21 Aug

Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but in my limited experience of seeing noteworthy gardens I can’t help but notice that what for one person is common is rare for another person. It’s a habit i’ve developed as a gardener. Now, perversity is the one thing that motivates me to garden. Sometimes that happens with colour. For instance, it’s been rewarding to set powder blue against apple green this year. Two years ago it was magenta and bright orange. But mostly, the plants speak for themselves rather than in combination, or at least I hope so: I like to have big characters in the garden. So it comes down to plant choices and the thing that motivates this habit is the thrill of being away from home and recognising what are rarities to me back at home. Hackney holds a rash of neglected Loquat trees. Seaside resorts the country over offer big old phormiums and multi-trunked cordylines, unscathed by the harsh recent winters that all but killed local examples. And in Cornwall – whisper it – they have echiums. Echiums that FLOWER.

Now admittedly I am not the most gregarious of gardeners. I do not visit open gardens, nor am I a member of any societies. Not even the RHS. This is not strict policy: life is simply too short. I am married with two young children, I am an avid reader, I love music, cycling, swimming outdoors, wild camping etc etc. The garden is something that is always there for me. I do not think I go out of my way for it. My experience of what is popular is limited to my experience of what I see for sale and looking at people’s front gardens. And my experience of such things tells me that no-one in the entire history of the town in which I live is even slightly interested in growing tetrapanax papyrifer, the toast of the exotic gardening community.

still a baby – one of my two tetrapanax papyrifer

Let’s talk about tetrapanax. Reference to this plant’s wikipedia page barely scratches the surface of my lust for a piece of this plant’s glory, so I feel compelled to flesh the story out a bit. When I first felt that I had figured out what I wanted to grow, this plant was on the list. It stayed on that list, unfulfilled, for a number of years until I finally got hold of a live one last year.

Up until then I had seen them advertised online. I even ordered one. The one that Amulree Exotics sent me was dead. It matched the dead hedychium garderianum they sent with it. They swopped them for me, but I chose five h. forrestii instead, perhaps hedging my bets. The other two tetrapanax i’ve seen were at, respectively, a nursery and private garden, both in Cumbria. Neither for sale. The one in the private garden made me wonder why they bothered growing anything else. I would leave my life behind me to step into a tetrapanax forest. Finally, a nurseryman gave me a knackered looking one for nothing. It is now way more impressive looking than the one I had paid Hardy Exotics £20 for (plus postage) a few months earlier.

So you might excuse me for concluding that this is a rare plant. But there’s the rub: it isn’t rare. It’s a trope. A cliché. A symbol for all that is “exotic gardening”. Maybe that sounds oxymoronic, that notion of a common exotic. [DISCLAIMER: Well it isn’t the most common “exotic”; that honour belongs to trachycarpus fortunei. Or maybe cordyline, or phormium, or yucca. It’s a good job tetrapanax isn’t hardier than it is, otherwise, it would doubtless suffer the same indignity as many a trachycarpus, marooned in someone’s front lawn, looking like the butt of a cruel joke.] But it certainly epitomises a certain style of gardening.

I suppose lots of plants could be said to epitomise a particular style of gardening, but it doesn’t mean that they are popular. Take grasses for instance. To read the gardening press, you’d think that Piet Oudolf was popular, or used to be, but he isn’t and he wasn’t. Most people who garden have an approach to gardening that is infantile. Their capacity for flair and creative imagination ranges from turgid to non-existent. Which makes it all the easier for me.


6 Responses to “Common/Rare”

  1. Loree / Danger garden August 22, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    I love this post! (Echiums that bloom!) and I’m so glad you got your Tetrapanax. Are they planted where others can see them? You might just start a revolution…

    • thechthonianlife August 22, 2012 at 8:24 am #

      Thanks! Glad someone appreciates my histrionics. I don’t know about the R word though. I like to keep “desirable” and “likely” separate, otherwise it ends in tears. Mind you, others’ gardens are not as uniformly boring as I make out. One garden on our road sports a sprawling great osmunda regalis, which seems a choice selection. Another has a couple of small (likely to stay that way seeing as they are in deep shade) trachycarpus mingled with ferns, which i’m fond of seeing.

      Tetrapanax, well, they’re away from general view for the time being, while I decide what to do with them.I’m pretty public-spirited with my front garden though. I really went for it last year.

  2. Outlaw Gardener August 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    Careful of what you wish for. Tetrapanax can form quite a forest! I love that plant.

    • thechthonianlife August 26, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      Hi, i’ll see what happens with these plants I have here. They’ll be kept free from frost this winter to give them the best headstart, then i’ll plant them out come spring. Those big leaves seem to get through plenty of water, seems like this is one of those plants that doesn’t enjoy being in a pot for longer than necessary.
      Thanks for adding me to your blog roll there, i’m in good company.

  3. Nat September 20, 2012 at 6:56 am #

    Great food for thought! I’ve often pondered the same thing and laughed at myself for being so obsessed with seeking out plants for this reason or that. A cactus in a window sill could have a great importance to a guy in Canada but people in Arizona barely notice the giants outside. Castor beans grow in the ditch in the south, but up here their more of a novelty. Regardless of Tetrapanax’s “common” rarity, they’re still difficult to come by, I don’t see many. I’ve got two at the moment, trying to collect more, as I too dream of a tetrapanax forest. There would be nothing more impressive.

    • thechthonianlife September 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks Nat. It’s all about getting that “WTF is that?” reaction. By the way, that cardiocrinum you’ve had flowering this year, do you mind me asking how long have you had it? I hear they take a long time to flower, and i’ve only seen small plants for sale.


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