Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What do Plants Want? Just Ask Them!

I'm not a scientific kinda girl.  When it comes to plants I'll learn their names and growing conditions, but ask me how many pistils one has and I'll give you a pretty blank look.  Sometimes I'll find myself at the nursery and will come across a little lovely with no label.  Hmmm, what might this be?  And what kind of home would it like to be in?  I'll typically take a pretty non-scientific approach.

Plants have their own ways of coping with their natural environments, just like us.  When you go to the beach, you take your sunscreen.  Well, sometimes plants do, too!  If you have the clues, you can begin to make educated guesses as to what climate your mystery plant prefers.

Take this thistle shown above, for example.  It has gray-green foliage that will not absorb as much heat from the sun.  Not only that, but if you look closely there are small hairs growing between the leaves.  Sunscreen!  If you had to guess, you'd think to put this in a desert-like setting.  (And you'd be right- this was taken at the base of the Eastern Sierra)

Let's be clear:  this is not a fool-proof method at all.  Being non-scientific has its risks and guesses should always be followed up with a cruise through the Sunset Western Garden Book or laspilitas.com for California natives.  Listen to the scientists!

So if foliage color provides one clue, leaf size will help with another.  This Mimulus sports long, narrow leaves.  Not a ton of surface area, huh?  It doesn't need it, because it prefers a sunny spot and gets plenty of opportunities to absorb the light.  Likewise, large, broad-leaf plants will typically prefer part shade conditions.

And what about foliage texture?  This Dudleya hassei has thick, fleshy fingers.  Why is that?  Well, Dudleyas typically live in places that don't get much rainfall.  They need the extra closet space to store all the water they'll need throughout the year.  So a flimsy green leaf?  Probably a more water dependent guy.

Let me say again that this is only a way to make educated guesses, but it's also a fun way to experience the garden- like a conversation at a cocktail party.  "Where are you from?  What do you do?"  The plants are talking.  Ask the right questions and listen carefully!


  1. Great post! I agree..plants are very revealing and quite talkative if you will pause to hear them..they are quite wise! I also find it quite cool how they will adapt wiht the conditions and create and thrive the best they can..nature can teach us so much..gardens are filled with great wisdom. each plant has taught me something new..about it..the space it is in and the relationship with surrounding plants..they are all a pretty co-creative bunch! great post!

  2. Very informative post that will make many people stop and think the next time they come upon a plant in the nursery. For example a Hibiscus with its large green leaves - leading them to think that it comes from a tropical area.

    Living in the desert, it is amazing the ways plants protect themselves like you stated, small leaves, small hairs, etc.

  3. Great post, very informative! Many plants give us clues, the rest are trial & error....and patience, patience, pateince!

  4. Thanks, guys! Try it out and let me know how it works next time you're faced with a mysterious stranger at the nursery.

  5. Christine,
    Delightful way of looking at plants. It adds so much to the experience of making a garden when we get to know a plant's 'heritage!'

  6. Such a good reminder - to stop and listen to the roses! - I wonder what their roots are whispering to us too?

  7. This is a great post. I love unusual plants, or sometimes, just a plant I don't have, unusual or not. Also, I love plants that I already have, even if I have many, many of them. LOL

    I happen to have that book, by the way, and it has a lot of good information to offer.

  8. Yes. Reminds me of when I asked the woman at Rana Creek about the cultivation requirements for a plant. "Oh, with those natives, you can't really know," she said. And she's right...Often, there's only one way to find out.

  9. Alice- I love the thought of a plant's heritage. Makes me wonder how those family feuds play out!

    CM- Great point! When I planted my Muhlenbergia the other day, I realized how thick and plentiful those roots were: hillsides and prairies?

    Janie: Plants are an evil and expensive addiction, aren't they? Is there a book out on this subject? I'd love to hear about it.

    TM- That's what I love about plants- there's so much more to learn. Unfortunately, sometimes it's the hard way!