Pardon the pun, but I’m jaded with unusual plants.
Pretty much everyone’s smitten with beautiful, sensual roses, America’s official floral emblem; like it or not, marketers have hard-wired us to love them, regardless of their needy upkeep.
But there’s a flip side to this attractiveness coin; some plants are so unalluring usually only oddball gardeners appreciate them.
Contrast the Miss America contest in which beauty is measured against a pre-agreed-upon standard, with koten engei (CO-ten n-GUY), the Japanese approach in which plants are treasured for their combinations of mutated, twisted, spotted and otherwise unlikely non-uniform traits.
Iris, daylily, daffodil, hosta, rose, camellia, Africa violet, you name it, plant society aficionados collect all kinds of any particular plant, ooh-ing and ah-ing over subtle differences. And, once bitten by the “Oh my, this one is different!” bug, they’re committed to koten engei.
Sorry, fellow plant nerds, but while to us detailed minutiae can be exciting, to garden variety gardeners who barely notice flower color, they all look kinda alike.
In my garden travels I've come across and acquired some plant doozies. My personal collections contain different kinds of nandina, antique daffodils, liriope (including a golden one), and aspidistra (cast iron plant) with various variegations and spots. Oh, and peppers.
That’s where jade plants come in. Along with other familiar houseplants, this favorite old potted succulent has some really interesting variations. Mom’s same old, same old jade has been augmented with new forms including dwarf, trailing, twisted and variegations.
This is good, because since I travel for weeks and months at a time I have become dependent on low-maintenance succulent plants. Like cacti, succulents store water in stems and leaves so they don’t mind being neglected.
But succulents aren’t all alike in how they grow, or whether they can tolerate being left outdoors in the winter. It’s confusing when garden centers push them all together based just on their being succulents. It’s like if a pet store penned dogs, cats, guinea pigs and lizards in one cage.
Some prefer full sun, others need light mid-day shade to protect them from our humidity-laden sunlight. No way to tell from just looking at them; I’ve sunburned some accidentally. Because of this I keep most of mine under a lattice or put their pots under a shade tree for the summer.
Same with winter cold. My dozens of sansevieria, kalanchoe, jade, aloes and night-blooming cereus are tropical and will melt at just below freezing, so they have to be brought indoors in the winter. But sedums, agaves and gray-green “hen and chicks” can tolerate well below freezing and are left out.
Some of the latter, including some cacti, actually require cold, dry winters and, being native to arid climates, can rot from our heavy winter rains. To get around this, I keep most of mine in containers of really good potting soil that has added coarse gravel or perlite for better drainage. I also move some under the house eave and keep them moist, not wet.
Because most garden books and websites have nearly universal advice or are written for specific climates, there’s not a single good source of information on all this for us, so I just make educated guesses, mostly by trial and error.
Some make it, others don’t. Luckily most succulents — pretty to some gardeners or not — are really easy to grow from stem cuttings or even single leaves. And I often put several different kinds in one pot, so if something dies nobody can tell.
Trendy unusual succulents can be iffy at first. But they’re pretty guaranteed good koten engei.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.