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Common plants that don’t deserve their bad reputation

When master gardener Kim Pearson moved into her Santa Rosa home, she cast a practical eye on the landscape and decided which plants needed to go and which would be allowed to remain.

One that made the cut was the agapanthus. For 20 years it had survived in the heavy clay on a steep hillside and in the dog days of August it valiantly blooms, one of the only pops of color in the landscape.

“I wouldn’t say it looks fabulous,” she said. “But it’s a darker blue variety and it’s over 20 years old and I never divided it. I give it credit for being the one thing that is blooming now, and it is something to look at.”

OK. Not exactly effusive praise. Few gardeners fall madly in love with plants that are so ubiquitous they are a cliché. Agapanthus is frequently dismissed as nothing more than a “shopping center plant.”

But some of these overused plants that may not be in high fashion may still be worth a second glance, particularly with new cultivars coming onto the market all the time.

Consider the agapanthus. Popularly called the African lily or lily of the Nile, this tall-stalked perennial with strappy evergreen leaves is commonly seen in a powdery blue. But it also comes in more dramatic colors like ‘Midnight Blue,’ ‘Black Pantha’ and ‘Mood Indigo.’

Linda King, a landscape designer in Petaluma, said she was only recently inspired to rethink agapanthus when she watched the popular BBC garden guru Monty Don host a segment on growing them in pots.

“He was just saying how agapanthus was a great plant. And I was thinking, ‘Agapanthus?’”

Intrigued, King decided to do some research. If it was good enough for Monty Don, the aganpanthus might be worth reconsidering. She discovered there are some beautiful varieties.

“There are some that are a deep royal blue and there also are ones with interesting variegated leaves, so you don’t have to just wait for the flowers,” she said.

King said she is now planning to try growing them in pots.

“They will bloom better when their roots are restricted,” she explained. “I almost recommend planting them in the ground in a pot because then you can tighten up the roots and get a much better bloom.”

King said she is not too proud to consider a prosaic plant if it has other virtues.

“I put them in the same category as day lilies and true geraniums. They’re easy. They bloom forever. They’re boring only because we’ve seen so many of them.”

Forestville landscape designer Christa Moné said she also wrote off agapanthus.

“To me they’re mall plants. You always see them in parking strips. But lately I’ve been rethinking them and using them differently,” she said. “They’re really cool plants if they’re just paired with other plants.”

Moné suggested mixing them with other colors. For example, the standard blue flowers could look nice with yellow and white flowers, or even purple ones.

She said she was struck by the sculptural form of agapanthus while walking along a pathway of decomposed granite. The shadow that the plant, in the hot direct sun, cast on the stone made for a striking sight.

“It added another element with a plant that you normally wouldn’t pay attention to,” she said.

Jani Weaver, manager of Emerisa Nursery in Santa Rosa, said she carries several worthy varieties of agapanthus, including ‘Storm Cloud,’ which has large umbels of deep blue-violet flowers and grows up to 3 feet tall. They also have some dwarf varieties: ‘Tinkerbell,’ with cream and green variegated leaves, and ‘Peter Pan,’ which does well in pots and has blue flowers.

There are other common plants that, as Weaver says, “get a bad rap” but have varieties worth considering.

One is hypericum or St. John’s wort. Many are reviled as noxious weeds and invasive. But Weaver said Emerisa has several worthy varieties with beautiful berries that come in different colors.

“They’re a great shrub,” she said, adding that they can take different sun and irrigation conditions and deer leave them alone.

Another misunderstood plant is vinca. Vinca majors can be invasive. but the vinca minors are less troublesome and come in some nice variegations, such as ‘Sterling Silver,’ she said.

To some people, nandina is disaster. The domestica can spread and get messy. But Weaver said there are well-behaved hybrids like ‘Gulf Stream’ and the shorter ‘Moon Bay.’

“They can take sun or shade, wet or dry and they’re deer-resistant,” she said. “‘Gulf Stream’ is a bullet-proof plant.”

Even juniper, almost a dirty word because old plantings became fire fuel in the spate of North Coast wildfires over the last few years, has some worthy varieties.

“The old ones they were planting in the ‘50s we can do without,” Weaver said. “But there are some beautiful varieties of ground covers like ‘Blue Pacific’ and ‘Daub’s Frosted’ that (have) yellows and blues.”

Just like clothing, the plant world has its trends that come and go. But you don’t always have to follow the crowd.

“Plants do come in out and out of fashion. And it’s hard to follow the trends,” Weaver said. Ten or 12 years ago I couldn’t keep lavender on the table. Now I don’t sell as much lavender all all. People just aren’t planting it in the way they used to.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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