What Makes a Plant Beautiful?

mass planting of Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa)

Begonia boliviensis

What makes a plant beautiful?

Well, yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and every plant, like every person, has attractive features to be sure. But after several decades of looking at and looking after plants, I suddenly found myself asking this question and wondering if there might, in fact, be certain easily recognizable, universal criteria for botanical beauty.

It must be stated that any plant you grow yourself is likely to be significantly more beautiful, in your eyes, than similar plants grown by others. It’s the effort that goes into growing your plants that makes them special. This is even more the case with plants you grow from seed. When you follow the progress of a plant from seed to leaves and then to stems and flowers and sometimes fruit, the feeling is akin to what you feel for your own child. Is any child more beautiful than yours? Is there a manzanita that grows more robustly and flowers more abundantly than your own? Does any tomato taste better than the ones you grow yourself?

What makes a plant beautiful?  The Element of Surprise

Beauty, in both people and plants, also contains an element of surprise. As the years go by, you are attracted to a distinctive face as you are to a distinctive plant. What you may have found beautiful in your youth, or when you first began to garden, has become humdrum. The predictable faces in magazine advertisements are nothing but a bore, as are plants that flower virtually non-stop such as lantana, bougainvillea and shrubby ‘Iceberg’ roses. Yet, take a normally horizontal lantana and train it up a trellis, force a vertically oriented bougainvillea to grow as a ground cover on a slope by pinning its shoots to the earth, or plant a ‘Climbing Iceberg’ rose (sport mutation of common ‘Iceberg’) and see it cover a pergola twenty feet up in the air and you will have a new appreciation for what you thought were eternally predictable garden fare.  Or plant a seldom seen Bolivian begonia; yes, it’s a begonia but its uncharacteristic flowers, for a begonia, will register as “simply beautiful.”

Just recently I came upon Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer.’ Alstroemerias, commonly known as Peruvian lilies, are popular on account of their long bloom period and indestructability, owing to their rhizomatous roots. When flowers fade or foliage loses is luster, sharply pull or snap off the aging shoots and new ones, soon enough, will take their place. Peruvian lilies are among the longest lasting cut flowers, maintaining their good looks for up to two weeks after placement in a vase. Their grassy green foliage also has an unusual shine or gleam not found in other plants. In any event, the sighting of a new cultivar known as ‘Indian Summer’ immediately put it in the beautiful category since, when it comes to plants, exotic and beautiful are typically interchangeable. This is certainly the case with ‘Indian Summer’ due to its smoky gray foliage, which serves as a backdrop to salmon-orange-red flowers. Similar, I recently spotted a most refreshing begonia specimen, a picture of simple beauty, with a waterfall of white blooms above angel wing foliage. It appears to be a cultivar of Begonia boliviensis, growing from a tuber which you remove and store in your garage each winter and then plant again the following spring.

What Makes a Plant Beautiful?  Planting Lots of It in One Spot

Another constituent element of botanical beauty has to do with mass appeal. I don’t mean appeal to the masses, but rather that massing of a plant makes it more beautiful than it might otherwise appear to be. An unimpeachable rule of landscape design is that repetition enhances visual experience. The greatest temptation when embarking on a planting project is to mix in a staggering number of different plants yet, when there are too many species to look at, the eye gets weary and cannot appreciate any one of them. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as with borders or beds of colorful annuals or perennials, when a so-called riot of color is the desired effect or when a single flower color, even if achieved with a large variety of species, is featured.

What do you do with rose hips? I never had them before and this year they are all over. When is the seed ripe? Are they plantable, edible?
Carole Stanzione, Santa Clarita

Rose hips are the fruit of rose bushes. The word hip, in this context, is derived from an Old English word specifically meant for the seed receptacle of wild roses. If the fruit reminds you of an apple or a quince, your eyes are not deceiving you since these other fruits are also members of the rose family. Rose hips are edible fresh or cooked and have a high concentration of vitamin C. However, rose hips you find in health food stores, that have been processed into tablet form, have lost much of their vitamin C and it is much more beneficial to consume the actual fruit from your roses. You only need to be cautious of the seeds inside, which are also edible, because they are hairy and could stick in your throat. Otherwise, hips and seeds can be made into soup, jam, wine and, most famously, tea. To brew the latter, steep a tablespoon of dried hips in a cup of boiling water.

Tip of the Week: As for growing roses from seed, you will want to harvest the hips just as they begin to wrinkle. If you allow them to completely dry out, the seeds may lose viability. To sprout rose seeds in a timely manner, you will need to employ stratification, which is exposure to cold and moisture. Following harvest, after making sure all of the surrounding hip or pulp has been removed, place seeds between moist paper towels or in a coffee can containing peat moss or vermiculite and transfer to your refrigerator. Check the seeds periodically for moistness and, if necessary, add water to surrounding medium. Seeds will take from four to sixteen weeks to germinate and, even then, less than half of them will sprout. Once you see roots begin to push their way through, you can plant the seeds in a fast draining soil mix in small two inch pots or plastic cells until they show several leaves, upon which you can transfer them to larger containers. Should you just put your rose seeds in the ground in regular garden soil, without stratification, they may still germinate, but you will wait up to three years for that to happen.

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