Small children and children at heart (I include myself in this category!) are often attracted to flowers and plants that could hardly be said to be classically beautiful. These plants are often truly bizarre and it is this very thing that can be appealing.
A lot is made of engaging kids with vegetable growing and it is certainly satisfying to eat something that one has grown but all of our senses should be engaged in the garden, and strange plants can really get the grey matter ticking over. Just be prepared for yet more “why” questions from the youngsters!
It could be a spiny cactus or a deformed looking succulent that appeals, perhaps an insectivorous plant with its meat eating habits. It might be something with contorted stems or leaves that tickles their fancy or even something with weird shaped flowers that goes by a name like ‘bat plant’ or ‘cobra lily’ that could have us all thinking of exotic places and pretending that we were Indiana Jones!
So no matter whether you are a child of eight or eighty these plant oddities can make you smile, have those that don’t understand the appeal scratching their collective heads and wondering if you are completely sane, and give you hours of harmless fun as you learn about them and research why they are like they are. In fact it is all the trivia and history behind some of these plants that really gets me going. I’m sure that if a child is told that someone fell to their death whilst collecting it in the wild or that it was once used to poison Roman senators or used in witches brews, there will be no holding them back.
They may even become so hooked on a particular genus or group that they start to specialise which can be when the fun really starts to ramp up, tracking down that new variety and soaking up the knowledge that a longer term collector can offer, and who is to say that you haven’t started someone on the path to becoming a world authority.
So here are just a few plants that will illustrate my point and hopefully encourage you all to grow some less obvious but fun plants that can jolly up a garden, stimulate inquiring minds and be a source of endless fun.
Arisarum proboscoideum Mouse Lily
This amazing little plant tends to hide its main feature (its flowers) under its leaves and that is part of the fun! The flowers look for all the world like the rear end of a mouse, tail and all, hiding under the shiny arrowhead shaped leaves in early spring.
The look on the face of the uninitiated when the secret is revealed by parting the leaves is a joy especially if you just say would you like to see my mice!
The plant leaves and all grow to about 15cm tall and will make quite good drifts in time, in almost any spot where it gets winter-spring rain. It doesn’t seem to matter if it stays moist in summer, or dries out as it dies down with the first warm weather in late spring, only to erupt again in late winter. In areas where the preferred conditions aren’t present it can even be grown quite happily in a pot as long as you don’t throw it out when it is dormant!
The only other species in the Genus that is likely to be seen in Australia that is almost as much fun is Arisarum vulgare which is commonly called the Monks Cowl and it has white spotted leaves and strange brownish flowers.
Asarum maximum Wild Ginger
This plant is one of many in a genus that is collectively known as wild ginger. Which isn’t related to the ginger lilies or in fact true ginger but all parts of the plants smell very like ginger if crushed which I must point out isn’t good for the plant if done too often!
It is has attractive kidney shaped leaves that are worth growing for even if it did nothing else but when you move aside its leaves and see its black and white flowers it is sure to send a shiver up your spine!
The different species in this genus all have entertaining but different flowers. Asarum canadense has flowers that look like a bronze starfish, and Asarum caudatum ‘Album’ is a green starfish with extra long arms. Asarum splendens has flowers that I find hard to describe but are a little like the main topic of this article but in shades of grey and bronze with scalloped petals, a truly scary flower!
Asarums are woodland plants from Europe, Asia and North America and seem to like cool woodland conditions to grow well, but many will also grow well in pots where the climate isn’t perfect and this means that the flowers can be closer to eye level as well.
Southern Africa has a lot of unrelated bulbous plants that have developed foliage that curls like a cork screw and it is believed to have arisen to help the leaves cope with excessive heat, as only a small surface area is facing the sun at any one time.
From a gardener’s point of view its funny spiralled leaves are a most entertaining feature that all children will be intrigued by. Its little green bell flowers produced in spring may not be showy but somehow seem part of the subtle charm of this hardy spring flowering plant.
It likes, as do many bulbs from this part of the world, a winter rainfall and summer dry environment so yet again a pot could be the way to go if your natural conditions don’t suit.
I find that it lightly self seeds in my sunny rock garden, making attractive small drifts that have me smiling every spring.