BY THIS TIME of the year, all but the hardiest annuals have succumbed, and most perennials have gone dormant. Of all the standing stems and seed heads that remain in the sodden October landscape, the spectral skeletons of ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ (Eryngium giganteum) are some of the most impressive.

Taller than most other cultivated garden thistles, the plant bears large silvery-blue cones in summer, each flower head resting atop a spiky ruff of brutally sharp silver bracts that let you know if you venture too close as you’re tending the garden. Bleached by the end of summer, the dramatic dried stalks persist until wind and rain turn them to stubble. The plant has a commanding presence, and while it dies after flowering, a generous crop of seeds ensures subsequent generations.

Legend has it that ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ was named for an eccentric and prickly 19th-century horticulturist. Ellen Willmott was born into a garden-loving family, and from an early age, she could be found plotting and planting alongside her father at Warley Place, the family’s estate in Essex. A wealthy heiress by the time she turned 30, Willmott devoted her life to learning about (and acquiring) plants, travel and creating gardens at properties she purchased in France and Italy, in addition to maintaining the grounds at Warley Place.

Single throughout her life, Wilmott was married to her passion for plants and said to be both competitive and jealous, traits that earned her a reputation as difficult.

So how did the name of the wealthy botanist become attached to a giant thistle? Supposedly, while visiting gardens, Willmott would surreptitiously drop seed of the giant thistle from her pockets to disrupt manicured planting schemes: a guerrilla gardening tactic that became evident only later, when thistles would sprout in carefully tended borders. While it’s an obvious metaphor for a “difficult” woman, the association seems a bit mean-spirited, and in recent years, its basis in truth has been called into question.

Advertising

Passalong plants are some of my favorite garden companions, except that one time the neighbor gave me a start of Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria). The fresh, variegated green and white foliage proved to be a botanical sheep in wolf’s clothing that was almost impossible to eradicate. One gardener’s resilient ground cover for shade is another’s nightmare. I should have known better — weed is right there in the name.

These days, I stick to collecting seeds of benevolent annuals and biennials — continuity and obsolescence are built into their nature. Little manila coin envelopes filled with seeds of a dark purple poppy, cobalt blue love-in-a-mist, fragrant sweet peas, ruby orach, rusty foxglove — and yes, Miss Willmott’s “ghost” — make up my garden’s currency. I freely share with others, although never without permission.

Today, Ellen Willmott is recognized for her many contributions to horticulture as an active member of the Royal Horticulture Society, but reckless spending on plants finally caught up with her. Her fortune depleted and all the gardeners let go, Willmott died alone at Warley Place surrounded by an overgrown and unkempt landscape.

Seed season is generous, as are most gardeners. Go forth, Miss Willmott.