Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
It’s time for another exciting edition of Three Neat Plants (not to be confused with the three “desert island” plants I blogged about over at Gardening Gone Wild a few days ago). Here at Hayefield, Neat Plants don’t need to be pretty, practical, multi-seasonal, or in any other way especially gardenworthy; they just have to be interesting. It so happens, though, that all three of today’s picks are good-looking as well as out of the ordinary.
First up is a variation of an old-fashioned annual known commonly as shoo-fly plant or apple-of-Peru and botanically as Nicandra physalodes. (I wish someone could explain why its specific epithet is spelled physalodes and not physaloides. I have to look up the spelling every time to make sure I get the right one. I should just remember it’s the one that isn’t logical.) Anyway, the species itself is a very pretty thing, with white-centered lavender-blue blooms starting in mid- or late summer and continuing into fall. The plants are sturdy and handsome, starting with one main stem and branching out toward the top. They usually reach 3 to 4 feet tall for me, though I’ve read that they can get up to 6 feet in some areas.
While new flowers are still forming toward the shoot tips, the oldest mature into dry, seed-filled berries enclosed in a papery husk. These enclosed fruits look much like those of ground cherries, cape gooseberries, Chinese lanterns, and other species of Physalis: hence the epithet that should be physaloides (Physalis-like). Left in the garden after frost, the dried, lantern-clad stems hold up through most of the winter, extending their season of interest far beyond that of most annuals.
The selection ‘Splash of Cream’ offers yet another ornamental feature: creamy yellow markings on its foliage. And like the species, it too tends to develop deep purple-black markings on its stems as the growing season goes on.
‘Splash of Cream’ comes mostly true from seed, and it’s as easy to grow as the ordinary shoo-fly plant. I start it indoors in late March; with bottom heat, the seedlings are usually up in a week or so. After a few more weeks, I transplant them to individual pots, then move them to a sunny spot in garden around the third week of May, once all chance of frost is gone. After that, they’re on their own; no special care required. In fact, they don’t really even need to be started indoors, because they will self-sow a bit. But I don’t mind the extra step, because I like to give them a jump-start on the growing season and enjoy their flowers sooner. You can find seed of ‘Splash of Cream’ through several on-line sources, including Thompson & Morgan, JL Hudson, and The Fragrant Path.
If I have one quibble with ‘Splash of Cream’, it’s that the foliage markings can look a bit like spider-mite damage. That’s definitely not an issue with my next pick: golden wafer ash or hop-tree (Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’). Its foliage is completely and emphatically bright yellow, starting from the time it germinates. (Yes, this beauty appears to come entirely true from seed!) The oldest leaves do turn green as they age, but that’s fine, because plenty of bright new growth keeps appearing through the growing season. Wafer ash is deciduous but seems to hang onto its leaves long after most others have dropped theirs – sometimes even into early December.
This eastern native is apparently adaptable to growing conditions just about anywhere in the U.S. It’s normally an understory tree, but mine’s in full sun, which could be why its color is so bright. I won’t go into more detail about growing it, because I can refer you to this excellent fact sheet on the species: Ptelea trifoliata; it applies equally well to the gold-leaved form. The one thing I can add is that golden wafer ash seems to work well as a cut-back shrub too. The deer ate the top out of mine and rubbed a good bit of the rest for the last two winters, so it has gotten more bushy than upright, and the new growth is quite vigorous. I’m working up the nerve to cut it back deliberately this spring and see what happens. I figure I’ll leave it a 2-foot framework: a little more than I usually leave for smokebush (Cotinus) and a little less than I do for golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’).
One more neat thing about the golden wafer ash is that it seems to start flowering when remarkably young. I think mine was just four or so when it first bloomed. It’s not especially showy in summer flower, but the fragrance is nice…
…and the clusters of flattened seedpods are kind of cool.
So far I haven’t found any U.S. sources for the plants, but seed is usually available through the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s Seed Exchange. Or, check with me toward the end of 2009 to see if I have any seeds to share.
Thinking back to Shirl’s recent Desert Island Plant Challenge, I’m prepared to cheat and slip one more thing into my suitcase: a packet of mixed Solanum seed. Besides eggplants and other edibles, there are so many eccentric ornamentals in this genus that I’d be sure to get some wicked cool plants. One intriguing species I tried for the first time this past summer caught my eye in last year’s Seed Savers Exchange catalog: Solanum mammosum. I started the seed as for the shoo-fly plant above, ending up with sturdy-stemmed plants clad in broad, velvety green leaves. The foliage interest was nice enough…
…and the purple flowers were okay.
But what I really wanted to see was what the catalog picture had shown: the bright yellow fruits. Sadly, all I got were green ones, because they didn’t have time to ripen before frost. Next year, I’m starting the seed a lot earlier! Still, the oddly shaped fruits were interesting even when unripe.
This strange-looking solanum goes by a number of equally bizarre common names, including nipple fruit, titty fruit, mackaw bush, apple of Sodom, and cow’s udder. I’m inclined to stick with the last one if I have to use a common name at all. But I’ll offer one of my own: horsey face. ‘Cause come on, can’t you see it?
S. mammosum isn’t edible, but the fruit-laden stems are supposed to be great in cut-flower arrangements, as well as in the garden. Seed Savers doesn’t seem to have it on their web site at the moment, but it is listed in their 2009 catalog as code number 1400. Other seed sources include Baker Creek and Reimer Seeds.