One of the very first pieces I wrote for this magazine was about comfort plants, a concept based on the idea that plants...
ONE OF THE VERY first pieces I wrote for this magazine was about comfort plants, a concept based on the idea that plants offer nurture and solace on dark days just as surely as macaroni and cheese. In the nearly 10 years since, I’ve often been reminded that we respond to plants in ways far deeper than the merely visual. Our emotional reaction to plants is as valid a reason to choose them as any recommendation on ease of care, length of bloom or newness to the market.
The trick is figuring out what plants we truly love and why. I’ve gotten better at this from listening to people enthuse about their favorites. Gardeners are a thoughtful and articulate bunch, and I’ve learned that memory, grandmothers, feel, fragrance, color and seasonality are all factors in our response to plants. Do we have a memory fragment redolent of pink roses? Does the scent of rosemary evoke a long-ago Mediterranean adventure? Bristly little trees remind me of my older brother, now gone, who loved them so much he kept giving me books about conifers. I recently planted a memorial Japanese cedar in a pot on the balcony, and I feel consoled by a sense of continuation every time I look at it.
Distinguishing between a plant crush and enduring plant love is the challenge. We can be thrilled at the sight of a pink-striped yucca, but do we really want this sword-like beast in our garden? Maybe so, if it brings to mind the desert hike where we first saw such a plant. What’s more charming than old-fashioned roses with their scent of cold cream and sweetly crumpled flowers? But you really have to adore them to put up with their tangle, thorns and short bloom span.
If it’s the real thing, you’ll find them worthwhile, but if not, they’re the stuff of serious garden regrets. When is impulse buying truly heart-driven and when is it just impulse buying?
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Perhaps it is like being mature enough to pass up bringing home the puppy or kitten in the window. We’re finally able to appreciate darling baby animals without needing to own every one we see. We can modulate our emotional reaction to plants, too, in pursuit of a well-edited garden. Such discipline can lead to a garden that pleases our senses, teases our memories and satisfies our plant lust without looking like a plant collector’s paradise run wild.
Now, as we near the solstice and the earth begins its tilt toward spring, is a good moment to consider which plants satisfy over time and which just kick-start the gardening season. All those new, new plants are just waiting to seduce us with their novelty. For a truly gratifying garden, be sure to mix in a generous dose of your own personal comfort plants.
Consider the comfort factor
To create a satisfying garden, consciously recall plants associated with various people and places. Consider what qualities cause you to stroke and sniff plants, and what garden colors, shapes and textures stir your emotions most. Here are some ideas to get you going:
Color: Velvety purple pansies; red hot Crocosmia ‘Lucifer'; softly silver artemisia; the intense burgundy blades of Japanese blood grass; the glow of a golden spirit smokebush.
Texture: Silky, fluid mounds of chartreuse Japanese forest grass; furry foxtail blooms of purple fountain grass, softly felted lamb’s ears.
Shape: Fat sunflower orbs atop willowy stems; fountains of ornamental grasses, gooseneck loosestrife’s curvy flower heads, the pencil-point slim silhouette of Mediterranean cypress, bleeding heart’s perfect valentine flowers and lacy foliage.
Shelter: The towering strength of rough-barked cedars, rustling bamboo groves, arbors draped with wisteria vines.
Adventure: Children take great pleasure in searching for less-obvious treasures like winter-white snowdrops, pulmonaria’s spotted leaves and tiny blue and pink flowers, carrots growing beneath the soil, vines dripping beans.
Fragrance: Ripe tomatoes, lemon verbena, the crisp scent of witch hazel on a cold winter day, the intoxication of oriental lily perfume, the spicy sweetness of Daphne odora; the rich semisweet scent of chocolate cosmos.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.