Dreary weather is forcing me to stay indoors, but I am comforted by my cherished potted tropical plants. Some, however, are really ugly to visitors, which makes me love ‘em even more.
Follow me on this. Every now and then I come across new, pause-worthy concepts; some are real doozies, but a few hit my sweet spot for weirdness, speaking to my garden imagination.
Latest example: Wabi-sabi, the Japanese celebration of slight imperfections. Gotta love it, because there’s plenty in my garden!
It’s deliberately shaping a dead branch on a bonsai plant or allowing a hollow tree trunk or fallen limb to remain in a flower bed as a nod to natural cycles. It’s encouraging moss to spread over rocks and under an old camellia, or hanging a weather-worn window frame on the back wall, or leaning a rusty farm implement against the fence. It’s a reminder of the passage of time by keeping Granny’s beat-up urn between the roses and daylilies.
I practiced it the other day after digging up an ailing crape myrtle and replacing it with a large, super-informal weeping yaupon holly. It somehow didn’t look right when stood up straight, so after much fussing about I leaned it over a bit to slightly over-accent its naturally-odd shape. Like my trying on a bow tie, it was at the same time both hard to make myself do, and exhilarating in a devil-may-care way.
But some plant collectors take wabi-sabi is a whole ‘nother level, and favor and show off their most unusual specimen. Unlike typical plant and flower society shows which judge beauty according to generalized Miss America-style standards of perfection, the approach called “koten engei” rewards gnarly and bizarre mutations and deviations. The more naturally twisted, variegated, spotted and frilled a plant is, the higher its score.
Think “ugliest dog” contests.
Cue my favorite weird indoors plants, which really shine this time of year. I collect unusual forms of succulents, especially Sansevierias, the most common of which are masses of upright sword-shaped leaves called “mother-in-law tongue.”
Common Sansevierias are so tolerant of low light and low humidity, and hit-or-miss care they can grow in ashtrays atop the TV, at least for awhile if you don’t overwater.
My oldest came from a Latino woman in south Texas. I’ve had it for over 40 years now, growing in bright filtered light, watered at least once a month or so when it dries out, and given a light dash of fertilizer every year or two. Every now and then it even sports a spike of frilly, pale white flowers.
But I have dozens more, including dwarf rosettes, droopy hanging basket forms with new plants on aerial runners, and some with long, arching leaves that’re as round as carrots, in color combinations of green, white, yellow, stripes, splotches and variegations.
By the way, the Memphis Botanic Garden curates perhaps the second-largest Sansevieria collection in the country, donated by the family of the late floral designer and world-renowned plant collector Kirk Pamper. Many are too bizarre to describe, even by a geeky wordsmith like me.
My own personal collection favorites, which you can find with a quick online search, include Bantel’s Sensation for its white stripes on stiff narrow leaves, Mason Congo with three-foot long, nearly foot-wide flat beavertail-like blades, Moonglow with its pale silvery green leaves, and Coppertone with wavy leaves edged in red with salmon pink splotches, which I rooted from a single leaf cutting taken in Florida.
Sansevierias are super easy to grow, but, like tattoos, not everyone’s cup of tea. Which makes them wabi-sabi perfecto.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.