that punctuated both the “gardening is the sex of the Nineties” era and the Celtic Tiger years, took a terrible beating last winter, with many of them dying. I don’t miss them in suburban and city gardens, where they stuck out like expensive sore thumbs, but I do regret their passing in the more congenial setting of woodland gardens.

There are some fine plants that ceased to be popular and fashionable simply because they don’t look good or do well in pots in the garden centre: Cirsium rivulare with its dark-red bobbing, thistly heads, and Knautia macedonica with its crimson pin cushions, for instance. A shorter variety of the latter, ‘Mars Midget’ is available, but it lacks the airy, kinetic quality of the species. You can still find these and many other undeservedly no-longer-popular plants, but you may have to search.

Which brings me to this: what plants are smart gardeners growing now? Well, they’re still growing prairie plants, that is, the American daisies and grasses; and leggy annuals, such as tall cornflowers, Calendula ‘Indian Prince’ and zinnias. They’re growing dahlias and alliums and tulips and lupins – the last not for long, I’d say, because although spectacular, lupins are not long-lived and fizz out after a couple of years. Hydrangeas are back in favour, not so much the blowsy pink or blue kinds that were in your granny’s garden (and in my own), but those with more structured flowerheads: lace-cap and paniculata ones, and the big white puff-ball, ‘Annabelle’.

I read somewhere that penstemons (which are like posh snapdragons, except they don’t snap) are coming back too, but they also won’t stay if we have another winter like the last one. For those with greenhouses for winter shelter, species pelargoniums, the sophisticated relatives of bedding geraniums are enjoying a resurgence. Remember when auriculas were all the rage some years ago? Species pelargoniums are the next auriculas.

Finally, a plant that I’ve also heard is coming back: pampas grass. I’m not sure why, as it is an ungainly thing, and unsuitable for all but the largest garden. It does, however, have an attractive urban myth attached to it, which makes it worth mentioning. In the 1970s, it was said to have been planted as a secret signal that the householders were swingers.