This quote has been swirling through my head lately, especially when I encounter advertisements for the latest hyper-hybrid, monster-blooming shrub or perennial. The Proven Winners plants, for example, have become the Barry Bonds of nursery plants. Or what’s worse, now we have celebrity gardeners like P. Allen Smith’s who have trademarked their own laboratory-bred Platinum Collection plants. The American horticultural industry seems bent on producing engineered plants that bloom eternally. Mophead hydrangeas no longer mark the beginning of summer, thanks to the Endless Summer Hydrangeas (trademark). Encore Azaleas promise blooms spring, summer, and fall. What does a fall blooming azalea mean, anyways?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with loving big flowers. Just this week, I passed a neighbor’s peony border with softball-sized magenta blooms. It was glorious. But a garden with nothing but genetically-engineered super-bloomers is a like inviting only models to a dinner party. When prettiness trumps character, we all lose.
Solanum quitoense in a mixed border [image from Landcraft Environments LTD]
What’s more, the ethnobotanically complex nightshade family includes two of the world’s most popular vegetables: potatoes and tomatoes. Those two plants alone shape the history and cuisines of many of the world’s cultures. Nightshades also include egglplants, peppers, tobacco, and many berries. However, the tomato wasn’t always universally beloved. It was the tomato’s resemblance to the deadly nightshade plant (Solanum nigra) that slowed its acceptance in Europe.
Pepino, Solanum muricatum [Image from B&T World Seeds]
Nightshades are a reminder that there once was a time when plants could strike fear in the human heart. This year, I passed on the goopy Endless Summer Hydrangea and instead planted a nasty looking Naranjilla. It’s massive leaves studded with purple spikes greet me each morning, a reminder that out of fear and understanding, comes respect.
Want seeds of some of the plants mentioned?
Baker Creek Heirloom