Unique Garden Plants

10 interesting garden plants that live up to their common names and look great in the lawn and garden.

Burning Bush Plant

The Gas Plant or Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus) is covered with oil glands that emit a strong, spicy fragrance.

Photo by Fotolia/Arpad

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Most of us enjoy looking for new or unique garden plants. It seems that we’re intrigued and fascinated by certain attributes of particular plants that are especially appealing, such as uncommon beauty, unusual fragrance or texture, peculiar traits or adaptations, and myriad other reasons.

Here’s a look at 10 exceptional plants that truly live up to their common names. Several can be difficult to find locally, which is likely the reason many are not grown as frequently as they deserve to be. These plants, however, will definitely reward you for your efforts in tracking them down and growing them. To track down these magnificent plants, check with your local nursery to see if they know of any suppliers who offer them. A Google search will also lead you to numerous online sources.

1. Gas Plant or Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus)

The burning bush plant is highly attractive and quite deserving of a special place in the garden. The entire plant — particularly the older flowers — is covered with oil glands that emit a strong, spicy fragrance. So much oil is produced, in fact, that on hot, windless summer days, the excess oil turns to vapor. When you place a lit match near the plant, the whole plant briefly becomes engulfed in flames. Amazingly, the plant is unharmed. This is because it’s the vapors surrounding the plant that go up in flames, while the plant is untouched. So it only makes sense that this plant is named both a gas plant and a burning bush.

In early summer, this 30-inch-tall perennial plant bears clusters of fragrant, slightly waxy, white flowers on sturdy spikes. Dictamnus albus var. purpureus is a popular lilac-pink-to-light-purple variety with darker purplish veins. The gas plant has attractive, slightly glossy, light green, finely toothed foliage. Rubbing the foliage gently with your fingers releases a delightful lemony scent. The plant is long lived, once established, and is quite hardy (Zone 3), requiring both well-drained soil and full sun.

Unfortunately, this fascinating and beautiful plant is not commonly grown. The reason most likely being because it is difficult to grow from seed, and it resents disturbance. Seed needs to be pre-chilled for three months, and then takes anywhere from three months to a full year to germinate. The gas plant dislikes being moved or divided, and it takes a few years to get established. On the whole, patience is a virtue with this plant, but it is an extremely worthy one to seek out.

2. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

The marshmallows we especially enjoy by the fireside were originally derived from this wild mallow found in marshy areas of Europe. The plant’s light pink, hollyhock flowers appear throughout most of the summer on stems that grow up to 3 feet tall.

A special attribute of this perennial plant is the remarkable similarity in texture to that of the finest velvet when the soft, hairy, gray-green, heart-shaped leaves are gently caressed between the fingers.

The Marshmallow plant is hardy in Zones 3 through 9.

3. Storks Bill or Herons Bill (Erodium)

These delightful plants have beak-like seed capsules that resemble the bills of storks or herons. Many have the amazing ability to dig their seeds into the ground like augers, and they actually plant themselves! Place a seed on your hand and you’ll see it twist and turn as though it’s trying to plant itself on your hand. This is because of the moisture and warmth of your palm, which is not dissimilar to the warmth and moisture found in garden soil. Children, including us older kids, find it fascinating to watch — and feel.

My favorite storks bill is Erodium manescavii, which has beautiful deep pink flowers from late spring well into autumn, growing above delicate, fernlike foliage. It grows to about 18 inches tall, enjoys full sun to shady locations, and is hardy to Zone 5. The plant is quite adaptable to various soils, but tends to prefer well-drained, moisture-retentive conditions. It is a tough and determined plant that can be quite prolific from seed.

4. Poached Eggs (Limnanthes douglasii)

This interesting little annual from California has an abundance of small flowers that cover the plant in summer. Each delicately scented flower is white with yellow centers – and really do resemble poached eggs.

Poached eggs grow easily from seed. If you only want the yolks, there is a pure gold-flowered form available. Adding to the plant’s appeal is the pale green, deeply cut, fernlike foliage. Growing only 6 inches tall, poached eggs bloom in early summer and then become completely dormant in summer, surviving as seed in the ground right through winter. Plants prefer a soil on the damp side in a sunny to partly sunny location.

