In Praise of Ugly Plants


Ugly is a strong word, isn’t it? Perhaps I could say garish or not to my taste.

But the funny thing about taste is just how much it changes. Even up into my twenties, I hated the flavor of blue cheese. Now I love it. I’ve always said I disliked the color orange, now I can’t imagine my garden without the deep, vivid orange of tithonia or Mexican sunflower. Put it up against a black-painted fence or a deep purple flower and it positively vibrates.

Who can dislike a color with so much living energy?


The summer solstice is just around the corner, and it is beginning to feel like summer here at Maplehurst. It isn’t only the warmer temperatures and the more humid air. It’s also the particular plants growing alongside the country roads, in municipal flower beds, and around the homes of my neighbors.

Many of these plants have never been “to my taste.” However, I went for a drive for the first time in a long while and was shocked by how happy I was to see things I have always, vaguely disliked.

The golden mustard color of ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylilies.

The bright pinky-red of the Knockout roses.

The so-red-they’re-almost-orange of pelargonium in clay pots.

I saw these familiar colors, and my heart was filled with … joy. That’s the only word for it: joy.


The daylilies in my own garden are apricot and pink. The Knockout roses I prefer are yellow or white. I love to keep pelargonium in clay pots, but I love variegated leaves and flowers in salmon or coral.

But as my husband drove our car, I kept my eyes glued to every passing yard. The ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylilies seemed to shout summer is here! The knockout roses really did knock me out. My own roses wouldn’t look like much seen from a distance from a moving car, but those knockouts make a statement even at thirty-five miles an hour. And the pelargonium? The flowers most of us still call geraniums? The red was so red it made me think of summer berry picking and grandmother’s porch and childhood.


I believe there is a language of flowers. It isn’t a secret code. It isn’t, perhaps, as strictly controlled as the language Victorians used when they gave violets rather than roses.

This language is more personal. More powerful. And matters of taste and style and preference don’t have all that much to do with it.

Perhaps all these years I’ve spent gardening, I have really been learning to listen.

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Posted on

June 12, 2020

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