Annuals amid veggies celebrate color

Posted Sept. 25, 2009, at 5:33 p.m.
Janine Pineo Photo

Arching stems of Polygonum orientale paint a vibrant picture in the garden.
Janine Pineo Photo Arching stems of Polygonum orientale paint a vibrant picture in the garden.

Life is pointless if you don’t have a romantic plant in your garden.

Really.

While the perennial beds garner most of my attention at either end of the growing season, I spend the bulk of my time in the vegetable garden. From sowing seed and planting seedlings to building trellis supports and twining vines through the netting to hours spent picking off either bugs in various states of metamorphosis or vegetables of all shapes and colors, it can be all-consuming.

That means every year when the end of the season arrives, I realize with chagrin that I have spent almost no time admiring the beauty in the flower beds.

Which is why I sprinkle annual flowers throughout the vegetable plot.

Sure, I’ll tell folks that it helps draw the pollinators into the garden in a blatant attempt to direct them to the vegetable plants.

But I really do it for me.

The splashes of color here and there against a nearly solid palette of green — however verdant it might be — are masterpieces, focusing more on the singular wonder of a few plants rather than in undulating masses found in a showy border.

In this year of pestilence, where blight and bugs have wreaked destruction on a number of crops, these little flower plantings have been a beacon, glowing more brightly than I can recall from years past.

The borage, with its cool blue stars, is flowering ferociously. The cosmos, many of which reseeded from last year’s plantings, have been blossoming for weeks now in a never-ending exhibition of pink.

The sunflowers in their warm autumn shades are just hitting their peak, while the purple-top verbena has branched freely into bobbing lavender pompoms. The zinnias’ eye-popping shades of red, orange and pink draw my attention every time I look in that direction.

Nearly decimated by misguided cabbageworms, the nasturtiums have bounced back with matchless magnificence, radiant with orange and red blooms.

Then there is the plant that stands unrivaled in its loveliness: the romantic, the tender Polygonum orientale.

Simply oozes passion, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, especially when it is better known as Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate.

Mostly because the name was sweet, I tried for a few years to grow this annual from seed, but to no avail. Then I found seedlings at a greenhouse and the rest is history.

Real history.

Turns out that this member of the buckwheat family can be traced back to Virginia in 1737, where it was grown by one John Custis of Williamsburg. He received the seed from a Brit, Peter Collinson, who served as patron to American plant explorers.

The plant seems to have more aliases than a CIA agent and even boasts a previous Latin name, Persicaria orientalis. It also has been called Japanese knotweed, Ragged Sailor, Ladyfingers, Garden Persicary, Tall Persicary and Oriental Persicary.

Another bit of confusion comes from Thomas Jefferson. The director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, who compiled the aforementioned historical details, writes at www.twinleaf.org that the name Jefferson used, Prince’s Feather, can apply to a type of amaranthus but also applies to Polygonum orientale. Jefferson wrote about Prince’s Feather in his journals, but never is it verified as either one or the other.

Ah, what’s romance without a little mystery?

I didn’t have to know its past to love Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate. This spectacular plant grows five or six feet in height in my garden although some reports say it can grow even taller in a season.

I have been lucky in that it has reseeded itself every year since that first purchase. So each spring before the vegetable plot is plowed, I search for the wee seedlings, looking for the reddish stem with the little “swollen nodes,” as one source describes the structure.

Those nodes inspired the new botanical name, Polygonum orientale, which comes from the Greek polys for many and gonu for knee or joint: many joints.

When it starts to flower, the show begins with ever-multiplying, arching stems of flowers that look much like a string of beads. The color is best described as a vivid red-pink. The blossoming goes on for weeks as the plants get ever larger until the frosts hit.

And this fine romance comes again to its bittersweet end.

jpineo@bangordailynews.net

www.janinepineo.com

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