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Risk Vs. Reward in the Garden

For the geekiest among us, high risk/high reward plants are the holy grail. These rare and mythical beauties have it all. Well, everything except a will to live. Yet, sometimes, miraculously, they actually survive. Occasionally, they’ll even look as good in your garden as you could possibly imagine. Even as good as they would at Chanticleer! Where, we’ve discovered, they employ a cabal of alchemists who summon 
mystical forces that bestow eternal life upon seriously difficult plants. 

"Ever seen a Frankilina, son?"

"Ever seen a Frankilina, son?"

When a HR/HR plant succeeds like this for a mere mortal plant geek, the incredulous euphoria is beyond measure. Tragically, many of us are not very good at handling such success and wind up annoying friends and family by sharing yet more images on Facebook, (Latin) name dropping these plants into unrelated conversations and dragging innocent bystanders into our gardens to see them. Like the FedEx driver, or teenagers delivering pizza. Consequently, while such plants may offer the potential for tremendous joy, pride and beauty, they usually just hit us with death, despair and/or divorce.

At one point I had lost so many such plants that—for a time—I gave them up. Like a plebian, I binged on only the easiest and most common stuff. Used it to fill the many gaps left by legions of dead Franklinia, Daphne, Gentiana and whatever else. In a moment of extreme weakness, I even planted a slew of ‘Stella de Oro’ daylilies. And while those and their ilk did, in fact, give my garden some cohesiveness and color, ultimately I found that too many soporific plants actually robbed me of my own will to live.

It was encouraging to discover some plants that could be considered low risk/high reward. These are like the investment opportunities rich people keep to themselves. I put Magnolia in this category, along with Hibiscus and many of the new Echinacea. Stunning, indeed, but apparently too idiot-proof to wow my snobbiest friends. Happily, the FedEx guy acts impressed.

Beware of the occasional high risk/low reward plant. My best example is Cornus coreana. Bought it sight unseen from a catalog because it’s a shrub dogwood (which I usually like) and it hails from Korea (a good indicator of toughness), but I quickly realized that it is astonishingly ugly. Gave it a couple years. Sawed it down.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that we must seek the right balance of risk and reward. Enough reliable fodder to keep the garden green and growing but also enough 30:1 plants to keep us interested. For each gardener, this ratio will be different. After all, some folks find the thrill of skydiving totally worth those unbearable minutes of acrimonious second guessing and screaming that surely must occur between chute failure and impact. Others, not so much. So maybe Franklinia isn’t for everybody. Or even anyone! But take it from one who knows: Aspire beyond more ‘Stellas.’

Illustration by Tom Beuerlein