Bizarre? Maybe. Definitely dangerous for the obsessive gardener


What follows is Garden Rant’s debut post on the Kirkus Reviews Book Bloggers Network. From now on, we will be reposting the Kirkus posts on Thursdays. We’re taking turns—Kirkus posts from Susan, Amy, and Michele are coming up.—Elizabeth

Amaranthus are cool but around here they have to be grown from seed or purchased toward the end of the season. These (above) are slightly different than the Love Lies Bleeding type.

Beware. Be afraid. Not of the plants themselves, but of the exotic seduction they represent. The biggest danger with most of the plants listed in Bizarre Botanicals is not that they’ll eat you (though some would give it a college try), but that you’ll actually try to grow them. Eventually, you’ll get so obsessed with goofy plants that you’ll ruin any chance you ever had of a coherent garden.

Sometimes it’s not even the plants—it’s the names:

•Love lies bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)
Amaranthus actually makes more sense in the garden as a foliage plant. While the tall stalks of rainbow-colored leaves can add life to any border, the lax, stringy red tails that give this plant its name are best cut off immediately for some kind of ghoulish arrangement indoors.

•Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)
After you’ve gotten over the thrill of the leaves folding up when you run your fingers over them, this tropical is a trap for the cold climate gardener. Indoors, it immediately becomes leggy, thorny, and—exposed to the rigors of central heat—dead.

•Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria cylindrica)
Despite its hilarious name, this spiky house plant—seemingly indestructible—is ubiquitous in office parks throughout the U.S. You’ve probably never noticed it blending in with all the pothos and philodendron hybrids that are equally able to survive in the inhospitable corporate environment. On its own though, sansevieria is unique—its striped, stately green columns deserve more respect.

Books like this are part of the reason my garden is what it is today. I am invariably sucked in by the promise of novelty, of having an annual, perennial, or shrub that is completely unlike anything growing in the less imaginative backyards of my neighbors. Books like this are also part of the reason I grow orchids, cactus, and rarities like night-blooming cereus indoors—with wildly erratic success.

The sad truth is that if you want to have a beautiful and successful outdoor garden, you’re probably best off growing some wisely selected shrubs and 3-5 hardy perennials with long blooming periods. A sea of daylilies, monarda or daisies can be more beautiful and maintenance-free than any gardener dared to dream. Unfortunately, few gardeners could ever be content with such a minimal selection. I never was—but I’m gradually learning that the best place for experimentation with weird plants is in containers or inside.

It’s no accident that most of the plants in Bizarre Botanicals thrive in warm weather. The majority can be grown outdoors in summer, but would need to be brought inside in any climate where temps can go below 60 degrees F—which includes most of the U.S. Plants like beehive ginger (Zingiber spectabile), black orchid (Fredclarkeara), or blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) are rarified creatures, meant for terrariums, greenhouses, or simply to purchase as a short-lived gift plants—if you can find them. Plants like this make me long for a conservatory—the kind that used to be attached to almost every respectable English mansion. I could put up with a good deal of inconvenience to be an Edwardian lady with a live-in gardener, a greenhouse, and a conservatory full of exotic plants. Sigh.

Most of us will never be able or even want to grow blue oil fern or voodoo lily, but it’s a good idea to try at least one crazy plant each summer. This year, I’m thinking about the new black petunias. How about you?

Bizarre Botanicals, by Paula Gross, assistant director of the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens; and Larry Mellichamp, professor of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; with a forward by Tony Avent, horticultural explorer and founder/proprietor of Plant Delights Nursery. Timber Press.

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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


  1. The book looks interesting – thanks for bringing it to our attention. I’ve already seen too many black petunias in my zone. My bizarre (to me, anyway) variety this season is the creeping fucshia with fascinating blue pollen.

  2. Love Lies Bleeding is, indeed, a fell-cultivar of amaranthus. I prefer the elephant head type. I’m growing some this year, and I DO plan on eating the leaves and seeds. I’m pitifully devoid of leafy vegetables in TX summer.

  3. I have an oil fern. I’ve had it for years. They hate life under my care and only do well in hot and humid terrariums (which I just finished building and where it is going).

    I live 15 minutes away from Plant Delights nursery (and I used to work there) so my muse this season is in a pot over there somewhere. I’ll wait a month before I go hog wild and spend all my money…but it happens every year and I see no reason to change now.

  4. I’m glad to read that I’m not the only gardener buying plants due to their name; Rattlesnake Master anyone??

    Though some with interesting names (Pretty Much Picasso) my “it plant” from last summer was a dude.

  5. I wonder how you could ask for some of these plants… I want my mother-in-laws tongue might get you arrested.

    I’ve just checked out the company, it is very interesting thank you.

  6. Just go to You can easily keep your sensitive plant for years with the proper care. Now its more commonly known as the TickleMe Plant as it really moves fast when you Tickle It. The leaves fold up and even the branches droop when Tickled!
    Just search TickleMe Plant to grow your own for earth day or bring your kids to school day. Love the TickleMe Plant Party Favors and
    the TickleMe Plant book taught me how to have the plant flower even in winter!

  7. Amaranthus caudatus and its green form Viridis can be strikingly beautiful when combined with other old fashioned annuals such as cleome, sunflower, kochia and tall verbena. Design in the flower garden is all about style, context and good plant association. To recommend the cutting off of Amaranthus flowers is utterly ridiculous. This is precisely the kind of “advice” amateur gardeners do not need to hear, much less heed; confident, experienced gardeners will recognize it for the claptrap it most certainly is.

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