Originally published May 17, 2017
By Ciscoe Morris, former In the Garden writer
ADD AN EXCITING dimension to gardening by collecting rare and unusual plants.
I love to show off my garden to visitors, and it’s especially fun when a rare plant stumps fellow garden enthusiasts. When I find a plant that’s new to me, I immediately begin researching all about my new treasure to learn where it’s from and what its needs are.
I’ll admit I’ve lost quite a number of rare plants over the years, but the challenge is half the fun. Many of the rare plants I collect are only semi-hardy, and the key to keeping them around long-term is to plant them early enough in spring to give them time to establish deep roots and thick stems before cold fall weather sets in.
Consider covering borderline tender plants for the first winter with Frost Protek. It’s a lightweight plant cover made for that purpose, available at charleysgreenhouse.com. If your semi-hardy plants make it through their first winter, they usually will survive for years without covering, except as a temporary measure if exceptionally cold weather is forecast.
Much as I love basking in the envy of my gardening friends, the main reason I love growing rare plants is that most of them are incredibly beautiful, or have fascinating shapes and/or textures. One of the truly cherished rarities in my garden is Sinopanax formosanus, a relative of Schefflera and Fatsia. The stems and undersides of the shallowly lobed, thick leaves are coated with golden furry indumentum. New leaves emerge silvery white, contrasting beautifully with the shiny, dark-green mature foliage. Hardy to only about 10 degrees, these shrubs do best in full sun and well-drained soil. They can grow to more than 30 feet in their native Taiwan, but aren’t expected to grow anywhere near as tall in our cool Northwest climate.
My newest favorite rare plant has to be Roscoea. These easy-to-grow members of the ginger family produce beautiful hooded flowers that resemble orchids. Depending on the species, the midsummer flowers come in white, pink, blue, purple and red. Each bloom lasts only a couple of days, but once mature, new flowers are produced in succession over a long period. My hands-down favorite is the Roscoea ‘Family Jewels’ hybrid, sporting bright-magenta flowers and foliage with copper highlights. Hardy to minus-20 degrees, Roscoeas form long-lasting clumps in bright shade and moist well-drained soil.
Finally, more must-have rarities are the Podophyllums. Although there is an attractive Podophyllum native to the Eastern United States, it’s the Asian species that steal the show. One of the most spectacular is Podophyllum delavayi. In early April, deeply lobed, dinner-plate-size leaves emerge, festooned in a fuzzy kaleidoscope of burgundy red, dark chocolate, pink and glowing purple splotches.
I grow many varieties of Podophyllum, but my favorite is Podophyllum difforme — ‘Starfish Form’. Just seeing the creature-from-outer-space markings and color patterns will cause an out-of-body experience. Hardy to about minus-10 degrees, once established in a woodland garden, Podophyllums form huge tropical-looking clumps. They are referred to as May apples because colorful golf-ball-size fruit forms under the leaves. People often ask me whether the fruit can be eaten. Native Americans used them to deworm people, so it’s probably not a good idea.
If you’re looking for unusual options, Far Reaches Farm is a rare-plant nursery in Port Townsend.