5. Compass or Polar Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

This is a tall, aristocratic perennial from the American prairies. It grows up to 6 feet tall and boasts bright yellow, daisylike flowers from midsummer into fall. The fascinating trait of this plant is its young, deeply cut and lance-shaped leaflets, which turn or orient themselves so that the leaf edges face north and south, wherever the plant is grown. Who needs a compass with a plant like this? The real reason the leaves behave in this fashion is to avoid the intense heat of the afternoon sun in its native home.

6. Drumsticks (Craspedia globosa)

If there’s a drummer or someone aspiring to be a drummer in your family, then this plant just may appeal to them. The globular, bright yellow to golden, tightly packed flower heads rest at the tops of strong, wiry stems, like colorful drumsticks. They make excellent cut or dried flowers for arrangements. This delightful, though rarely grown, annual from Australia grows 24 to 36 inches tall with narrow, silvery gray leaves. It enjoys well-drained soil and full sun, and is easily grown from seed.

7. Money Plant (Lunaria annua, syn. L. biennis)

We all know that money can’t grow on trees, but how about on a plant? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

The money plant — also known as a silver dollar, dollar plant, penny flower, or moneywort — is frequently referred to as honesty. Always associated with money — most likely because of the plant’s circular seed pods, in the middle of which is a silvery, papery, translucent, moonlike membrane — the seed pods remain on the flower stalks from late summer well into fall. Rubbing off the seeds and outer covering will expose the “coins.” These cleaned-up seed pods on their stems are excellent in dried arrangements.

This unique biennial bears fragrant clusters of purple flowers in late spring and early summer. A white cultivar is readily available, as is a pinkish-red flowered variety with variegated foliage. The plant grows to about 30 inches tall, is easy to grow from seed, and is hardy to Zone 5. The money plant can be quite prolific, preferring partial sun and a moisture-retentive, well-drained soil.

8. Four O’Clock Plant (Mirabilis jalapa)

This is a beautiful and tough plant that is quite adaptable to many garden situations. The reason for its name is because the plant has the habit of opening its flowers in late afternoon, remaining open all night, and then fading the following morning. A bushy perennial, the four o’clock plant is grown for its fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers of crimson, pink, red, yellow or white, which appear throughout most of the summer. A few varieties prolifically produce flowers that are streaked and splashed with several different colors, and sometimes flowers are found with different colored blooms on the same plant. Delightfully impressive, to say the least. On overcast days, the blooms will usually stay open throughout the day.

The four o’clock plant, although a perennial, is typically treated as an
annual from seed. Although only hardy to about Zone 8, the tubers can be lifted and stored over winter, similar to the way we store dahlias.

The plant grows up to 3 feet tall and prefers a sunny, well-drained soil. It does well in hot climates and is considered quite drought tolerant. Propagation is easy from seed, or you can divide the tubers.

9. Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

If you need to wash some delicate fabrics or woollens, then this is the plant for you. Soapwort can also be used as a shampoo or skin wash. The roots of this plant — and several other related species — contain a substance known as saponin, which creates a lather when mixed with water. The name saponaria is derived from the Latin sapo, meaning soap.

The genus provides us with several attractive and floriferous, mostly perennial plants. The two most common are Saponaria officinalis, a 24-inch-tall upright perennial that spreads rapidly by rhizomes, and the low-growing S. ocymoides, which is perfect for rock gardens and trailing over walls. Both plants prefer sun and well-drained soil, and both have charming pink flowers that appear in profusion in spring and early summer.

S. officinalis grows easily from seed, while S. ocymoides is sold in 4-inch pots with other rockery perennials.

10. Shoo-fly Plant (Nicandra physalodes

This intriguing annual from Peru is reputed to repel whitefly in the garden, and was at one time used in the production of fly poison. The poisonous properties of Nicandra physalodes are similar to those found in several other members of the potato family, such as the nicotine contained in tobacco plants, which works as a powerful insecticide. There must be some truth behind the name shoo-fly.

A vigorous plant, almost shrublike, with spreading branches, the shoo-fly plant grows up to 3 feet tall. The bell-shaped flowers are pale violet with a white center, and they appear from midsummer into fall. The blooms, however, only open for approximately three hours each day, around noon.

The shoo-fly is an easy plant to grow from seed. It prefers a well-drained, moisture-retentive soil and a spot located in full sun.