The Rare and the Common

June 6th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

An example of rarity coupled with beauty: the broken heirloom tulip 'Absalon', which dates to 1780. (You can order it from Old House Gardens.)

It’s an affliction that besets most plant lovers: the desire to obtain specimens considered “rare and choice.” Sometimes these plants are beautiful; sometimes they’re merely odd (or “bios”—of Botanical Interest Only). Their most important characteristic, however, is that no one else you know has them. (Wilfrid Blunt, author of the landmark study The Art of Botanical Illustration, once wrote: “If dandelions cost a guinea a root and had to be cosseted through the winter, they’d find a place in every rich man’s greenhouse.”) This is not, admittedly, a very admirable sentiment, and unless you’re a truly rotten human being, you of course share your rarities with your envious fellow gardeners. But there’s no denying the glow of satisfaction, however briefly it may last, that comes with owning something truly singular.

There’s another problem associated with rarities: they’re expensive. If, say, you want a large drift of double white trilliums in your woodland garden, you’re going to have to miss a mortgage payment or raid the kids’ tuition fund. And so rare plants usually get dotted about here and there and don’t contribute much to the overall effect. Maybe it’s enough that you know they’re there, and can commune with them in silent rapture when no one else is looking.

The common annual cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, whose beauty is anything but common. (Photo by Johnathan Stegeman/Wikimedia Commons.)

If you’re a connoisseur of the rare and choice, chances are good that you’re a bit snooty about common plants. I certainly have my share of snootinesses. I’d eat dirt before I’d plant a marigold, but then I don’t find marigolds beautiful. In general, though, I think it’s a profound error to despise a beautiful plant simply because it’s common. Helen Dillon, one of the world’s greatest living gardeners, has at times had drifts of the common annual cornflower, Centaurea cyanus, in her ethereal blue border. And why not? They’re gorgeous. When I first visited her garden, in the early 1990s, she had pots of white petunias on her terrace. They were lovely. (It didn’t hurt that the pots themselves were very, very good.)

Cupid's dart, Catananche caerulea. It's been in gardens since 1640.

This is how Catananche caerulea looks before it blooms. The buds have a silvery, pearly sheen.

My current favorite common plant is Cupid’s dart, Catananche caerulea, a southern European member of the daisy family that has been in cultivation since at least the 1600s. A packet of seed costs a couple of bucks. In Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers, the Master calls it a “mildly pleasing but second-rate plant.” I couldn’t disagree more. I find the dark-eyed, lavender-blue flowers, with their ragged petal tips, to be utterly charming. Almost as beautiful are the buds, which are covered with pearly bracts that persist long after the petals have dropped. I even like the grasslike clumps of narrow, gray-green leaves.

If there’s a lesson here, maybe it’s that rarity is all well and good, if it gives you a thrill, but that there’s no substitute for ordinary, everyday, affordable beauty. And a darned good thing, too.

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  4. Denise says:

    The rare and common, very slippery categories. Love those cantankerous pronouncements of the Master, for which he is sorely missed. I’m growing catananche this year too and think it will be first rate floating among grasses and drumstick alliums.

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