Before I was married I spent a fair amount of time staring at the telephone. I'm not proud of it, but since the dawn of the telephone millions of single women have done the same. Today they check their cell phones endlessly, but in the corded, landline days of the 80s and 90s, I would simply pull up a chair and wait. Periodically I would pick up the receiver to check for a dial tone. Pathetic.
I like to think that I have matured since then and gained a modicum of self-respect. However, for the past few weeks I have found myself staring obsessively at two conspicuous bare spots in my garden, hoping that Dianthus barbatus 'Heart Attack' will call me. Several times a day I make a thorough examination of the dirt, looking for anything new that may have poked up out of the ground in the 3 or 4 hours since I last checked. I know. Pathetic.
I planted 'Heart Attack' early last spring and fell madly in love with its deep red blooms. Everything seemed to be going fine and I was looking forward to years of happiness. Of course I knew that most Dianthus barbartus were biennial, but 'Heart Attack' (named by the famously offbeat Tony Avent of Plant Delights) was supposed to be a perennial. Tony says it comes back bigger and better each year. I have no doubt that it does - for him.
However, over in my yard, things were going downhill fast. By August, 'Heart Attack' was a shriveled up bundle of sticks. I cut away the dead stems and let the ruminations commence. What had I done wrong? Maybe nothing. It might have just gone dormant in the heat. Plenty of spring bloomers do that in North Carolina, so why not this? Bad sign - it's nearly April now. If it intends to bloom in May it had better hurry up and get out of the ground. Maybe I'm deluded. Maybe it's never coming back. Then again, it's been very cold this winter. It might just be behind schedule.
Call me? Please?
Well, I finally broke down and bought a Mahonia 'Soft Caress,' this year's Hot New Plant. I had been fighting the urge since last fall, when I stumbled upon it at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. In full bloom and loaded with happily buzzing bees, it was quite a sight to behold. At the time I had no idea it was the Hot New Plant. I just liked the way it looked.
'Soft Caress' is a compact evergreen shrub that sports spiky yellow blooms in late fall and dark purple berries a bit later. Unlike the Mahonias with spiny, holly-like foliage, 'Soft Caress' has foliage that resembles a Nandina, and it's not prickly at all. It is billed as hardy from Zones 7 -9, and since it likes shade, I thought it would be perfect for the spot once occupied by my late-lamented Daphne odora. But was it still too new?
I swore I'd never again buy a Hot New Plant, having learned the hard way that, with plants as with people, familiarity breeds contempt. Take Raspberry Dazzle dwarf crape myrtle. Six years after its big splashy introduction, people finally got wise to the fact that it had no intention of ever blooming. Too bad I bought three and finally had to rip them all out. Ditto Verbena bonariensis, which gets powdery mildew, falls over, and generally looks like Who Did It and Ran by the end of the summer. I came to loathe it.
With 'Soft Caress,' I had the sense to restrain myself and buy only one. I confess I was considering getting three, but fortunately the plant was so expensive at a local ooh-la-la nursery (a whopping $45 for a 3-gallon pot) that I high-tailed it out of there and headed over to the downmarket alternative, where the temporary insanity passed. There the owner, quite a knowledgeable guy, told me they don't carry 'Soft Caress,' adding rather ominously that he had real doubts about its winter hardiness. Next stop: back to the Raulston Arboretum to see for myself what the shrub looked like after one of the coldest winters in a long time. Here is what I found.
Not particularly pretty, are they? The small one looks particularly pained. But hey, they just came off a pretty hard winter, and they are clearly Not Dead. So it was on to Nursery Number Three, which also being of the ooh-la-la school, was positively awash in Soft Caresses. Hedging my bets, I picked one in the half-gallon size. Heartbreak hurts less at $19.95.
So here I am again, jumping on the latest botanical bandwagon after vowing not to. Of course I feel like a sheep, which is kind of humiliating. I used to consider myself an independent thinker, unmoved by fads and cheap marketing ploys. Bah. Or should I say, Baaaaa.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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