Better to Have Loved, and Lost


Variegated Cornus contraversa in the distance with Osmanthus decorus revealing just outside the archway.

Better to have loved, and lost, I say.

January is a good month to take inventory. While organizing files and space in my office, I realized it was time to discard extraneous paper and to relegate numbers of old magazines and catalogs to the recycling pile. This took longer than I planned…some of these periodicals were from the 1990’s and 2000’s when my hunger for discovering new plants was unquenchable…so of course I had to revisit these dream books which held the promise of the gardens I had envisioned in years’ past.

As I scanned the dogeared pages of these old plant lists, I realized there were many, many plants that I had ordered, loved (for a season anyway) and lost. Sometimes the failures were due to my attempts to push hardiness (did I really think I was living in zone 7B after one mild winter?), or I definitely did not site the plant in the proper spot nor tend to its specific cultural needs. This is part of the education of a gardener; experimentation is exciting, and you learn much from your failures. Lessons, some of which I still struggle with such as: Was the soil too acidic (next time, sweeten the soil with ground limestone), did its placement in the garden not have good winter drainage (then add shovelfuls of coarse sand), would the plant have fared better if had been sited close to a stone wall (which might have retained more heat, adding a half zone of warmth in colder months)? Should I have put down that protective winter mulch, once the ground froze? And then there is the most hard to admit explanation….these plants just didn’t like growing in my garden.


Old nursery catalogues that I cannot part with.

I couldn’t help feeling wistful for my plant losses, but I think I was saddened more that hundreds of plants which were named in these 10-20 year old catalogues and magazines are now seldom seen on nursery plant lists. As I perused the old catalogues from Asiatica, Seneca Hill, and Heronswood, I remembered what treasures these nurseries were to gardeners. The nursery owners catered to fellow plantaholics who would swoon with delight at the discovery of a new species; alas, there are fewer and fewer of us, or so I hear. My hope is that most of these plants continue to exist in private or botanical gardens, and are not lost forever.

Eucomis zan

Eucomis zan

But enough of this doom and gloom talk; I should add that my glass is more full than empty. Many of the obscure yet lovely specimens that I planted still live on in my garden: the now 30’’ Betula ermanii, the hardy Osmanthus decorus, the pretty in pink Aster ‘Kylie’ purchased from Heronswood, the collection of Anemonella from Asiatica, and the not quite hardy but easy to winter over in a pot Eucomis zambesiaca from Seneca name just a few.

I’ve decided to hold onto some of these catalogues from years gone by. They remind me of my evolution as a gardener, that there are still treasures waiting to be discovered and that there are gardens yet to be. Despite losing some plants which I loved, I am reassured that this is part of the process of creating a garden.


13 thoughts on “Better to Have Loved, and Lost”

  1. I too went through a bunch of old catalogs recently, when I decided to declutter our basement. I could not bring myself to throw out the old Heronswood catalogs, even though those plants always performed miserably for me in the northeast. I’m not sure I have any left. A few summers ago, I visited the Bloedel Reserve in Washington State, not all that far from the original Heronswood, and I saw the garden I had always imagined when I ordered from Dan Hinkley’s nursery. Too bad I lived 3,000 miles too east!

  2. Nancy, I think many of us who have gardened in the northeast have fantasized about having a Pacific Northwest Garden. If it’s any consolation I hear they are sun deprived. Our NE forecast for the next 2 days is 24″+ of snowfall, then frigid temperatures for the next 10 days. If we lived in the Seattle area, we would be enjoying the first Hellebores and Snowdrops. Enough said.

  3. If you note that sweet spot on the MA map of the upcoming blizzard, I am in it. I have articles and catalogs that go back to the 60’s. Now it is easier to keep things online instead of in file folders in the desk. I still have a few plants from Heronswood that have fared well, others are distant memories. I always figure if I did not lose a few, there would be no room for new ones, so it all works out. I still have a few spots that need “the right plant”. Maybe this year I will discover them. Nice to have the new catalogs to read and dream during the blizzard even if it is by candlelight.

  4. I live in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Last month we had cold weather and I lost a few plants to the frost. We lose plants to the drought and hot weather. Your story touched me too. I hate to have plants die. I know you are going through blizzard conditions and I wish you and your plants the best. I will look through the catalog and wish that I could grow many of the lovely plants that are there.

