GARDENERS wind up with a good many "absolute favorite" plants and it's worth recalling, in our general woe, that whatever shortage there may be elsewhere there is no shortage of beautiful plants. No garden can manage a hundredth of them.
The gardener also generally accumulates a list of plants he has always longed for -- and might easily have had -- but never had the space or the right location for them.
I have already mentioned laburnums, small trees with blooms like yellow wisteria, and the sourwoods and persimmons.
Let's think of other wonders for small gardens, starting with the pink locust, Rrobinia hispida. This is a shrub or small narrow tree with the usual many-leaflet delicate foliage of locusts. In spring, about mid-May, it is hung with pink flowers like small clusters of wisteria. You could plant it in the sort of site you would give a lilac bush.
Its shade is so slight that other things will grow right up to it.Like all locusts, it can get various diseases and especially, borers that prove fatal. This may be a good place to say I consider it a national idiocy -- amounting to a prime sin -- to be preoccupied far more with diseases and bugs in the garden than with beautiful plants.
I have an especial distaste for writers who never tell you anything dandy to grow but who have, apparently, a whole powder house full of elixirs and poisons. Without them, you gather, the gardens would be a land of death within a month.
And yet, despite this unwholesome obsession of the ignorant, the shrub most commonly grown in American gardens is the hybrid tea rose, which is such a wretched weakling that it will indeed die without much bedside sitting. As garden plants go, the modern rose is a royal pain and I, at least, do not consider it worth growing.
The gall of the great rose-growing companies startles me every year, as they pour forth with new varieties that, like the old ones they were touting a generation ago, are subject to blackspot.
A gardener does not need new roses, he needs roses without blackspot. The plants themselves are graceless, even when sprayed and kept in good health, which is rarely.
To hear rose growers blasting forth, you would think their rose breeding is a triumph of art. On the contrary, they have managed to produce a flower of such prissiness and frailty that only the fanatic or masochistic gardener feels much like being around it.
The answer is not more spraying, the answer is better rose breeders than we have.
It's been aobut a year since I observed that the most triumphant of modern roses, 'Peace' and 'Tropicana,' are sufficiently vigorous to have attracted attention, though they both get blackspot, of course. 'Peace,' moreover, has no scent, and 'Tropicana' has a neon coloring (red with orange in it) better suited to a supermarket parking lot than to a garden.
Hybrid teas also -- and this is unforgiveable -- are easily killed by spring freezes. On the whole, the gardener need waste no thanks, and certainly no praise, on the breeders of roses.
So let us hear no more about borers in locusts. As long as people grow hydrid tea roses, every plant in the garden may be considered a miracle of health.
Beside the pink locust mentioned (and its variety, 'Monument'), there is a wild pink locust from the southern mountains, Robinia kelseyi. Its flowers, which come off and on for a number of weeks, are more madder colored than R. hispida, but its foliage is even more delicate, and it has the advantage of seed pods with crimson hairs, very pretty indeed when the afternoon sun shines on them. It usually grows about 6 or 7 feet high. Like the others, it suckers about.
The black locust, with hauntingly sweet-smelling flowers in May like white wisteria, is a forest tree. It too gets borers, and like all the other locusts it is brittle in storms. And like the others, it is superlatively beautiful. But hardly for small gardens.
The form called 'Frisia' has yellowish leaves. It is bright and beautiful, very much worth growing.
It grows to perhaps 30 feet or so -- smaller than the black locust -- and can be sawed on from time to time to keep it smaller, though I confess this is troublesome or expensive or both, and the result can be a atrifle grotesque. iStill, 'Frisia' is sufficiently distinct (like perpetual sunshine, its supporters always say) that a certain amount of commotion and subterfuge is reasonable.
The thorns, or horthorns, have a splendid assortment of diseases, including fire blight. But even small trees show something of the character of the oaks -- an air of permanence and strength and weight. No doubt the prince among thorns is the Washington thorn, which you see on M Street beside the National Georgraphic and on the south side of New Mexico just east of Nebraska Avenue.
