Misspelled words are usually either annoying or embarrassing, depending on whether you’re reading them or creating them. But every once in a while, they inspire a whole new line of thought. When I recently ran across “necrofilia” (never mind where, but really, it was nothing horrible), I read it as “necrofolia,” and suddenly, there was the perfect term for an entire horticultural subculture.
The most obvious application of “necrofolia” is for the obsession with plants that look really good when they’re dead. (Ok, technically that would be “necrofoliaphilia,” but that’s a bit much to say and even harder to type.) Before I found Piet Oudolf’s books, it never occurred to me that there could be anything good about dead plants: that they were anything more than something to remove as soon as possible.
Suddenly, holding off on fall garden cleanup was more than just laziness: it was a conscious decision to leave the bleached and browned and blackened skeletons in place until spring.
With their wide variety of post-mortem forms and colors, perennial grasses are great starter plants for budding necrofoliacs. I’m especially fond of fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), such as the ‘Cassian’ clumps in the foreground above and below, for its practically indestructible winter tuftage and the way its seedheads catch the snow.
The warm brown winter color of dead frost grass (Spodiopogon sibiricus) [middle right, above] makes a great backdrop to the blond locks of dried fountain grass as well as the black stems and seedheads of orange and purple coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida and Echinacea purpurea).
Each of the many switch grass (Panicum virgatum) selections has its own charms, but ‘Dallas Blues’ [above] has to be one of the most appealing after death, with the rich orangey brown color of its broad leaf blades and its feathery, tiered tops.
Another winner in the “Life after Death” category is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), whether its in the coppery pink color of ‘The Blues’ [above] or the rusty orange of the straight species [below].
Even definitely deceased turf grasses can look kind of charming, in the right context.
Grasses aren’t the only plants that continue to look good even when their leaves are long dead, of course. Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) gets a lot of attention for its spring flowers and fall color, but it can look nice well into winter if the weather isn’t too rough.
Trees that hang onto their lifeless leaves, including some hornbeams (Carpinus), beeches (Fagus), and oaks (Quercus)—such as daimyo or Japanese emperor oak (Q. dentata) [below]—are equally worthy of being adored by necrofoliacs.
Once you start seeing beauty where others see decay, you may find that even long-gone annuals can have some appeal.
Some gardeners merely dabble in necrofolia during the winter months, while others go all out, becoming abnormally fascinated with collecting and growing plants that look dead even at the height of the growing season. You’re practically guaranteed to find at least one New Zealand sedge (Carex) in the true necrofoliac’s garden…
…such as C. flagellifera ‘Toffee Twist’ [above, with Veronica prostrata ‘Aztec Gold’] or C. tenuiculmis ‘Cappuccino’ [below].
If you have no interest in necrofolia yourself, you’ll probably want to stay well clear of other gardeners with necrofoliac tendencies. Imagine the mortification of being seen with someone who’s deliberately picking out and cooing over pots of dead-looking leaves while shopping at your favorite local nursery! There are more yes-they’re-supposed-to-be-brown plants than you might imagine.
A few of my personal favorites include the bronzy sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas), such as ‘Sweet Georgia Bronze’ [above, with ‘Jade Princess’ millet (Pennisetum glaucum)] and ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ [below; note the near-perfect color echo with the dead flowerheads of the spirea]…
…orangey brown heucheras (Heuchera villosa), such as ‘Caramel’ [above] and ‘Southern Comfort’ [below]…
…‘Wellington Bronze’ toatoa or erect seaberry (Haloragis erecta) [above] and ‘Chocolate Ball’ sedum (Sedum hakonense) [below]…
… xGraptosedum ‘Bronze’ [above, with Echeveria glauca and Veronica prostrata ‘Aztec Gold’], and ‘Espresso’ wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) [below]…
…and Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) [in mid-July above and early August below], which, when in seed, looks for all the world like a winter-bleached grass plunked down in the middle of a summer-green garden.
If you tend to forget to water your container plants, you could put a bunch of these brown plants together and maybe no one would notice whether they were dead or alive. Below is leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii) with ‘Wellington Bronze’ toatoa and ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ sweet potato vine.
You wouldn’t necessarily want a whole garden of dead-looking plants—in the summer, anyway—because you really need some green for contrast to enjoy the shock value of seemingly bereft-of-life leaves. Plus, spending too much time puttering around in an apparently lifeless garden might make people think you need serious help for your out-of-control necrofolia—and that gives a whole new meaning to “horticultural therapy.”