Where some see plant snobbery, Ed Bowen sees common passion
A FRIEND RECENTLY CALLED me a plant snob. It’s not the first time I’ve been so accused, and I’ve always bristled at the charge in the past, thinking myself far too catholic in taste, too democratic in temperament, and, truthfully, far too unknowledgeable about plants to possibly be guilty. This time, however, I simply laughed, both in agreement and at my past indignation. I’ve come to realize that at heart all gardeners are plant snobs, preferring some plants to others, and that it is precisely this judgmental quality that is the hallmark of the avocation. For if one is truly interested in plants, it is impossible to be indifferent. Indeed, it occurs to me that the maturation of a gardener follows the distinctions one comes to draw between plants, which cause one to abandon old enthusiasms and embrace new, or even to rediscover and re-embrace those plants that one previously jettisoned.
Of course, it is because these distinctions are a constantly evolving and shifting process that we can’t agree on the same enthusiasms or betes noires, and therein, I think, lies the frustration that is the origin of the moniker as a pejorative. On reflection, though, how could we necessarily agree, separated as we so often are by the intricacies of geography and the complexities of aesthetics that temper or dictate what we can or will grow? The difficulty is that our joy in the plants we grow is unbridled. Ever sapient Christopher Lloyd’s pathology is perfect: “We fall in love with a plant utterly and helplessly the first time we clap eyes on it. What a scintillating wonder! How have I lived all these years without you?” And given this level of intoxication, it is not surprising that the conversations between us are usually neither dispassionate nor objective. But when soberly considered, I believe that the snob label may rightly be understood to simply mean “we don’t share the same plant passions.” Moreover, what is unsaid but all the more important to infer from such conversations is that however disparate our interests may be, we do share the same passion for plants.
My own distinctions seem to place my horticultural maturation smack in the throes of a typically awkward adolescence. A textbook case study, it has been marked by reactionary rebellion, involving plants like white-flowered and purple-foliaged dandelions, and, of course, “ornamental” plantains. There have been the usual bouts of zonal angst, too, wherein plants such as Myosotidium hortensia have been horribly disfigured by a singular combination of horticultural arrogance and a certain naive climatalogical insistence that Rhode Island can’t be that far removed from the Chatham Islands. There’s also been a certain malingering thrill in deviance, especially involving brown-foliaged plants, and, I can’t deny, the accompanying shock-value satisfaction of labeling myself accordingly a “necrofoliac.”
Though I do still have carbuncles aplenty, there is reason for me to suspect that my experience may be gaining on my innocence. Beyond this nascent recognition of our commonality as gardeners, I’ve lately found my eye furtively glancing at Calanthe, and lingering just a bit too long on the pleats of Veratrum foliage. Visions of fancy Asian Podophyllum have been dancing in my head, and the subtle floral charm of Hydrangea involucrata is helping me to overcome my fear of intimacy. Perhaps the most telling, I recently purchased my first double Trillium grandiflorum. All of which, I suppose, leaves me sounding quite the plant snob.