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Gift Plants For Annoying Neighbors
Among gardeners, there’s a dark joke about which plants make the best gifts for pesky neighbors and annoying acquaintances. Even though I haven’t played this game yet, I was tempted. Top of the gift list are plants with a runaway metabolism, affectionately known as “the flowers of discontent.”
They are as seemingly harmless as a morning glory, as humble as mint, as majestic as gooseneck strife or as exotic as the Asian chameleon plant. The gift, like the Trojan horse, is enticing before rolling over its host.
Bringing a jar of Heavenly Blue morning glories to a hostess you’ve been obligated to attend at the party seems innocent enough. But each gorgeous blue flower only blooms for a day before it literally goes to seed. Since the flowers keep coming, blooming in greater numbers every week, so go the seed count.
The hostess, captivated by the rapid growth of the vine and the beauty of the flowers, will not notice the seedlings that accumulate at her feet. Heavenly Blue, the most popular hybrid, drops hundreds of seeds in its three to four months of flowering. Miraculously, they all seem to sprout wherever they land in the garden, between cobblestones, in cracks, in gravel, in clay and in sand.
It is impossible to eliminate the entire population at once. Seeds keep coming all summer and fall until frost sets in. Then any seed that hasn’t germinated patiently waits for spring to germinate. Morning glories might be welcome if the seeds carried the beauty of their hybrid parent, but that is not the case. They revert to a species with smaller pink or dark purple flowers. And here’s the rub: the seedlings, sneaky devils that they are, crawl along the ground, camouflaged against the shorter perennials as they circle a stem, then reach out with corkscrew tendrils, grabbing another and another until the flowers are tightly bound. The vine climbs higher and higher, seeking the sun to bloom. Then it blooms and soon spits out more seeds.
Consider a gift of mint, a humble herb that provides a refreshing addition to iced tea and forms the backbone of mint juleps. There are dozens to choose from peppermint, spearmint, pineapple mint, apple mint, ginger mint and more.
But there is a dark side to mint. Once planted, it cannot be stopped from spreading. Its roots run like an underground express, making regular stops every few inches to send out new shoots. Even though it is picked daily, it is moving forward. The variegated golden mint, running along our shallow creek, dived and swam to the other side, pushing all other plants out of its way.
Gooseneck strife, on the other hand, makes an elegant gift, a quiet beauty with a gracefully arching head covered in white, starry blooms. When the sun goes down, they glow softly in the reflected light. Such looks are deceiving. The scarlet roots of this beauty are the devil to dislodge. They run in all directions, sometimes for several meters, before giving birth to another angelic-looking plant. If the soil is moist and loamy, it is possible to apply slow, gentle pressure and pull out a foot or two of root at a time. If the ground is dry and crusty, a bulldozer is best.
Luckily, the red runners are easy to spot at the base of each shoot as they take to the air in the spring. It is a warning signal of an impending invasion.
By far the best plant for ending a friendship is the chameleon plant, Houttuynia cordata. Featured in unscrupulous catalogs as a colorful and fragrant groundcover to prevent erosion, it will do that and more. The heart-shaped green foliage, speckled with purple, pink and red, weaves a beautiful, dense carpet in sun and shade.
It seems harmless enough, especially in May and June when its small white flowers appear. But pick a flower or tear off a leaf, and the stench that rises in your nose will quickly change your mind. Reminiscent of the rotten hamburger, it is not easily forgotten.
A friend’s husband gave her some chameleon plants for Mother’s Day, and she liked them before they ran through her garden, strangling the other flowers. When she picked them up, they stunned her, like a skunk, with their scent. So she put on a hospital mask, and with redoubled determination (and feistiness), defeated them all.
Then again, an unlucky hostess might leave the gift plant in its pot, where it will bloom without causing havoc. Or if the recipient isn’t a gardener, your gift just might turn a bare yard into a meadow. But if you live next door, it might come back to haunt you.
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