Even in February their clusters of red berries hang undiscouraged by winter. I suspect that as the tree becomes more common in gardens, birds will increasingly learn to eat these berries. The white flowers are fresh, rather than showy, in late May. This thorn appears quite healthy. It is Crataegus phaenopyrum.
The wild thorn of England is C. monogyna, and the Glastonbury thorn at Washington Cathedral is a form of it. It blooms a bit in the fall and is not especially attractive, apart from the pretty nonsense that it sprouted from a staff carried by Joseph of Arimathea. pIf there had been one in my garden when I moved here, however, I probably would have sawed it down, since like oaks and apples it has a fine air of gnarled toughness about it, even when not gnarled and tough.
'Paul Scarlet' is a rosy-flowered (hardly crimson) garden variety of another European thorn, C. oxyacantha. Its flowers are double, it sets little fruit, and it is one of those plants admired alike by gardeners whose taste runs to marigolds and geraniums and by those who tend to faint once you get past silver and mauve.
If you plant this thorn, however, be prepared for a bit of leaf spit and dieback and death and so on. Sometimes all is well, but when you gamble, you gamble.
Other garden varieties of this thorn, like the single-flowered 'Crimson Cloud,' are said to be rather disease resistant and, moreover, to bear quite heavy crops of berries.
In side and character, at least, they are perfect for small gardens, running to 15 or 25 feet.
A tree, or quite large shrub, that has been shamefully neglected in American gardens is our wild native Virginia fringe (Chionanthus), which usually has several stems and which grows rather slowly to 30 feet. If I had it, I would expect it to be a shrub about 12 to 15 feet high. It leafs out in the late spring, an advantage where you like sun to come in the windows, and it blooms about the time the garden irises are winding up, in late May or early June.
The flowers are white or whitish, thin narrow straps in clusters. Books commonly say it has a light fragrance, but I think you will find it intense and relatively toxicating as I do. There is an Asian counterpart of this tree that, for once, is not as handsome as our native.
I once saw some fine specimens 4 or 5 feet high at a local garden center where -- shame, shame -- they were not moving very well, and I felt like walking up to a stranger and saying, "Sir, you are walking right by a plant that's better than anything you probably have in your garden." Just to make a point.
One must learn to shut up, of course. But not before saying a word for one of deciduous hollies, Ilex verticillata. Where I used to live there were other deciduous hollies of quite breathtaking splendor in the fall, but nobody paid any attention to them except flower arrangers who, in the case of those hollies, had sufficient eyes and brains to lust after them even if they were common.
But back to I. verticillata. It makes a shrub perhaps 12 feet high and 10 feet thick, with pretty ordinary leaves, so it is best to site it with better things nearby, like mahonias and evergreen hollies and so on. Then you forgive its plain leaves.
But in early fall, its stems are studded with gorgeous brilliant red berries all along their length. The leaves fall at frost. In some individuals they turn yellow before falling, but usually they just go rather sadly and without fanfare, and it's then that the berries show up best.
It's good to give this shrub a background of dark evergreens, and to site it so you see the sun shining on it, not through it. On a cold day, with a bit of snow, this bare holly crowded with bright red fruit against old junipers or sweet olives or cypresses, etc., is more than recompense for many disappointments.
There are some named varieties (for this deciduous holly varies a bit in foliage, persistence of berry and so forth) I have notices in Carroll Gardens and Wayside Gardens catalogues, and these have been selected to avoid as many faults as possible. In the wild, for example, some individuals have fruit that drops or is blackened by mid-December, and these garden forms are said to stay bright and handsome into February.
I don't suppose your patience will let me break the promise to stop, so I shall say nothing of Viburnum dilatatum except that it grows to 12 feet, is a born aristocrat and is loaded with sheaves of red berries.
So often when we ask for a small tree, what we really want is a 12-foot shrub like the deciduous holly or this viburnum. Let me say finally that my own V. wrightii, which is never more than a plump shrum, has red berries that start shriveling in January, a time the mockingbirds decide they are worth eating, after all.
The mockingbirds have learned balancing acts on the slender twigs that have berries, and they bob up and down, a thing these fierce and stately flows rarely indulge in. It may be the berries ferment, yet the birds get home.