It’s as if underperforming plants got the message

Erin Schanen


I have a strict rule of trying not to anthropomorphize plants, but I may need to give that up. I’m starting to think they really do understand us.

I’m noticing an interesting pattern in my garden this year. Plants that I have officially put on notice that it’s time to perform or head to the compost pile have started shaping up.

The Phlomis russeliana (which goes by a variety of common names but many people seem to know as Jerusalem sage) that I planted three years ago has done nothing. Well, nothing other than grow a lot of slightly fuzzy foliage that resembles the dreaded burdock. It is taking up a lot of space in a highly visible part of the garden, so I decided this spring that if it didn’t flower, it would have to go.

Imagine my delight when I saw flower buds forming. It now has a series of flower spikes with eye-catching tiered yellow flowers. The constant presence of bees and butterflies that visit it is an unexpected bonus.

The climbing rose, too, has stepped up this year. ‘Autumn Sunset’ is a delightful rose with golden yellow flowers that fade to apricot and then buff and produce a heady classic rose scent that you smell before you see, but it has not been a great performer throughout the years. Sporadic flowering and regular attacks by sawfly larvae, which skeletonize the leaves without really hurting the plant, had me researching replacement options this winter.

In fact, I had pretty much decided to replace it with ‘Above and Beyond,’ which is exceptionally hardy and, at least from the photos I’ve seen of it in other gardens, extremely floriferous. I prefer the slightly bolder color of the new flowers on ‘Autumn Sunset,’ but I was willing to give those up for something that wouldn’t need extra winter protection and would bloom its head off.

Lo and behold, guess what rose is looking great now. ‘Autumn Sunset’ is pushing out gorgeous flowers that smell sweeter than ever and even the foliage is looking great, unusual for this time of year when the sawfly larvae have usually made a mess of the leaves.

I don’t typically talk to my plants, but my thoughts about these two plants needing to show their worth were clear. When I shared this with other gardeners, many said they’d experienced the same thing. Plants that were destined for shovel pruning suddenly shaped up.

Is it possible that plants can read our thoughts? Or is it that gardeners treat plants that have been put on notice differently than they have in the past? Maybe they treat them a little nicer because it’s their one last shot to perform, such as when I sprinkled diatomaceous earth around the base of the rose in an effort to prevent sawfly larvae that had overwintered in the ground from eating the rose’s leaves.

In the case of the Phlomis, which is partial to very good drainage and a bit of mistreatment, maybe an easy and dry winter coupled with an early season dry spell explains its beautiful blooms.

I’m glad both plants have been spared. And just in case, I’ll keep mentally threatening underperforming plants because you never know, it just might work.



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