Last month, I started the “Don’t Be Ordinary” series to explore the many excellent reasons to consider growing from seed. This time, let’s look at one of the most tempting, for many of us: the opportunity to grow truly uncommon plants that we can’t easily buy (or sometimes, even buy at all) as plants.
You’ve probably heard it said that there’s a good reason common plants are common: they are easy to find and easy to grow, thriving in a wide range of conditions with minimal care. Though uncommon plants are hard are find, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are hard to grow, or that they are merely botanical curiosities with little garden value; it may just indicate that few gardeners have had the opportunity to give them a try. I’ve had good luck with all eight of these oddities in my Zone 6/7 Pennsylvania garden, most of them for several to many years, without providing any particular soil preparation or specialized care. And, it just so happens that I have seeds of all of these in my Hayefield shop, so if any of them strike your fancy, you have a chance to grow them for yourself. Some are also available from other sources, which you can investigate through an online search.
A Dainty Daisy
Pink hawksbeard (Crepis rubra) is a charming addition to the cool-season garden. Its layered, pink-petaled blooms appear mainly in late spring to early or midsummer atop stems that typically reach about 1 foot tall, over a low rosette of slender, green leaves.
This Mediterranean native is reportedly right at home in poor, dry soil, but it also performs well for me in well-prepared, evenly moist garden soil. It grows in full sun to light shade. Pink hawksbeard is usually grown as an annual, though it can apparently act as a perennial in certain conditions. I’ve had the occasional plant overwinter when it has self-sown into gravel.
Pink hawksbeard plants are rather delicate when young and seem to dislike being disturbed, so it’s usually advised to sow the seeds directly where you’d like them to grow, spaced a few inches apart and just barely covered with soil. (Keep the area moist until seedlings appear, which can take a few weeks.)
I have also had luck starting pink hawksbeard indoors in early to mid-spring, under lights, sowing 3 to 5 seeds in a 4-inch pot of moist growing medium and then transplanting the seedlings in those groups as soon as danger of frost has passed, taking care to disturb the roots as little as possible. That approach worked well for me, as it gave the plants a head start and allowed them to make a nice show before summer heat arrived.
An Elegant Perennial
Seldom seen in gardens, but certainly garden-worthy, branched St Bernard’s lily (Anthericum ramosum) produces clumps of slender green leaves that send up sparsely branched, 24- to 30-inch-tall stems.
This pretty perennial is a quietly charming thing for a special spot where you can appreciate it at fairly close range, in full sun to light shade. It is generally hardy in Zones 5 to 8.
The easiest approach to starting branched St Bernard’s lily is to sow the seeds in fall to late winter, setting them outdoors in a spot protected from mice so they can get a chilling period and then germinate when conditions are right in spring.
If you sow after February, set the pot in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for about a month before moving it to a cool, bright place for germination. (Remove the bag if the pot will be exposed to any direct sun.) The seeds generally sprout best in cool conditions (50 to 60F), so don’t give them supplemental heat.
A Fun Faux Nettle
Here’s something that’s pretty sure to stump garden visitors!
The story behind the seeds: I bought seeds labeled as Boehmeria tricuspis and grew them out in 2018. The photograph above shows how they turned out–with mostly unlobed leaves on the stems and looking a bit more like plants identified as Boehmeria tricuspis var. unicuspis, which is apparently synonymous with B. spicata, and matching some, but not all, of the photos associated with those names. I do trust the original source, however, so I am calling these plants Boehmeria tricuspis.
My plants have performed well in light, all-day shade (light filtered through an overhanging rose cane) and evenly moist soil. I’ve seen references give the hardiness zone range as 4 to 9, but I don’t know about that for sure; I do know that plants have survived a half-dozen winters unprotected in my Pennsylvania (Zone 6/7) garden.
I started my original plants indoors from surface-sown seed, under lights and on a heat mat, in early spring, then set out the seedlings after the last frost date. You may have success with other approaches, if you want to experiment.
An August-Blooming Bulb
Japanese jacinth (Barnardia japonica; also known as Barnardia scilloides and Scilla scilloides) belongs to that special group of bulbs that bloom in late summer, like surprise lilies (Lycoris squamigera).
Japanese jacinth performs well in full sun to light shade. Reportedly cold-hardy to at least Zones 6, it may tolerate colder areas but hasn’t been widely grown yet, so there isn’t much data on its performance in those areas.
There isn’t a great deal of information about germinating Japanese jacinth, but I’ve had good results by sowing 1/4 inch deep in fall to early winter and setting the pot outside, in a spot protected from mice, to germinate when conditions were right in spring. I planted the whole pot of seedlings into a holding bed and left them there for a couple of years before moving them to the garden.
I’ve also had luck with germination in warm conditions. Seeds that I sowed on March 12, 2021, germinated starting on April 1. I leave it to you to decide which route you want to try.
