Massachusetts: Berkshires: Friday: early May. I wake at 6 a.m. Gray skies, heavy rain, continuing all day, according to the Weather Channel I consult. But today is the first day of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s spring plant sale. Members get in at 8, two hours before the general public. Last year I arrived at 8:15. I did not want to appear too eager or pushy. Mistake. The areas marked “new introductions,” “of special interest,” “exotics,” “unique shrubs” were cleaned out and the more seasoned hunters, hands full, were already heading toward the holding area. This morning I wonder, briefly, if the Botanic Garden will cancel today’s opening. Seconds later, I sit bolt upright in bed, jarred into action by the knowledge that it is New England, it is May, plant hunting season has begun and neither snow nor sleet nor gale force winds will cancel this sale or keep the plant hunters away from it.
This year I arrive at the Garden at 8 on the dot. Already there are several people inside the tent as I hotfoot it toward “Shrubs,” determined to be the one that gets the new Physocarpus cultivar. A volunteer who knows me from my lectures on garden design taps me on the arm and beckons me to a table where she introduces me to Solanum pyrocanthum. Shock, awe and the desire to possess possess me as I gaze upon this member of the eggplant family whose deeply lobed leaves have yellowy orange spikes sticking out of their edges and surfaces. Seriously, a plant with spikes? I grab one and start off again for “Shrubs.” As I pass by “Perennials for Sun,” I see out of the corner of my eye a plant with a delicate dark green leaf and an equally delicate white flower. I grab two of the eight pots of Potentilla alba ‘Snow White,’ thinking, “Unfortunate name, but no matter. I must have this plant.”
Back on track once again to “Shrubs,” I pass through “Perennials for Shade.” I avert my eyes to avoid temptation from a lusciously colored Heuchera I have glimpsed. I have too many coral bells already, but if I gaze upon the latest cultivar I will want it. No choice then but, Orpheus-like, to look away.
At last I reach the shrubs. It is now 8:15. Shrubs are outside. It is still raining, heavy and hard. I pause imperceptibly at the threshold between tent and open yard, not because I fear getting wet (oh, please, I am a plant hunter) but because I must locate the shrub I desire and will try to snag. I must not allow myself to be distracted by a lust for other shrubs I see as I scan the offerings. My aim must be quick and sure or I will lose my particular beauty to another hunter. I identify my target, head for it, and get there first. I hold the tiny Physocarpus x ‘Coppertina,’ newly created for this year’s market, in my arms, delighted with my success. Of course my garden boasts a hedge of Physocarpusopulifolius ‘Diabolo’ but ‘Coppertina,’ a child of ‘Diabolo,’ promises dramatic copper foliage rather than the heavy dark purple of its parent and a compact habit instead of its parent’s long and leggy growth. Of course I must have the child.
It is now 8:20 and I make a dash for “Annuals.” There is a slight chance that my “must have” in this category, the annual blue Salvia ‘Mystic Spires,’ will still be available. Nurseries are forever trying to foist off ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Victoria’ as comparables to ‘Mystic Spires’ but comparable they are not. A single stalk in a pot in May, by August these salvias have grown into small shrubs covered with blue blooms that, mystically, last into late October.
What luck; six pots are left; I take them all. Already in “Annuals” I realize I might as well pick up some ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds and few pots of nasturtiums. By now it is 8:30 and I have acquired more plant material than I can cram into my wagon. Reluctantly I stop hunting and make my way to the line to get a number that will give me space in the holding area where I can safely set down my trophies. While I am standing in line, fellow-hunters approach to ask me about Solanum pyrocanthum. I have her cradled in my free arm, not wanting her to get damaged by the jumble of plants in my wagon. She proves to be the catch of the day and for the next two hours I must console those who did not arrive early enough to get one of the four pots of S p, all of which are gone by 8:35 when I return to the tents.
By now I regret that I only bought two pots of Potentilla alba ‘Snow White,’ despite the unfortunate name. “Remember the rule of three,” I mutter half aloud as I make my way to “Perennials for Sun,” section P, for sun lovers beginning with that letter. But, of course, by now all six pots are gone. I ask the volunteer who led me to Solanum pyrocanthum if there are any pots of Potentilla alba being held back for the second day of the sale. “Not a chance,” she says, reminding me why I make no plans for early May until I know the dates of the BBG plant sale. All last winter I worried that the sale would fall on the same weekend as my daughter’s graduation from law school but luckily the University of Michigan decided to launch its cadre of new lawyers upon the world on a different date. Had the dates conflicted, would I have been in Michigan or Stockbridge?
By ten and the time for non-members to arrive, I am done. I have scoured sun and shade perennials from A to Z, succumbed to the lure of new Columbines (they don’t return) and Hostas (I have no space for more) in the shade section, even acquired the exotic “Chenille Plant” (Alcalypha hispida) and a tender Hibiscus ‘Dancing Fire’ because I couldn’t resist the names. I have loaded up four wagons with plants, including all the plants that were on my ‘must have’ list and two wagons of plants that in the fever of the plant hunt became “must haves.” Now I must pay for them. This is a sobering moment.
