Unsung anti-heroes



No one will be surprised that I was seduced by the beguiling rhetoric of Plant Delights owner Tony Avent when I ordered this plant (above):

We were thrilled to find yet another in the overlooked genus boehmeria that makes a great garden specimen. The deciduous Boehmeria platanifolia makes a 5′ tall x 4′ wide texturally enchanting clump of upright stems, clothed with fascinatingly bold, deeply-incised green leaves, each attached to the stem by a bright red petiole. The top of the stems are adorned in late summer…I use the term “adorned” loosely…with floral stalks that look like limp pipe cleaners. Visitors to the garden seem quite enchanted with this…we hope you feel the same.

I was one of those visitors. At the Plant Delights show garden outside of Raleigh, this looks like a large, vigorous shrub, and it didn’t take long for it to achieve those proportions in my Buffalo garden. All the promises were realized, including the lush profusion of deeply incised leaves, the red stems, and even the limp, pipe cleaner flowers—lots of them (in bud now). On the other hand, I can’t say that this unusual plant—seriously, I probably have the only boehmeria in Buffalo—gets that much attention from garden visitors. One person mistook it for a ligularia, and congratulated me for doing so well with it. Otherwise, no one has ever mentioned it. Usually, I have to point it out myself.

But you know, it doesn’t matter. Every time I walk by this plant I think of my decision to order it from Plant Delights and marvel at its success in its small dank corner. This obscure plant gives me almost as much pleasure as all the showy lilies that Garden Walk Buffalo visitors marvel over at the end of July.

A year ago, I added another lesser-known perennial to the shade garden. I purchased Collinsonia canadensis (stoneroot) from an Ithaca nursery; at the time there were no visible signs of the plant showing above the soil of its black plastic gallon pot. I had faith, however, and bought it on the strength of its promised height and shade tolerance.

The promise was quickly fulfilled, and this year it looks like the plant is spreading to the same shrub-like proportions as the boehmeria. Not that anyone seems to notice. No landscaper or garden designer would ever choose these unruly specimens—they’d have good reasons. But I love my big, leafy, obscure plants. Probably for the same reasons.

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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 regular 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. Other unsung heros – European and Canadian Ginger, Epimedium, Toadlilies, anything that is subtle people just don’t tend to see. But huge leaves and height, I would go ga ga over those. I have 2 angelica gigas that I am dying to see bloom! I saw one a couple days ago that was about 7 feet tall, fantastic.

  2. Elizabeth, you must have reached a gardening plane that I can’t yet fathom. I have enough trouble with the subtleties of evergreen gardens to ever find excitement for your unsung anti-heroes. I can sometimes value the castor bean plant for its foliage, but I’m afraid to now grow it given the current news interest in it. I’m not sure any plant is worth 15 minutes of national fame.

  3. I love Collinsonia canadensis and I’m so happy you sang its praises. I wish I could get gardeners excited about Diarrhena americana, the American Beak Grass, but something about the Latin name says: Don’t want to go there. Still, it’s a great clumping grass for the edge of woods.

  4. I planted Collinsonia canadensis for the first time a couple of years ago. I love the boldness of it in my mixed perennial border. Does yours smell like lemon pledge? I’ve read that description in a couple of places, but mine doesn’t seem to have much scent at all.

  5. I, too, love the big, friendly leaved plants. I feel they add a subtle green lushness that is not only welcome for itself, but for how others look against it. Thanks for introducing me to two I didn’t know….I have a bare spot in that northwest border…….

  6. As a big fan of leafy, obscure plants, I’m definitely going to have to try boehmeria and stoneroot in my Rochester, NY garden! By the way, if you’re ever looking for more obscure leafies in the Rochester area, great places to go skulking around for them include Sara’s Garden Center in Brockport, Palmiter’s in Avon, Lucas or Trollybed in Macedon and Bristol’s in Victor.

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