Atriplex. Common name, the Salt Bush. You wouldn’t say it was blessed at birth with the best looking genes. It is dull, it is straggly, it doesn’t have flashy flowers. But the salt bush brought home to me the fact that I was at least developing, horticulturally speaking.
When I was new to gardening, I remember thinking in a very polarised fashion. I loved hydrangeas, I hated gazanias, I loved bougainvillea, I hated house leeks and so it went on. I saw the plants I didn’t like as being old-fashioned and frumpy and scoffed at my husband for suggesting that plants couldn’t possibly follow fashion. That is until I went looking for a smoke bush, and was told by the nursery that they hadn’t sold them for ages; they were out of fashion after all. I too, was indignant then. I was young and if I liked them, of course they were ‘in fashion’.
But as time went on, and as I moved around the world, I started to see plants very differently. Perhaps I would never grow house leeks on a rockery in the UK, as my mum does, but now I am in Australia, I absolutely love succulents. Can’t get enough of them!
On a trip to Whyalla, where my husband spent the first 7 years of his life, we saw a lot of salt bushes. Salt bushes by the sea, salt bushes by the mountains, salt bushes by the mines. I think it was then that it really sunk in, that all plants are beautiful, in the right place. They are just not so beautiful in the wrong place. Can you really argue that these scenes are not breath-takingly stunning?
Nature has an amazing way of combining earth, mineral and water to produce scenes of beauty that designers can only dream of achieving in a man-made garden. In theory we have the ability to create extraordinary combinations of plants – we can manipulate very localised areas of soil and protection to mix rainforest plants with desert plants. But somehow nature knows best and on the whole rainforest plants look better with rainforest plants and desert plants look better with desert plants.
We should not let this dampen our enthusiasm for innovation. We can always find new ways to design and new styles of planting that delight and excite and bring beauty to our landscapes. But when you are next tempted to dismiss a plant out of hand, as ugly or frumpy, give a thought for the poor, lowly salt bush. Every species in the world has at least one unique, special place where it looks absolutely perfect. The never-ending challenge is to find that perfect plant for each perfect place in our gardens.