Plant snobs. Any long-time gardener or plant collector has run into them. The further you dig yourself into the gardening lifestyle, the more the plant snobbery reveals itself. Sadly, what is lost in all this is the beauty that can be found in a commonly available plant.
Common plants become common for a reason. After many years of being “tested” in gardens all over the world, certain plants reach a “tried and true” status level. They tend to be strong growers, they are pest resistant, they come with little maintenance requirements, and in most cases they have a wide array of lighting and soil preferences. Not many rare plants can claim all this. It is for these reasons that popular plants can be found in garden centers around the world and become the favorites of landscape designers. Even for the more finicky plant collector or gardener, sometimes it is nice to be able to just plant and forget.
The Sage Palm (Cycas revoluta) is a great example of an extremely easy to grow plant that is common for a reason. Not a true palm tree, the Sago has grown to become the most commonly cultivated cycad in the world. It become popular for all the reasons I described in the prior paragraph above. You would be hard-pressed to find a easier plant to grow in our Mediterranean climate. I love my two shown below that I dug out of a yard where the owner was selling plants before the bank took over. Common? Yes. Beautiful? Of course.
Many of us start with the common and as our addiction gets fueled by the more difficult to find plants, we slowly replace the common with the rare. It is usually here that plant snobbery takes hold. Most don’t even realize they have it until called out by another plant lover. As an example, I have personally witnessed a fellow aloe grower tear out some Aloe thraskii because they had become too common. They would end up being replaced by Aloe ‘Hercules’ – which, ironically, are now becoming quite common too. I have replaced much of my garden with harder to find plants or simply other plants that I just enjoy more. However, I won’t be ripping out my Aloe thraskii to make room for some rarer aloe in the same spot. To me, Aloe thraskii is amongst the more beautiful of the stem-forming aloes.
“Common” isn’t necessarily a life sentence. Sometimes a common plant grows to become rare. It involves time. With some plants like this, you must exhibit some resemblance of patience. This, of course, can be very hard to do. However, your patience can be rewarded. A very common palm tree in Southern California and around the world is Phoenix canariensis. To me, it really is the story of the Ugly Duckling. It isn’t very appealing as a small palm and it takes up a lot of room in your garden. However, once it forms a trunk and gains some height, it becomes a marvel of the palm world. To get this look can take decades of patient growing. Well, or you can cheat like me and buy them big. Trading time for money. In plant cases like this, time becomes the rarity. So yes, while you might find these common palm trees for sale in almost any Southern California nursery, majestic, mature Phoenix canariensis like these below are indeed rare.
My large male Phoenix canariensis is the king of my garden and reigns over all other plants. It is shown below accompanied by another common plant (Dracaena draco to left) that takes decades to reach full beauty. Coincidently, both these plants are from the Canary Islands.
Look, I get it. Why own something that you can see in everyone else’s yard or collection? On your small piece of real estate you want something different to look at and admire. We all do. However, there is a point that some people reach that hinders their ability to value an attractive common plant. Not only can this lead to planting something ugly simply because it is rare, but it can also end up costing you much more money. Something rare today can easily become common tomorrow. Case in point: the Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifurcata). When Wodyetia bifurcata first appeared a few decades ago out of the jungles of Australia, palm growers went nuts for it. People were willing to pay thousands of dollars to get their hands on specimens of this palm tree. Now a Wodyetia bifurcata like mine below is extremely common. The demand is gone and you can find these plants at your local Home Depot. To me there are very few palms that look like this. Wodyetia bifurcata is a truly unique and magnificent palm and shouldn’t be frowned upon by gardeners now that you can pick up smaller plants, like shown in the second photo below, for as little as $25.
Another thing to consider when frowning upon the common plant is that a rare plant might not offer what you need. So you create a self-inflicted dilemma, as your requirement can’t be met unless a common plant is used. An example in my yard is the use of the very common King Palm to provide canopy for a rare palm that doesn’t like full sun while still small. In my case I needed a palm that loves full sun, likes water, and one that will grow very fast to shield my rare palm from winter sun. You can see below my common Archontophoenix alexandrae (center palm) does just this for my rare Dypsis saintelucei (palm to right). By choosing the King Palm and fighting off palm snobbery, I was able to turn a struggling Dypsis saintelucei into the beautiful specimen below. So yes, plant snobbery could be hindering your skills as a gardener.
I will never buy what I consider to be an ugly rare plant and I will never turn down a beautiful common plant. It is here where I find the biggest faults with plant snobbery. There is an illusion that rarity makes a plant more attractive, and the fact is many plant snobs buy the rare to check a box or to say they have something most others do not. It is only in those diseased minds where a common plant suddenly becomes much more desirable once it has a label of “rare.” Rarity truly becomes a cloak. Would a Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis) such as the one below end up in a plant snob’s palm garden? The Mediterranean Fan Palm below was purchased as a large 48-inch box palm in 2005. It was a mess of numerous heads and looked like a ball of green fronds. I saw the beauty in this palm when I bought it. Once planted, I removed about 6 heads to give it the balanced structure you see now. It has doubled in size since 2005 and now is a centerpiece in my driveway. Easily one of the most common palms in Southern California. Yet not much can rival the beautify of it in a location like this.
I’m really not judging. What kind of doctor would I be if I couldn’t self-diagnose my own issues? I wish I could say that it wasn’t so, but yes, yours truly has been snobby towards common plants. More times than I care to admit. A few weeks ago I was hunting for a “nice” Mammillaria for a new pot I had just purchased. It was a gorgeous Chingwen Chen creation so it needed something just as fantastic. While I was at a backyard cactus grower’s greenhouse shopping, one cactus jumped out at me. I didn’t know what species it was but I looked at a tag lying in the pot and it said $150. Damn, it was expensive, so it must be rare. Just what I needed. I picked it up and handed it to the seller. When I asked what species it was, the seller said, “That isn’t the right tag, this is a Mammillaria plumosa and it is $15.” I then proceeded to place it back on the bench. Plant snobbery. Guilty as charged.
Plant snobbery is a hard disease to treat. So I doubt I will be curing anyone. However, I hope in this post that you can at least get past that dirty feeling you have when you buy a common plant for your garden or collection when your mind is telling you that you need something rare. You just might find that planting attractive common plants will make your rare beauties even that more impressive. I certainly feel this way about my Dypsis decipiens below. Anchored with more commons in this part of my garden, this majestic palm stands out further.
In the end, it really comes down to what brings you joy. If rarity is your thing, and it makes you happy, then that is great. Who cares what I or anyone else thinks. I just hope in the never-ending quest to find the next great thing that you slow down and look back at the beauty you could be missing in the plants that can be bought at such a lowly place as your local garden center.