Extraordinary ordinary plants



The May/June issue of American Gardener brought delight and a thrill of vindication to this Buffalo gardener. Three feature articles focus on plants that have long been mainstays in my garden—even though one of them is commonly reviled in many gardening circles, for its … well … commonness.

First up: a nice survey of cranesbills/hardy geraniums. (Will the day come when you can just say geranium and everyone will know exactly what you mean?) Well, we all know the many superlative qualities of these plants: easy maintenance, lovely foliage, shade-tolerance, long flowering seasons with a great variety of dainty flower forms, and an excellent groundcover alternative for almost any situation. But even though I knew all this, it was still fascinating to once more explore the different types. Reminded me of the good old days of the Heronswood catalog; they were geranium connoisseurs and offered a huge variety to their customers. I believe my macrorrhizum and phaeum “Samobar” are from them; both are a reliable source of late spring pleasure.

Richard Hawke’s article surveys the various types, makes recommendations for various situations and geographic regions, and gives culture advice. It’s not an exciting article; I guess these aren’t exciting plants to many, but I love my old friends among them and am always willing to add new ones. In fact, I have a spot right now where a maculatum “Espresso” would be perfect.

Then there is Brian Bell’s profile of lily breeder Dave Sims, who started his love affair with lilium at the age of 9. Lilies are the absolute raison d’etre of my garden: I grow them from June through early September. And Sims’ favorites are my favorites: regale, henryi, and martagon among the species; Black Beauty, Scheherazade, and Silk Road among the orienpet hybrids. Unlike geraniums, well-grown lilium (species and hybrid) are anything but subtle. They’re so flamboyant that I am regularly asked if I have to overwinter them or feed them anything special. But that’s the kicker with lilies—they come back every year and need no special treatment other than a well-placed stake. I particularly liked Sims’ emphasis on martagons (shown at top), probably the only lily with good-looking foliage.


Finally, AG devotes 5 pages to one of the most overused, abused, and denigrated plants in the world of ornamental gardening: impatiens. Sure, we all see miles of aisles of these in the garden centers every summer—BUT. If you have as much shade as I do, and love abundant color all season long, impatiens must be at least considered. And, as this article makes clear, there are now plenty of unusual varieties available. I grew one of them, the Fusion “Glow,” last summer (shown above with elephant ear and coleus) and got tons of compliments. The thing was practically a bush by the end of the season. Claire Wood of Annie’s Annuals was interviewed for this, and actually says she loves impatiens for “their air of mystery,” adding “We don’t yet know all about them.”

All plants have their mysteries, their undiscovered corners, and even plants we thought we knew can offer unexpected rewards. American Gardener clearly gets that. I may throw down the next issue in disgust, but this month, AG, you’re OK by me.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Came across your blog. I had to smile because I was reading AG this morning and thought you were dead on with your comments.

    Just started my own blog at daveparishstudio.blogspot.com

  2. Lilies are an important part of my garden too. It started with two freebies, one from the nursery where I purchased plants for my first flower bed in this garden and the second came with an order from Botanus. They are definately the drama queens of my garden – colour, scent, and sheer pizzaz. And, as Elizabeth says, they need no special care even in this northern garden.

  3. Eliz, even my favorite mags get thrown down in disgust occasionally. But not nearly as often as I scream at Charlie Rose to SHUT UP, which I do often, while continuing to watch 5 nights a week – on tape when I’m on the treadmill. Okay, I skip the foreign minister interviews but I always check in.
    Without Charlie, the Daily Show and the Colbert Report I’d be 20 pounds heavier.

  4. “Will the day come when you can just say geranium and everyone will know exactly what you mean?”

    Let’s hope, Elizabeth. I pitched an article to OK Gardener last year on these mainstays in my garden, and the editor thought it would bore people. Oh well . . . they don’t bore me.~~Dee

  5. I love my geraniums. I have them in several colors and styles (including what I’m sure is rose geranium, by the strong rose-oil scent), and love them. This is a very, very good year for them. I intend to thin out some thick clumps and plant them just everywhere.

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