Some people specialize in flowering plants, some in vegetables, and others in foliage plants. But how often do we hear about the plants that do something different? There are many of them that grow in Nebraska to make gardening more exciting. Today I want to share with you some that I like.

          A few years ago, George gave me a branch of the “Twisted Willow” or “Corkscrew Willow” (Salix tortuoso) which is sometimes called “Dragons Claw Willow”. As with all willows, it roots easily and now is about fifteen feet high and hanging over a lily pond. It is a tall, slender plant that bends and twists as it heads upward. It is fun to see especially in the winter.  In the front yard is a shorter, fatter “Henry Lauders Walking Stick” (Corylus contorta) whose branches are thicker and even more twisted with catkins hanging down in spring-a fun thing when everything is covered with snow.

          About now (October as I am writing this) the Holly are preparing their winter show.  In the back yard is a “China Boy Holly” who was partially smashed this spring by a “Cottonwood” tree branch but still made enough pollen to pollinate the “China Girl Holly” (Ilex cornuta). They are only 3 years old but this fall she is covered with bright red berries. She is in high shade where I put on sulphur each fall to keep the soil slightly acid. On the east side of the house is a pair of “Grape Holly” (Mahonia aquifolium) whose berries are blue. Early in the spring she has clusters of yellow flowers.  They are wider and taller and older than the China Boy and China Girl and I have had to do a little pruning to see out the window. They also receive sulphur each fall. I put it on top of the mulch that I keep over their feet year round. The house foundation tends to raise the soil pH so they get a larger dose. (Be careful what you plant next to your foundation as the poured cement or cement blocks leach lime and raise the pH. You may have to add sulphur each spring and/or fall to lower the pH.) Between the two Hollys is another pair of red berried Holly whose name I have forgotten.

          “Purple Beauty Berry” (Callacarpa dichotoma) is a beauty with its clusters of bright purple beads lining all the stems from the tip to 18-20 inches back. It is a little late in showing off and its berries always get frozen at their best! I made a mistake with this one and planted it too close to the gate of the dog pen so I have to duck in order to open the gate.  Each fall I cut it completely to the ground to keep it about 4 feet by 4 feet. Perhaps if I didn’t do that it would set berries a little earlier as every summer it is up and growing with tiny white blooms where the berries will be. It was doing okay before, but I read it also likes acid soil so last fall it received a cupful of sulphur granules. I don’t like powdered sulfur since it tends to blow around but you can scratch both forms into the soil in a circle around the roots.

          A plant that only grows two to three feet high whose small white flowers are not exciting is the “Chinese Lantern” (Physalis alkekengi). Sometimes it is also called “Japanese Lantern”. It dies back to the ground at first frost and has vigorous underground roots willing to take over your yard when it warms up in the spring. The exciting parts are the seed pods, bright orange, shaped like a lantern that can be dried for winter bouquets. The orange is actually calcyes that look like paper and sometimes skeletonize to become even more interesting. This is not as likely to happen if you want the bright orange, and mainly can be avoided if you cut the stems immediately after the orange lantern appears. The leaves sometimes causes itch so you might want to wear gloves. Also the fruit (lanterns) can give you a stomach ache if you eat one. The plants are easy to hoe off in spring so I save the largest group away from the parent that has traveled in the direction I wanted.

          All the annual poppies I have ever known make very interesting seed pods-round with a rim slightly over it with a row of holes completely around from which the seeds are dropped out.  The plant dries as soon as this happens so you can start another crop of something else. The seeds need to freeze to be a big success so if I want them in a different place I throw them on top of the ground in the fall and walk on them but do not cover. The walk is because they will blow away. Authors say there may be as many as 30,000 seeds in one of those pods!!! The perennial poppy also has those interesting pods but doesn’t seed as badly. If you want a new plant the safest way to go is to dig up a root or so, cut them in pieces and plant.  Give them plenty of room as those plants can be several feet across. The “Oriental Poppies” die down as usual and then in fall come up in the snow all winter, so do your root cuttings as the plants start to fail.  They won’t grow if you plant them upside down so be careful.

          One of the prettiest centerpieces I have seen in the middle of a huge table was “Sweet Autumn Clematis” (Clematis paniculata). It actually has several species names as the taxonomists are continually “classifying”, which can be confusing. In a good year, one of these that is over 2-3 years old will climb or sprawl up and out 15 to 20 feet. It is covered with white, fragrant star like white flowers followed by fuzzy seed heads. The centerpiece had covered the shed roof with a few white flowers and many, many fluffy seed heads. The decorator pulled what was on the roof and laid the tangle in the center of the table. She pushed places aside and inserted short, fat, red candles which were not lighted.  Seed heads don’t need water and so remained gorgeous for several days.  Many of the Clematis make these fuzzy heads but few of them in the numbers of “Sweet Autumn”. These plants will grow almost anywhere. I have several in full sun, and several growing on a chain link fence directly under a giant Cottonwood Tree. I cut them all to the ground after a hard frost.

          “Mexican Hair Grass” (Stipa tenuissima) is a fun one to have on your borders as it is only 24 inches tall, soft, and blows in the wind.  It is listed as Zone 7-10 but I’ve had several clumps now for 2 to 3 years and it seeds fairly well so I believe it is here to stay. It is also call “Feather Grass”, “Needle Grass” and “Spear Grass”. It starts light green in spring then develops “blond” hair early into summer.  I have some growing in the “hell strip” and a few in the backyard getting high shade.  People going by stop to pet it!

Copyright 2006, NOV. 4