As I begin the job of calculating the cost of my morning’s frenzy, a question nags me. Are all these plants really “must haves’? Am I really experiencing necessity, the gardener’s version of course, or am I simply being greedy, even for a gardener? Greed most certainly flourishes in the gardener’s world, fertilized by the rich manure of lust. More than once, I have watched as “I must have that plant” turns into “I must have all those plants.” Once I stood by as an aggressive plant hunter at a local plant sale pushed through the crowd in front of a table of Astilbe chinensis ‘Purpurkerze,’ grabbed the entire flat of plants, and carried it off, deaf to the cries of disappointment and outrage that followed him. When you have an Astilbe like ‘Purpurkerze’ that vendors describe as a “striking giant for the shade garden,” one that can reach 42” in height, one that sports spectacular candelabra-like flowers, and particularly one that can tolerate sun and drought, then you have greed. If you have tree peonies for sale at $20 when they usually cost upwards of $50, you have greed.
As I survey the array of plants I am about to pay for, I feel a sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach. It’s the same feeling I get when I have placed my order to Wayside Gardens for all their new Penstemons or come home from a trip to my local nursery with three rare and expensive dwarf conifers instead of the one I went for. After such excess, an inner voice remonstrates, “Greedy, that’s what you are, greedy. You don’t need all those plants, you can’t take care of all those plants, you have no place for all those plants, IT IS TOO MUCH.” On occasion, the voice gets me to return a plant or two on the spot. Today, hearing it, I just snap back that having too many plants doesn’t hurt anyone and besides I deserve them. I know their Latin names. Like a mantra, I repeat Solanum pyrochanthum as a volunteer loads the plants into my car.
Driving home, I think about Eve, the world’s first gardener, so maligned for eating the fruit of her labors. I suspect Eve enjoyed poking around in Eden, always looking for new and rare plants; I suspect she was a plant hunter. Say a gardener, a plant hunter, a woman, say Eve herself had written Genesis, I think the story might have been different. Working in her garden one evening, Eve encounters the Devil. He is carrying a small tree and smiling broadly. “Eve,” he says, “have I got a plant for you! Look at this.” Then he would show her the world’s first crabapple and point out that it is quite different from the regular apple tree he brought her some years ago. Intrigued, Eve would ask for more details and the Devil would read her the description of Malus ‘Adirondack’ on the tag: “Guaranteed to be upright and vase-shaped. Grows to a maximum height of 15’. Pale pink buds open to delicately scented pure white flowers in late spring. Clusters of small glossy red fruits persist until late winter and attract songbirds. Disease and pest resistant too.” He would add that the foliage turns brilliant red-orange in the fall, and, by the way, no one else in the neighborhood has one.
Eve would not hesitate to take this plant for that corner in her garden that simply must have a small tree to grace it, and she would thank the Devil for thinking of her. And if he came back on a certain day in spring, the day when all the blossoms of the crabapple fall all at once on the ground to lie in a crimson circle around the base of the tree, they would both be lost in wonder together. Then Eve would ask, “What’s hot this year?” And acquisition would begin. After all, she had a lot of space to work with. Reading this story, future gardeners would identify and find justification for their passion.
New York has its deer hunting season, Minnesota goes crazy when you can first fish for Walleyes, the opening of baseball season is an event of national importance. If I had the power, I would declare May 1 the opening day of plant hunting season in New England and I would demand that this day be taken as seriously and greeted with as much fanfare as that which attends the opening of deer hunting season in New York or Walleye season in Minnesota or baseball season in the United States. Pancake breakfasts, parades, a recognized holiday from work for devotees, photos, champagne – all this and more would mark the day. There are, after all, at least as many gardeners in this country as there are hunters or fishers or perhaps even baseball fans. And plant hunting requires many of the skills that give status to these other activities-- knowledge of the best spots for the catch, a sharp eye, considerable patience, mastery of the technique required for getting the prize. As for passion in the pursuit, I would put your plant hunter up against your deer slayer or Walleye hooker any day.
Next year I think I will recognize on my own the opening of plant hunting season. I will throw a party with champagne and brie and invite all my plant hunting friends. We will exchange photos of our trophies from last year’s hunt and tell each other stories of past triumphs. We will share pictures from catalogues of “new introductions” we simply must have this year and tips for the best hunting spots for this season. We will agree to meet again in late June to share with each other the fruits of the hunt. For there comes a day in June when you drive to a nursery to see what new and exotic plants they might have or even what tried and true selections are on offer, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t believe I want another dwarf conifer just now.” Then you know the madness is over for another year and it is safe for you to go to a plant sale, should there actually be one in July.
Judith Fetterley lives, writes, and gardens in upstate New York. She holds a Certificate in Garden Design from the Institute for Ecosystem Studies, affiliated originally with the New York Botanical Garden and is the owner and manager of Perennial Wisdom, a small perennial garden design business. A Master Gardener with Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension, she has recently become co-manager of their extensive demonstration gardens. She has been a gardener for over 35 years, and she writes about her experiences of gardening as a way of telling stories about what it means to be human.