Hartley Magazine

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Every Plant Tells a Story

Two new plant introductions in two

If they made movies about the plants’ life stories – how they start out as unknowns in far away places and end up as star performers at a nursery near you – these two variegated must-have specimens would have award-winning biopics for best screenplay.

Act One

The first is an eye-catching annual barley (Hordeum vulgare variegate), dubbed variegated cat grass by Alice Doyle, co-owner of the wholesale nursery Log House Plants. This charming green-and-white-striped upright grass combines beautifully with other annuals, perfectly accenting containers, indoors and out. And yes, Alice tells me, “Cats prefer to nibble on it rather than on your houseplants.”

On the road from obscurity to fame, the seed ping-ponged between two continents. In the Netherlands, famed plant breeder Kees Fahine was searching the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook for heritage beans he could bring back into production. He noticed that a bean grower in the Midwestern U.S. happened to have some unusual barley seeds. With Alice’s help, the barley seeds went off to the Netherlands, where after years of work, Kees stabilized the showy mix. Variegated cat grass returned to the U.S. for its West Coast debut. This rising star is in great demand at Alice’s Log House website.

Act Two

Zoom around the world to Japan, home of a rare hybrid aralia, Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’. It’s hardy in Zones 7-9, and in other zones this mounding five-foot tall evergreen shrub with wide white-dusted leaves is perfect for container culture in your greenhouse. In 1989, Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc. visited Dr. Masato Yokoi, the international expert on variegated plants. Standing in the doctor’s garden, Dan admired this rare collector’s aralia.

With plant fervor rising in his heart, but tempered by a tremendous respect for the man he considered his teacher, or sensei, Dan bowed deeply and asked him where he could find such a plant. Dr. Yokoi told him the story of how he had acquired this aralia from his teacher. He repeated the cryptic words his sensei had told him long ago: “If you look, you will learn.”

Dan looked. At the base of the plant, a new shoot was springing up. Dan bowed even deeper, brought the offered cutting home, rooted it, and spent six years nurturing its offspring for tissue culture. Now gardeners around the U.S. can enjoy it too. Take a bow for your back story, Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’.

Mary-Kate Mackey writes and gardens outside Eugene, Oregon.