Don’t Be Fooled
False hemp (Datisca cannabina), also known as bastard hemp, Cretan hemp, or acalbir, looks very much like a shrub in size and form, or like some exotic tender perennial in bloom, but it is a hardy garden perennial.
False hemp thrives in full sun but takes light shade too. You can cut the stems close to the ground in late fall or early spring. They’re much tougher than those of most herbaceous perennials, though, so you’ll probably need loppers rather than handheld pruners. This superbly cool plant is reportedly hardy in Zones 4 to 8.
The seeds of this substantial perennial are surprisingly tiny–practically dust-like, in fact–and germination is irregular, meaning that seedlings in one pot can appear over a period of months from a spring or summer sowing. Still, you probably don’t need many of them unless you have a gigantic garden, so you could separate the seedlings as soon as there are as many as you need and move them to individual pots or a holding bed to grow on.
Surface-sow (do not cover) the tiny seeds as evenly as possible over growing medium, gently press them into the surface, and keep them moist in a warm, bright place for germination. If no seedlings appear after a month or so of warmth, you could wait longer or consider placing the pot in a plastic bag and refrigerating it for about a month before moving it back to warmth and light. I occasionally find seedlings of this plant in my garden, so it’s possible for them to self-sow in less than ideal conditions. But in general, I advise giving the tiny seeds close attention and good care so they don’t dry out or get washed away by careless watering or heavy rain.
A Lacy Look-Alike
Resembling a fancy Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in leaf and a Russian sage (Perovskia) in bloom, cut-leaved chaste tree (Vitex negundo ‘Heterophylla’) is a deciduous shrub or small tree with a beauty all of its own.
Cut-leaved chaste tree grows in full sun or light shade and is reportedly hardy in Zones 6 to 10.
The easiest approach to growing cut-leaved chaste tree from seeds is to sow about 1/4″ deep in fall to early winter, setting them outdoors in a spot protected from mice so they can get a chilling period and then germinate when conditions are right in spring.
If you sow after December, set the pot in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for about 3 months before moving it to a warm, bright place for germination. (Remove the bag if the pot will be exposed to any direct sun.)
It is also possible that these seeds could germinate if you start them in warm, moist, bright conditions. But if you try that and no seedlings appear within 3 weeks or so, then try the refrigerator-chilling approach above before moving them back to warmth and light.
A Tough Little Tree
Growing trees from seed is admittedly a test of faith, as it can take them many years to mature and develop their best features. But if you have the patience, it’s a good way–sometimes the only way–to get your hands on something really special, like Amur maackia (Maackia amurensis).
This very uncommon but easy to grow tree is reported to be very adaptable, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions in Zones 3 or 4 to 7 or 8.
One approach to starting Amur maackia is to sow the seeds about 1/4″ deep in fall or winter, setting them outdoors in a spot protected from mice so they can germinate when conditions are right.
It is also possible that these seeds could germinate if you start them in warm, moist conditions, particularly if you carefully nick the seedcoats, pour hot water over the seeds, and let them soak for about 24 hours before sowing.
For Something Completely Different
This deciduous shrub is so uncommon in gardens that it doesn’t really have an English common name, apart from “fountain hardhack,” which is used by a few references. It does have a variety of botanical names, though, including Flueggea suffruticosa, Securinega suffruticosa, and Securinega ramiflora, among others.
If you enjoy growing rare and quirky plants, reading this article by Gary Koller may influence you in favor of Flueggea suffruticosa, as it did me: A Habit to Cultivate.
There is little information about the hardiness range of Flueggea suffruticosa in North America, but it has been fully hardy in my Zone 6/7, southeastern Pennsylvania garden.
The easiest approach to starting Flueggea suffruticosa is to sow the seeds (just barely covered with growing medium) in fall to late winter, setting their pot outdoors in a spot protected from mice so they can get a chilling period and then germinate when conditions are right in spring.
If you sow after February, set the pot in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for about 3 months before moving it to a warm, bright place for germination. (Remove the bag if the pot will be exposed to any direct sun.)
Some of the resulting plants will be male and some will be female, but you won’t be able to tell them apart until they reach flowering size (it took mine to the fourth year for all to flower). If you don’t care about getting seed, then it doesn’t matter whether you have males or females. If you want to be able to collect seed, I suggest growing out the seedlings in a holding area until you can tell them apart, then keep at least one male and one female. (When I moved my seedlings to my garden, I planted a male-female pair in the same hole to save space, and that has worked out well for me.)
Oh, there are so many more neat plants I could tell you about, but this is probably enough to get excited about for now. I plan to be back next month with another batch of botanical gems worth growing from seed. In the meantime, I’d better return to getting the rest of this year’s harvest cleaned and packed. Thanks so much for reading!