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This nomenclature identifies those plants which, retain sufficient personal charm to win a place in this author's heart and farm garden
by Jack Staub - 7/9/2012
I was touring a group of garden ladies around the farm on an awfully sultry day (last) month, and, as I was applying a handkerchief to my brow for the umpteenth time, I also found myself using the phrase “loveable thug” on repeated occasions. Can a mannerless thug truly aspire to lovability? My reply is: certainly.
In human guise, this aggressive yet engaging creature might take the form of the pugilist with a heart of gold, or the sweet neighborhood boy who lives with his mother and has the sideline in cement overshoes. In the garden, this particular piece of nomenclature identifies those plants which, while rampantly roaming, sprouting, suckering, and tunneling, nonetheless retain sufficient personal charm to win a place in our hearts.
These Jimmy Cagneys of the plant world are usually most appropriate for employment in larger scale gardens, where there is plenty of ground to cover and a spreading habit is desirable, and they can range from low growing ground covers to mid-height perennial plants and shrubs, to the most voluptuous of viners.
I will start with the two representatives of this clan whose rude lack of manners and less than subtle, many tentacled ways put them right on the border of desirability, but whose physical beauty finally tips the scale in their favor. I’m sure we have all had dates like that.
The first, Japanese Knotweed, is a plant so controversially invasive that it is illegal to plant in many countries. Native to Japan, where its young sprouts are eaten as a rhubarb-like substance, it grows into a sizeable, estimably attractive shrub, boasting handsome red stems, green or richly variegated green and white leaves, and pretty white flowers and seed casings in late summer and fall.
Now correctly called Fallopia japonica, Japanese Knotweed is almost impossible to eradicate once planted, sending out suckers and underground root systems as tough as steel cable. However, for a handsome shrub cover in the right isolated spot, it is a plant worthy of some consideration.
The other near-profligate member of this questionable brotherhood is the beautiful ground cover Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum’, or Variegated Goutweed. Ground covers, of course, are by nature thugs as their desirability lies in their ability to cover vast stretches of barren turf in a veritable thrice.
One of the most appealing of ground covers, Variegated Goutweed will quickly form a continuous mound of light green foliage with stunning white margins growing to about 8" tall, further accented with the lacy, flat-topped, Queen Anne’s Lace-like umbels typical of the carrot and parsley family.
Like other loveable thugs, Goutweed, known as such for its place in herbal history as a treatment for gout and also know as Bishop’s Weed for the miter-like shape of its leaf, is practically unstoppable once planted and is best cultivated in a space where it can be allowed to grow and spread. It is absolutely spectacular when laying a carpet of dappled white in the midst of a shady woodland.
While we’re meandering through the ground cover category, let me stop here to mention two other noteable thugs of a creeping, prostrate habit: Lamium, also known as “Spotted Deadnettle”, and Ajuga, correctly known as Ajuga reptans. Both are not only delightful to the eye, but are also of a startlingly quick spreading, carefree habit.
Lamium, a member of the mint family, has many pretty varieties, all laudable for their appealing bristly leaves, which are usually variegated white or have a white midrib, and their mauve-pink to white flowers, which are borne in whorls above the foliage in late spring and early summer. Lamium prefers a moist, well-drained soil and light shade at least, although in dry shade it will do quite well if cut back occasionally.
Some of the most popular varieties of this attractive, low growing spreader are 'Beacon Silver' maculatum with silver leaves with green margins and pink-purple flowers, 'Beedham's White' maculatum which has chartreuse foliage and white flowers, and 'Pink Pewter' maculatum, with silver leaves with narrow green margins and pink flowers.
Ajuga has the extremely creditable quality of being evergreen, spreading rapidly to form a dense carpet of foliage, and offering itself in a becoming range of foliage and flower shades. As runners develop from each mother plant and take root, producing new plants, the resultant extensive root system is also notably effective against soil erosion.
Most Ajuga varieties boast glossy, medium green, oval-shaped leaves, held in tight rosettes, and usually blue-violet flowers held on 4 to 6 inch spikes, blooming in spring. While preferring at least partial shade and sandy, well-drained soil, they will tolerate clay and most any siting except blazing sun.
Some of the most popular Ajuga cultivars are `Bronze Beauty', which has bronze foliage and blue flowers, `Alba', which has white flowers and light green foliage, `Burgundy Glow' with green, white, and pink variegated foliage, and `Pink Beauty' and `Rosy Spires', both of which have pink flowers.
One of the most interesting of the “loveable thugs”, and certainly one of the most remarked upon in our garden, is Butterbur or Sweet Coltsfoot, correctly called Petasites Compositae, a member of the sunflower family. The name Petasites, derives from petasos, the Greek word for the felt hat worn historically by shepherds, in direct reference to the immense size of this plant’s umbrella-like leaves, which grow to as much as 2 feet across on 3 foot stems. The name “Butterbur” is derived from the fact that the leaves were also anciently employed, in hot weather, as a protective wrapping for butter.
Petasites prefers a moist, shady environment to perform optimally, but in the right spot, say, by a woodland stream, the scale of these fantastic leaves, both in green and variegated varieties and multiplying annually, is almost tropically surreal, and will be sure to astound and delight.
And, finally, that familiar vining thug Honeysuckle, which can certainly get out of control in a flash but, like all loveable thugs, will perform admirably with some firm guidance and a watchful eye. Honeysuckle, correctly Lonicera, is vigorous, heat-tolerant, and nearly indestructible, and will reward you with blossoms of astounding fragrance and beauty.
Allow Honeysuckle to drape and cascade itself along a trellis or fence line, or clamber up some wonderful arcade or arch, but also keep in mind there are some very pretty varieties that can be grown as a dramatic ground cover for erosion control. Our current favorite is the rampant climber ‘Mint Crisp’, which has the most gorgeous, pointilistically spattered leaves in shades of creamy celadon and emerald, and extravagantly scented, pale yellow flowers. What’s not to love?
Jack Staub, horticulturist and co-owner of Hortulus Farm Garden & Nursery is widely considered to be one of the country's leading experts on edible plants and vegetable garden design. His vegetable herb and fruit gardens at Hortulus Farm has been featured in many publications including House & Garden, House Beautiful, Horticulture, and Time-Warner series on organic gardening. Jack is a book author (4 gardening titles, the 5th out next spring) and has frequently written for highly acclaimed publications such as Garden Design, Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Food & Wine and many, many more.
Hortulus Farm Garden & Nursery is a member of Greater Philadelphia Gardens.
With all these credentials, isn't it delightful to know Mr. Staub has a place in his heart and garden for Lovable Thugs, too?