NEWBERG, Oregon — This year I was invited to speak at Portland’s second annual Plant Nerd Night. I’m not sure whether it was my insatiable habit of plant collecting or the disarray in my general demeanor that prompted my being chosen as a plant nerd, but I was happy to comply. (I don’t get out of the garden much!) Since it was a formal affair, I thought I would wear my bluest jeans and my cleanest flannel shirt — or at least one that didn’t have plant labels stuck in the pocket or handprints where I cleaned my hands on the back. I was given exactly 12 minutes to publicly address my herb nerdiness. I had to choose wisely and talk about what was available locally, as there is nothing more frustrating than seeing a cool plant that exists on the other side of the world and is virtually unattainable. I also had to consider the psychological makeup of the audience. I mean, who would attend Plant Nerd Night if they were not at least somewhat weird or twisted?
So, I chose mostly lavender cultivars that were locally introduced or had just become commercially available. These included the “weird,” Lavandula stoechas ‘Ivory Crown’ with its dark-purple flowers and contrasting cream-colored bracts. For the “twisted,” I suggested L. s. ‘Curly Top’ with its distinctive curled or twisted bracts. And, last but not least, I chose a recent lavandin (L. ¥intermedia — lavandins are sterile hybrids of L. angustifolia and the tender spike lavender, L. spica) cultivar from France under the name of L. ¥‘Gros Bleu’. (There is some question as to whether this is the correct cultivar name, but for now this is how it’s being distributed.) Regardless, this cultivar has terrific, big, blue flower heads. I have trialed ‘Gros Bleu’ for the last two years and it is superior to ‘Grosso’ in its flower color and greater length of flower head. It dries extremely well and is more attractive than ‘Grosso’ in the dried state, for it retains its color nicely. I don’t know anything of its oil quality, but as an ornamental, it has great merit in the garden — especially with its heavy floral bloom and good, strong re-bloom. I also mentioned a new pink-flowered cultivar recently introduced by Goodwin Creek Gardens, L. angustifolia ‘Chelsea Pink’. This was selected from L. ‘Hidcote Pink’ seedlings for its deeper pink color as the corollas aged.
The local plant rage among us nerds seems to be foliage plants with unusual bold colors such as deep-burgundy and virtually black foliage. I am happy to say herbs in vivid colors have their champions as well. My most recently acquired take-your-breath-away herb is a Korean cousin of our indigenous mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. This Korean counterpart, P. ‘Kaleidoscope’ has a massive hexagonal leaf (up to 18 inches across) with striking contrasts of concentric silver and deep-maroon bands. I had expected the flowers to be white like our North American natives and was overwhelmed by its deep, blood-red flowers, each nearly 2 inches long. Although this Korean mayapple is quite striking, it is just as poisonous as its cousins. If you like black foliage, try Actaea simplex ‘Black Negligee’ (formerly called Cimicifuga simplex), which is our local improvement over the much-sought-after bugbanes, A. ‘Brunette’ and A. ‘Hillside Beauty’.
Another cultivar improvement is Polemonium caeruleum ‘Snow and Sapphires’, which has better flowers and a stronger growth habit than P. ‘Brise D’Anjou’. This Jacob’s-ladder has strong, clean, white variegation and looks great in a shady area with lungworts. It will brighten the darkest spot in a shady garden.
My last recommendation is Zingiber ‘Midnight’ (ginger family) with unusual chestnut-brown foliage. If it ever flowers for me, the flowers will be at ground level from the base of the crown. I keep it year-round in my greenhouse as it seems to enjoy the heat and humidity there. Its species name has yet to be identified, but if it turns out to be a Japanese ginger (Z. mioga), then I will try it outside.
Gardening is always about trial and error, and I often try new plants. Right now I’m curious about a new cultivar, Salvia lyrata ‘Burgundy Bliss’ with burgundy-colored leaves. The species is quite a self-seeder, so if this cultivar breeds true to color, I may find myself in a sea of purple.
Andrew Van Hevelingen is a professional herb grower and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. He enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.