Rare plants intrigue the adventurous gardener.
By Francoise O’Neill
The epitome of adventurous gardening is growing and collecting rare plants-those uncommon beauties whose intriguing characteristics and interesting histories make them especially appealing.
"For us it wasn’t so much a need to have something that others don’t, but rather to step outside the run-of-the-mill landscape," says Barbara Raines, pointing at the lush tropical garden that embraces her Bird Key home. "We wanted to do away with lawn and have something different plant-wise."
Barbara and her husband Allan, California transplants who moved to Sarasota seven years ago, turned for advice to Kathy and Charlie Crowley of Crowley’s Nursery, who have been cultivating rare plants on their 20-acre Old Miakka property for 16 years. More than 2,000 species, including unique tropical and semi-tropical plants, are on display there. "We fell in love with the beauty of the plants they carry," says Barbara. "On a much smaller scale, we wanted to duplicate their nursery in our garden."
Five years later, the sun-dappled tapestry of colors and textures the Raineses created delights with its range of rare and unusual plants. Sensory surprises await at every turn. Here a golden chalice vine flaunts its scented blooms next to the delicate lavender clusters of a queen’s wreath. Another step reveals an evergreen wisteria draped languorously over a fence, creating a verdant background for white musianda and a fiery mass of red ginger and scarlet plumbago. Under the canopy of a vitex tree (otherwise known as lilac of the South), heavenly angel-wing begonias with silver freckles, stripes and delicate pink and salmon blossoms answer Barbara’s prayer for color in shady areas. "Kathy guided us through our selection of ground cover like the peanut plant and Chinese grass," says Barbara, "and my husband used over 2,000 bricks to lay the paths." The meandering pathways lead to small recessed niches with stone benches set under the mantle of white clerodendrom and New Zealand pink petticoat.
Gardeners often cultivate personal relationships with their plants, and Barbara is no exception. "Few things are quite as thrilling as when you find the first bloom or a new growth," she says. And with plants like orange and red Chinese hats, Seminole Dombeya -with its pink hydrangea-like blooms-giant irises, King Ixora, African tulip tree and the showy Brazilian Red Cloak, to name a few, the pleasure is never ending.
Like the Raineses, Ben Appell has a true passion for rare plants. After moving here from North Carolina, Appell studied plant pathology at USF’s Agricultural Center Division of Plant Research, then joined the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens horticulture department. "That’s when I learned how to use natural canopies to increase the lushness of tropical layering," Appell says. In his own garden just east of downtown Sarasota he experiments with masses of plants of varied growth, dependability, long blooming period, pleasing scent and showy fruit and berries under a multitude of trees. Magnificent specimens like a Passiflora quadro-a passion vine with a four-sided stem and delicate tendrils reaching out from its seven-inch-wide blossoms-are among the garden’s visual delights.
Another is a floss silk tree, once grown for its seed pods that contain feathery white plumes (used as an alternative to cotton in South America and Asia). The formidable spikes springing from its trunk have earned it the descriptive name "monkey-no-climb" in the West Indies. Nearby are fragrant lyang-lyang, rainbow eucalyptus and Australian tree ferns. Shade and exotic beauty are provided by two majestic bamboo varieties, "Old Hawaii" and vittata, and by bullhorn acacias and Dioon spinulosum-a form of cycad palm from the Jurassic period. Appell also tends two exotic aloes: Bainsii, known to grow upward to 60 feet, and Aloe vaombe, with crimson antler-like blooms. At ground level, texture and color come in the shape of large-leaf plants like hookerii palm and variegated mahoe, whose leaves evolve from a two-tone shade of coral and green to cream and green. To extend the garden up into the canopy, Appell grows epiphyte bromeliads and vine-like giant philodendrons that wrap their supple leaves up the tree trunks. Screw palms with stilt-like roots add texture, and giant palms with fan-shaped fronds provide movement.
Appell’s search for rare and unusual specimens also took him on a noteworthy expedition to Crowley’s Nursery, where bamboos surround ponds where aquatic plants thrive, old roses clamber up trellises and arbors, and a butterfly/hummingbird garden flutters with over 21 varieties of the winged creatures, including the ruby-throated hummingbird. The diversity of plants is staggering, and Kathy Crowley says some visitors actually come "after a hospital stay come to revitalize and feel the energy of nature." That’s inspired her to add a new meditation garden to the grounds.
Tips from Kathy Crowley.
Plants are known by different common names in different areas. Knowing the botanical name will ensure you get the plant you are looking for.
Try to purchase the best variety of that species.
Understand at what stage of maturity it’s best to buy the plant you’re looking for.
Rare need not mean expensive. Avoid being taken advantage of by educating yourself about cost.
Find out the best soil type and growing conditions for the plants you’re purchasing.
And, finally, deal with reputable retailers who know with the requirements of the plants.