Plants are amazing. They are the foundation for all life on Earth. Within the realm of plants there are some which amaze more than others…
Why grow ordinary varieties? As a gardener, you can choose to grow rare and unusual plants. Amaze your family and yourself with less common vegetables – colours, shapes, and sizes that aren’t often seen or expected. Many ‘green’ vegetables exist as purple cultivars – beans, carrots, capsicum, potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli are readily available from heritage seed sellers.
The tiny and the giant are also incredible – from bite-sized tomatoes to wheelbarrow-worthy squash – it’s a wonder to young and old to grow and eat food not normally seen at the market. Even asparagus, a delicate fern with rapidly shooting spears is delightfully different in the vegetable patch.
Cacti and succulents are fantastic hobby plants. Children are attracted by their diversity and love to collect these potted wonders. They are fun to display, tolerate some neglect and can be obtained from most nurseries and markets. Often, they produce pups or can be grown from breaking off a piece and planting it – ready to be swapped with fellow enthusiasts. Many types of cacti have no sharp spikes and so are safe for young hands.
For the more advanced weird plant collector, carnivorous plants are very popular - Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula), octopus plants (Drosera species) and pitcher plants (Sarracenia sp.) are three that are commonly sold for their novelty value. These may require more care than your average potplant, but are so fascinating to grow and observe as they derive some of their nutrients by trapping and consuming animals.
Bonsai is the ancient art of miniaturising trees in containers through pruning, shaping and training the plant for display. It is a hobby for the careful and patient grower that can be learned from books, the internet, or a local bonsai club. Many types of woody, perennial trees and shrubs are suitable for use in bonsai, and those with small leaves or needles are most effective.
Fungi are fun to observe when fruiting as either mushrooms or moulds, most often after rain. Eating wild fungi is something to be careful with, but it is easy to grow your own with a mushroom mini-farm or box. If you have a commercial mushroom farm nearby, often a cheap bag or load of mushroom compost, well positioned, will continue to supply feasts of mushrooms for many weeks at minimal cost and effort.
Wild foods are some of our favourite snacks. They are the ultimate in spray-free, packaging-free local food. In the rainforest near our house, our children have identified numerous fruiting trees and vines. Foraging for food can be enjoyable and is good for you. It’s an educational, fresh-air activity that links you to the changing seasons. Supplement your diet and enjoy the savings and the flavour, but please source a good field guide or other means of identification before you do the taste test.
When considering fruit trees, we often only think about those whose fruits we see in the supermarket. There is an amazing array of fruiting trees, brambles and vines which are suitable for family gardens, school yards, community plots and park areas. They’re often more prolific than the standard varieties, hardier and less expensive. In many areas there are rare fruit growers groups to consult as to what is suitable to your locale. Otherwise, nurseries and garden catalogues are offering an increasing number of less-common fruiting plants. Some favourites in our orchard are the lemonade, grumichama, tamarillo and Brazilian cherry trees.
Two of my favourite unusual plants are the luffa and the pineapple. Luffa (L. aegyptiaca) is an annual tropical vine on which fruit are left to grow to maturity. Once mature, they are dried and processed so that only the seed pod fibre remains. This fibre is the commonly available luffa or bath sponge!
Pineapples are the fruit of one variety of the bromeliaed family. Most bromeliaeds are generally weird and wonderful to look at, but one that produces such a large, sweet fruit is very special. Fruiting can take up to two years, depending on your climate. To grow our pineapples, we simply plant the pineapple tops from those we buy to eat at the markets. Once they’ve fruited, many plants will produce another, smaller pineapple the following year. The top of the harvested pineapple is planted out to produce another pineapple in time, and so the cycle continues.
By playing in the garden with plants not usually cultivated, we can retain that child-like sense of wonder and discovery to sustain us through the periods of weeding, watering and less-creative garden tasks.
Amazing Plants by Ilil Arbel (a Dover coloring book)