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Strange Fruit (And Flowers and Leaves)

by Mike Diamond

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday May 2, 2011

If it's weird, I want it. I was the first of my friends to get an eyebrow piercing, was into Amy Winehouse well before her ascent to scandal-plagued stardom, and had a brief but intense love affair with lavender-flavored cupcake frosting.

Strangeness appeals to me - and this even extends to my interest in unusual botanicals. No Boston ferns or boxwoods for me, thank you very much. I want weird - and current trends show that I am not alone.

Uncommon and peculiar plants are becoming increasingly popular with interior decorators, hardcore collectors, and people just looking to add something 'out of the ordinary' to their landscapes, gardens and summer windowsills. But where does one start?

The book "Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-of-Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants", a recent publication from Timber Press, is a handy guide to peculiar plants accented with dozens of eye-popping photos.

Co-authored by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross, "Bizarre" does offer insight into the titular plants, as well as some other oddly alluring specimens including Araucaria aracana (aka ’Monkey Puzzle Tree’ - the name alone won me over); Bowiea volubilis, the ’Climbing Onion’; and Stapeliads, which are strange, upright little succulents whose pretty star-shaped blooms stink like rotting flesh. That’s too much even for me; if I wanted to experience dead meat, I’d get back together with my ex!

Some of the selections in "Bizarre Botanicals" also happen to make an appearance in the new "Rare and Unusual Plants" catalog from Logee’s Tropical Plants.

One of my favorites is the spooky but beautiful ’White Bat Flower.’ The mid green leaves are nice enough, but the blossoms are otherworldly! Large and white, the blooms are adorned with long, wispy tendrils, lending an ethereal quality. Tacca is an easy grower that does fine with lower light levels.

Another oddity that features a ’flowing’ element, is Strophanthus caudatus, aka ’Spiders Tresses.’ Stunning, but perhaps not for those with arachnophobia; the pretty white blossoms on this climber have blood red tendrils cascading forth, and they do resemble long spider legs. Creepy but pretty!

A slew of other curious, out-of-the-ordinary plants are offered as well. For a new twist on the ubiquitous ’Snake Plant’, check out the gorgeous ’Blue Sanseveria.’ (S. ehrenbergii) This African native is an ’indestructible’ Logee’s exclusive with white-edged, blue-green leaves: low maintenance, but high impact!

Logee’s Tropical Plants (established in 1892!) is especially well known for begonias, and their Begonia brevirimosa ’Edinburgh’ is one of the strangest-looking of their many selections. The leaves have an almost horseshoe-like shape when viewed straight on and are a brazen blend of deep reddish mauve with dark green striations. A knockout!

Logee’s has also become known as a fabulous source of unusual ’edible’ plants (check out their new book "Growing Tasty Tropical Plants in Any Home, Anywhere"), including ’Tree Tomato,’ ’Honeyberry,’ ’Dragon Fruit’ and many varieties of citrus.

Two that stand out as truly weird are Citrus medica ’Buddha’s Hand’ (the fruits actually look like bright yellow, long-fingered ’hands’) - and my personal favorite, Citrus limon ’Spanish Pink Variegata’ an eye-catching number with variegated foliage, striped fruit, and tangy pink pulp. Si, es bonita!

One popular online destination for plant freaks and horticulturalists is the blog ’Plants are The Strangest People’. Written by a gay man in the Midwest who goes by the sobriquet ’Mr. Subjunctive,’ PATSP is a frequently updated, very opinionated record of Mr. Subjunctive’s adventures in plant collecting.

"Plant obsessives, like myself, are always looking for new, weird stuff to grow’ he explains, "and I suspect people within the industry get excited by new plants because seeing the same ones over and over gets boring."

Among Mr. Subjunctive’s preferred ’weird’ plants are "Zingiber malaysianum (midnight ginger) which has glossy, dark red-brown leaves that smell faintly of ginger and shine red-orange when backlit by the sun. Mostly of interest to me because I’ve found it very easy to care for (don’t let it dry out, though) and the color is so unusual."

If succulent, drought-tolerant plants are more your speed, "Leuchtenbergia principis (agave cactus, prism cactus) is another oddball cactus’ says Mr. Subjunctive. "Instead of looking like a giant plastic fern, like Selenicereus chrysocardium, or having a barrel or column shape like typical desert cacti, Leuchtenbergia is blue-gray or blue-green, with a series of spiky projections emerging from the plant’s center, making it look less like a cactus than like an Agave ("century plant"). The tips of the projections end in ragged, papery shreds that sort of resemble a fist full of sparklers, with sparks shooting out in every direction."

Reading PATSP is like peeking into the private world of a true plant junkie. Mr. S details his success and failures with plant collecting, growing, and propagating; his strongly held opinions (he has utter disdain for dyed blue Blue Moth Orchids); and makes frequent mentions of both his husband ("supportive about the plants") and pets Sheba (dog) and Nina (a brown anole lizard named for a former contestant on "RuPaul’s Drag Race").

So whether you’re interested in something "Little Shop of Horrors"-crazy or just something slightly odd to punctuate your garden this season, a world of botanical weirdness awaits you.

Go green, and get your freak on!

Mike Diamond likes puppies!