Millennial Plants

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Janus, the Roman God for whom this month is named, was usually sculpted and painted with two noble faces, one that looked forwards, and one that looked back. To a gardener the turn of the year is always an opportunity to look ahead, to peruse the happy promises in color seed catalogs. It is also the time to look back, to examine the garden as it now and the landscape as it has been.

Perhaps your garden is looking a bit crusty around the fuchsias; most folks I know had a few tender things blemished by the recent frosts. The minimal damage prompted strong memories of harder frosts in recent history; I thought particularly of the Big Freeze of ’91, the one that burnt the ends off everybody’s bougainvilleas and turned jade trees to mush.

Armed with memory and information, we know now to resist the urge to trim off all the browned foliage and let the plants recover on their own. Some gardeners strung up Christmas lights or threw tarps over their home citrus trees, and now they don’t have to pay $1 a pound for oranges.

Memory and experience are important tools for the gardener. You can’t buy these at the hardware store — unless you’re looking in the book section. Garden books are the repository for much useful garden lore, but these days if you’re looking for a fast FAQ you really can’t beat the Internet.

“The Millennium Gardener” will be a repository for two kinds of information: the kind that looks forward, and the kind that looks back. I’ll be looking for new plants, new techniques, and new tools to serve the 21st Century gardener — you’ll get the latest here on modern pesticides and landscaping trends.

I also plan to look back. Kidney-shaped pools aside, Bay Area gardeners have had a significant impact on the landscapes of our current century — from the manicured grounds of Sunset Magazine’s Menlo Park campus to the wildly styled gardens of Berkeley. We have lots of our own lore — worth keeping, and saving, for the next millennium and beyond.

And I’d like to propose a new plant category: millennials. Our mail-order catalogs tell us all about annuals, biennials and perennials, but they never predict which “new” introductions will be really good ones, the keepers. The millennials: those plants that deserve to be with us a thousand years hence.

Some cultivated flowers have actually been around since the last millennium of 1000 A.D. One example is the Apothecary’s Rose, Rosa gallica officinalis), whose fragrant petals were used to made medicinal waters in the Middle Ages — the aromatherapy of its day.

You can still buy an Apothecary’s Rose today, to start your millennium Garden, for it is a keeper. As the great rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas notes, it is “right in the forefront of good garden shrubs, and very telling in the landscape.” In good years it will give a month of bloom in the Bay Area, with red, loose-petaled flowers held high on bushy green stems.

We want to keep and save our favorite flowers and vegetables too, for bitter experience has taught us that cultivars and even species can disappear. Old rose growers still shudder at the memory of how so many lovely named hybrids of 19th century roses — hundreds of varieties — were practically extinct at the end of the 1890′s.

I think my life as a gardener would have been poorer without the chance to grow ‘Madame Isaac Pereire,’ an 1860 Hybrid Perpetual. Yet the old-rose revival begun in the 1980′s is already beginning to wane, and nurseries and catalogs are stocking fewer pre-1900 roses. ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’ still makes the charts, so perhaps it is a keeper, a plant for the ages.

But let us turn to the discoveries and notable hybrids of this century. I think we have quite a few keepers, cultivars our descendants will still be growing in the 23rd Century, when (as all Star Trek movie fans know) San Francisco’s Presidio becomes the headquarters for Starfleet Command and yet still can do nothing about the tule fog.

If the subject is still roses, which modern variety is our ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison?’ I see the Wayside Gardens catalog is touting ‘Just Joey’ as a “must have” rose for 1999. Introduced in 1972, it is older than some gardeners I know, and this sturdy, fragrant, giant-blossomed, apricot-colored tea rose is a favorite in many Bay Area gardens. Perhaps it has a competitor in ‘Graham Thomas,’ (named after the aforesaid rosarian) a 1983 English rose of slightly lighter scent and slighter lighter hue, that has is own coterie of avid fans up and down the Peninsula. Both are perennial, but will either be millennial?

What trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruits developed in the 20th Century would you say are earning the right to be called “millennials?” Which cultivars of our fading era deserve to grace the gardens of the next thousand years? . Let’s get a list together — and then we can start the millennial year off right, as all good gardeners do — with catalogs strewn about, dreams in our heads, and the first sketched plans for our 21st Century gardens.