While singing Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” Kermit the Frog laments how he blends in—and fails to stand out—among more colorful and flashier things. Given how many plant species (including one third of trees) are threatened with extinction, “it’s not that easy bein’ green” should be their motto, too. In urban forests, tribulations trial our street trees to the point where we measure their lifespans in years not decades, leaving cities ever hotter and far less beautiful places.
Plant blindness, the term coined by James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler, is at play. When people fail to see the plants around them, they do not notice their beauty. Worse, they undervalue their essential role in supporting all life on Earth. I wonder if some have become phytophobic, in their carelessness.
As the world shifts from rural to urban and suburban living, we’ve become detached from plants, the very things that feed and oxygenate us. Even while many of us grow them, I fear we’ve also become alienated. To many, plants are just commodities, means to ends. I see it in the nursery catalogs we browse, the landscapes we design, the gardens we steward. We rush to buy the latest disease-resistant cultivar of elm, the hottest-off-the-press hydrangea, the newest, dazzling coneflower—each a must-have due to superb pest-resistance, 5-season interest, drought tolerance, pollinator-friendliness, non-invasiveness, maximum winterhardiness, and a host of other traits folks claim the plants possess.
We demand a lot from plants in our managed landscapes, and those qualities are essential for many to survive. Yet among the attributes of new garden plants, I see a glaring omission: a richly authentic connection to a human, something that makes each individual stem stand out among its green brethren.
At the Arboretum, we do not grow trees: we jointly cultivate them and curate their narratives. Some of these are backstories that came with the plant; others emerge where they are growing. I may lecture to a class about Ernest Wilson’s 1901 collection from China of the now-threatened paperbark maple, Acer griseum; a docent may share with a visitor Connie Derderian’s heroic efforts saving the bonsai and penjing collection while its curator from 1969 to 1984.
This technique—sharing their backstories—may be a surefire way to inspire others to see plants, but it still doesn’t go far enough. The student returns home from the lecture hall; the visitor departs the Arboretum. Motivated as they may have been at the time, the moment can be fleeting. People need their own personal, authentic connections to plants, too.
I’m lucky to have a garden at home, where I grow plants replete with backstories important to me. Don’t get me wrong—I grow quite a few eye-candy plants, too. Passersby from the sidewalk regularly ask the name of the shrub humming with bumblebees and awash with huge yellow blooms each July (Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’), and then follow-up wondering what that nearby mass of lacy, chartreuse vegetation is (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). While they may be clickbait, these are not the real showstoppers.
I get access to surplus seedlings from my own expeditions, and a dozen have found space at home. When I watch each bloom of Weigela decora shift from cream to rose, I recall that slightly rainy September day in 2018, collecting it with colleagues in Nikko, Japan. As I cut back the Hydrangea arborescens every spring, I harken back to 2014, gathering seeds in the Ozarks, shouting warnings to fellow collectors about the cottonmouths and rattlesnakes underfoot. I also grow a Stewartia rostrata collected by Peter Del Tredici in 2004, in Lushan, China. Every time I see it, I think of Peter and our friendship. None of these plants is the most glamorous of its kind, but I’d not trade them for the showiest of cultivars sold in fancy containers.
I also grow plants passed down from family. A favorite is Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Hortensia’, often called golden glow, outhouse plant—or its most colorful moniker, shithouse daisy. We called them “grandpa’s flowers,” a name my mother grew up with, for her own grandfather dug them and other plants from the small farm in Hamlet, Indiana, loaded them in a horse-drawn wagon full of furniture, and drove the family to Sturgis, Michigan—a three-day trip. Sure, the plant can be ratty, the leaves covered with mildew by the end of summer. But, when I see those bright yellow pompon blooms, I smile and think of generations of gardeners sharing the plant and the story.
Plant lovers love to share plants. A decade ago, friends gave me fresh cuttings of a citronella-scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), which they in turn acquired as cuttings from a spontaneous plant sprawling on Mount Lycabettus, in Athens, Greece. My cuttings rooted and became houseplants that thrive under neglect. Last summer, I introduced the magic of plant propagation to one of the neighbor kids. Six-year-old Abe snipped a few stem cuttings, prepared and stuck them in a pot of basic soil (this geranium will root in anything!), and waited. They rooted, and a year later he has a lanky, smelly houseplant. Whether he tells the story of its Greek provenance matters little to me—what does matter is that he has his own authentic backstory connecting him to the plant.
By the end of his song, Kermit realizes that green is beautiful and exactly what he wants to be. Even when lacking fancy tradenames or cultivar epithets, the green beings in our gardens are beautiful when they have authentic backstories. As we grow the tried-and-true (as well as novel-and-new) plants for ourselves, our clients, our cities, we must also make room for those with personal stories to learn, preserve, and share. If none come to mind, we write them by sowing a seed, rooting a cutting, or adopting a nearby street tree to call our own. In doing so, we will all better see the plants around us. They need this, and so do we.
Michael S. Dosmann is the keeper of living collections at the Arnold Arboretum.
From “free” to “friend”…
Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.
It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.