  5. Kristine, I heard about your cold snap…a little freaky I’m sure. Actually the snow cover will provide a nice winter blanket for the herbaceous perennials. My concern is more with tree limb damage due to the winds and heavy snow loads.
    You may have noticed by my postings that I have been into succulents for a long time and fantasize about living in a Southern CA climate to be able to grow them outdoors. The allure of the foreign garden….

  6. I’m so glad you mention the old Heronswood Nursery catalogs–but let me digress for just one minute. Is it just me, or is there, in fact, very little info out there about Ilex species and their fascinating hybrids. For example, what is Ilex “Virginia”? If a hybrid, then what are the parent plants? If a selected plant, then what is the species? Where can I get Ilex “San Jose” or “San Jose Hybrid,” a hard-to find Koehneana or latifolia hybrid, such as “Chestnut Leaf,” “Kurly Joe,” “Martha Berry,” “Brilliant,” and “Jewel Brite/Bright”? What are Ilex “Elegance” and “September Gem”? Why is Ilex dimorphophylla (Okinawan Holly) impossible to get? So here’s where my three old Heronswood Nursery catalogs from 1999, 2000, and 2005 literally became a “blast from the past.” I found the catalogs among old manila folders stashed in the corner of my home library. Excited and on the verge of finding “buried treasure,” I immediately perused Heronswood’s pages on Ilex, and I stumbled across a storehouse of information on these stately garden shrubs: Long on my wishlist, I. x wandoensis, seems to be a naturally occurring hybrid between I. cornuta x I. integra (perhaps the I. integra selection “Green Shadow”). I always wanted some semblance of information on my I. shennongjanensis, so according to the Heronswood catalog, the plant is a U.S. National Arboretum introduction. Wow, something to go on! Taking a cue from Heronswood’s I. diplosperma DJHC 801, I learned that a possible synonym might be I. bioritsensis. Heronswood’s I. purpurea prompted me to find other possible synonyms, I. chinensis and/or I. oldhamii. (Why does the epithet “oldhamii” always take me way, way, way, back?) Reading the Ilex sections of the old Heronswood catalogs, I experienced a deeper sense of “plant deprivation,” and I immediately underlined the following Ilex species on my wishlist: I. ciliospinosa, I. cyrtura, I. rotunda, and I. yunnanensis. Possibly first introduced by Heronswood, I. “Aurora” is a holly that I some day hope to grow in my garden. Of course, plant listings are always undergoing revisions, but I am so grateful that the old Heronswood catalogs still provide garden footprints that enable me to track down elusive hollies and their nomenclature. (Only fifty more days till spring!)

  7. Ramon, I would dare to say that when these plants were acquired they had either no official name, an incorrect name or a name that has since been reclassified. I think this would be a good question to ask Dan Hinkley, if we ever meet. For example we have a lovely slender Ilex pernyi cross with aquifolium that we received as ‘Dr. Kassab’. It looks so much like ‘Rutgan’ that I think you would need a DNA test to prove otherwise. In fact, I think this should be someone’s Masters thesis…testing the DNA of all known species and cultivars in a genus and proving which are going by alias names.

  8. Every January I say I will throw out more old catalogs, but, sigh, it is so hard…I will never throw away the Heronswood catalogs: they sit in a bookcase with the garden writers..his essays!!!…My son lives in the Pacific Northwest, so I’d been to the old Heronswood…yup, I lost an unnamed begonia purchased there…it didn’t like Rhode Island ….

  9. I agree, Norma, Dan Hinkley of Heronswood fame wrote such seductive articles…..I loved the one about him taking his cup of morning coffee out while walking about the garden/nursery, then putting his coffee mug down, only to find it hours/days later (and the mugs from the day before, and the day before that, and…..) Sounded so familiar to my experience!

  10. Ramon Reyes: Wow you ask a lot of questions about hollies! Ilex ‘Virginia’ has an interesting past. It’s a hybrid of Ilex integra and Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Hodginsii’ by the National Arboretum. Long story. Find out all you wanted to know about hollies at my Facebook page ‘the Genus Ilex’. I couldn’t find out much about certain hollies online, so created my own page.

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