How to be a plant snob

Anna Pavord on the `ins' and `outs' of green-fingered fashion
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The Independent Travel
Plant snobbery is likely to affect you only during phase two of the three phases of your gardening life.

In phase one, when you are just starting off, you are thankful that anything, of whatever colour, shape or form, grows for you at all. You learn, quite quickly, that busy lizzies are bomb proof and that a surfinia petunia fills a hanging basket as effortlessly as Diana Dors used to fill a sweater. Like Tigger, full of bounce, you approach fellow gardeners, longing to share your pride at this new-found skill. You talk perhaps about pots. "And what have you put in your pots?" enquires your new acquaintance. "Begonias", you reply brightly. "Lovely big yellow begonias. They say the flowers can be 4in across. I can't wait."

"Ah!" says your acquaintance. And that single syllable, drawn out and given a dying fall, is perhaps the first intimation you will have that this plant business is not quite as straightforward as you thought it was at the beginning. Not only do you have to learn about sowing and feeding and watering, pruning and tying in. You also, most important, have to learn where each particular plant sits in the hierarchy of style. Is it in or is it out?

It's a complicated business, for the sands shift suddenly under your feet. Dahlias, for so long out, are now in with a vengeance. If dahlias are in, can chrysanthemums be far behind? "And," thinks the newcomer plaintively, "if dahlias are in, why not my begonias? Same colours. Better leaves." (By phase two, that "leaves" will have become "foliage".)

Sometimes most of a family of plants may be out, with just a few members inexplicably left in. Buddleia is mostly no go, except for grey-leaved cultivars, such as `Lochinch'. But that may change. Grey-leaved plants, so in until a few years ago, are now being chucked out in droves. That's partly because they look like heaps of old rags in winter, partly because bright colours which have been rather out for years are now in. And how.

In phase two of your gardening life, you are aware of these things. You may even worry about them. You may feel it's veering close to social ostracism to plant hybrid tea roses (out, out, out) rather than rugosa or alba roses. The style committee is undecided about the new race of patio roses. You can still bluff your way through a planting of those. And lupins, which soon will emerge as being rather smart, though not many people know that yet.

Hellebores, of course, are in, even the overbred ones covered in leaf spot. All foxgloves are in, especially the ones with flowers that you need a magnifying glass to see. Pelargoniums are on the turn: out if they've got huge red flowerheads, in if they have scented foliage.

Fortunately, the second phase of your gardening career is the least important one. You can hurry through it to get to the far more comfortable and interesting territory of phase three. At this stage you don't care a damn what anyone else thinks of you or your garden. You are intrigued by plants. You have the confidence to go your own way. You delight in variety, but are not necessarily impressed by novelty. You are certainly not impressed by those people who in phase one of your gardening life made you feel you had got it all wrong.

But there are still plants that have a spin on them. Not for snobbish reasons, but because they are fabulous in flower, in scent, in leaf, in general stature. My plant of 1997 is Cerinthe major purpurascens, the blue wax flower, seedlings of which are just breaking through on the kitchen window-sill.

This is a Mediterranean native, with strange, waxy, blue-green foliage spiralling up the stems and finishing in magnificently weird, blue-purple bracts which enclose tiny, bell-like flowers. The foliage and the bracts are what makes it special. It grows to about 2ft, perennial in its native habitat, but, with us, best raised fresh from seed each year. It's a stunner.

Michael Loftus of Wootten's Nursery at Wenhaston, Halesworth, Suffolk nominates a buttercup, Ranunculus acris citrinus, as his plant of 1997. (Buttercups are very in. So are variants of the common celandine, which at the moment I'm heaving out of borders by the bucketful.) "Very pale yellow," says Mr Loftus of his best buttercup. "A wonderful sheen on the petals. You don't see the stalks. The flowers just shimmer, as if balancing on air. Handsome foliage. Likes moist ground best."

Sonia Wright, whose nursery is at The Old Vineyard, Grove Farm, Stitchcombe, near Marlborough, Wiltshire, chose alliums as her plants of the year, more especially the allium that now calls itself Nectaroscordum siculum. The plum-coloured flowers hang from drooping stalks at the top of strong, 3ft stems. "It goes on looking lovely even when it's dead," Ms Wright points out. "There's nothing else in the plant world quite like it."

The great Edwardian plantsman EA Bowles loved it, too. "I enjoy breaking a leaf in half," he wrote, "and getting my friends to help in deciding whether it most resembles an escape of gas or a new mackintosh." Bowles, like Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter in Sussex, is a gardener who never had to bother with the first two phases of gardening.

Both of them seem to have moved, effortlessly, straight into phase three. Bowles's first word was probably nectaroscordum. Look out for his book, My Garden in Spring, shortly to be re-issued by The Timber Press.

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