SOME GARDENERS like tropical luxuriance and some do not, and I am in no position to argue my passion for jungles.
We do not live in the tropics (a thing not necessary to announce in a Washington February, perhaps), and a sound argument can be made that it's esthetically silly to desire tropical touches to a temperate-zone garden.
All the same, if somebody showed me a plant with leaves 25 feet in diameter, I'd probably tear down the garage to accommodate it.
There are prim gardens and they are very nice, but I would not want one. I remember at Versailles, the garden of Louis XIV, wondering how anybody could spend so much money and construct canals on so large a scale and sparse and stingy look.
Probably if you grow up in the Artic Circle or Bangor, you learn to admire a hunk of granite and some nice lichens.
If your country is the Mississippi Valley, on the other hand, you think there should be vines in the trees, alligators in the pond and night jasmines around the horse trough (or "stock watering tank" as they call horse troughs up here).
Well, I have given up thinking of coral vines, fat gardenia bushes and much else, but I have not given up the notion that a garden should have a lot of leaves in it, preferably hanging from the air and preferably large or astonishing in texture.
I have always had trouble with docks, among the weeds, because I can never quite pull them up all the way. They are handsome, and one can easily imagine them on the Equator -- and first thing you know, you have a lot of them to dig out.
My summer house, if that is not too grand a name for four small wood posts and some one-inch trellis, is fairly embowered from the hot western sun by a grape vine and two clematis plants. The floor is brick, and around the perimeter are dracaenas and so on, sitting out in their pots for summer.
The pool beyond is raised 24 inches above the ground level.
It is silly (though gardeners will understand it) to think how many years I spend deciding what kind of tiles to face the outside concrete with. And, of course, there was the grave matter what to plant around it.
The creeping fig is not properly hardy here, so of course that was the first choice. Nothing else has such small neat leaves or hangs so close to masonry. It has survived three winters, and every summer I persuade myself it is gaining a little strength.
But there is also a yellow-leaf ivy called 'Buttercup' that is utterly hardy, so that one of these outrageous winters won't completely break my heart. h
From my fortress, under the tangle of common almond-scented clematis, I can see not only the pool (the creeping fig is not yet big enough to show up, to my annoyance) but some of my favorite plans.
There is the great Japenese butterburr, which at the moment is sulking in an oak whiskey barrel, for it really is not safe to let loose.
Its leaves, with me (and in its somewhat cramped confinement), are no more than 18 inches in diameter. On hot days they wilt and you have to flood it, and by twilight it revives. Not a plant for everybody, of course, which is why it is rare.
There is also the ligularia called 'Desdomona," with waxy circular leaves of dark green, purplish beneath, and acrylic-yellow daisy flowers. The leaves reach about eight or 10 inches across. They too wilt if it's dry.
The great reed or ditch grass, Arundo donax, looks much like field corn, except it is more graceful and reaches 12 feet in height.
Daylilies would pay for their space even if they never bloomed, because of the beauty of their bright green leaves in April. They shade out weeks, to a considerable extent, and are handy to stick in between large-leaf plants; since daylilies are almost endlessly accommodating.
I like that old herb, the lovage, which grown to the height of a man once it settles in, and its sheaf of celery-type foliage is agreeable.
It may be too wet for fennel. It never self-sows and the brone-leaf form (like should-high feathery clumps of mist) have always sulked.
The cannas are to me marvelous plants, though like anything else they can stand a little judgment int their sitting. The one I like best is supposed to be (according to the label on the seeds I got) Canna warscewisczii, which has gracefully curved leaves and very small scarlet flowers. It is very similar to cannas you see growing wild in the South, which I have always suspected were merely seedlings of garden varieties like "The President." That garden sort is the "best" since it starts blooing while small, never gets too tall and has a fine clear cherry red flower, etc., etc.
But it has never suited my purposes. It is too lumpy and dowdy. Also, although I do not mind orchids being blatant, I think cannas should be more cautious, else the result is not rich and opulent but merely assertively loud.
Needless to say, 'The President" can be gorgeous in some settings, but for me the wild one I mentioned and the wild Canna indica seem better.
It is asking entirely too much, however, for a gardener to give up such cannas as 'Roi Humbert' and 'Wyoming' with their purplish-red-bronze leaves. They are even more startling than the green-leaf cannas, and even more open to the charge of undue flashiness, no doubt. But I see I am their defender on all occasions.
The wild American rudbeckia, R. mxima, is a plant I would never willing be without. Possibly because it is wild, it is ignored. Its flower stems reach nine feet, but the great thing is the leaf, which is as blue and claucous as a cabbage, and fleshy like one, too, and the leaves grow to 18 inches long when well fed in a very sunny moisture-holding soil. They make big fat clumps, not quite rosettes, a yard wide. I know of no source for this wonderful plant except to roam about the South and to dig it up somewhere.
All other rudbeckias, including 'Goldsturm' are, of course, merely weeds, as far as I can see, though they probably do very well for those who like them. So, for that matter, does goldenrod.
My crinums have been a terrible disappointment.
That is because the crinums I bought at a local garden center, as dormant bulbs, were not crinums at all. Sometimes I marvel at the gall of those who not only mislable daffodil bulbs left and right but who sell ismenes for crinums.
Some day, God willing, I will make an enormous effort (which is what it takes these days to acquire almost any plant except marigolds) to acquire some of the crinums I used to grow. Their long amaryllis-like leaves make clumps often four feet in diameter, and nothing so firmly announces the coming of settled warm weather as those big stalks of lilies, some of which have a foul smell and some of which are intensely sweet.
I have little hope for the gunnera now sitting in a pot. It should be hardy in Washington if given a little mulch in winter. It likes full sun, endless water and plenty of rotted manure, in response to which it can produce leaves 10 feet in diamater, though I would settle for leaves four or five feet across.
The ordinary cooking rhubarbs are handsomer is Rheum palmatum from Asia, a wild fellow that reaches seven feet.
The individual leaves are no larger than washtubs.
Again, it is rare because nobody wants it and becuase nurserymen do not like to give it space, I suppose, and also because the general level of interest in magnificent wild plants is slight.
You go through hell to import a plant from abroad (my rheum came from England) -- and if it every grows I'll try to spread it around.
Other things with tropical leaves that please me are my grape vines, the white-striped Chinese miscanthus (a grass) that grows 10 feet high, the blue-leaf hostas, the plume poppy with leave 10 inches or a foot wide, like giant aces of clubs, and yuccas. All these are of course totally hardy and need no protection whatever.
But I know they are a bit of a shock to those who run more to columbines and pinks (neither of which does well with me).
You can't have everything, but I never begrudged the space some of my big babies take up.