Thursday, October 13, 2011

Double Duty

or The Pleasures of Forgetfulness

For some reason salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor, or Poterium sanguisorba) makes me think of water—rills of fresh, cool water.  Maybe it's the way the leaves fountain out of a central point, and then go cascading downward, or maybe it's their cool, blue-green color.  It could just be the simple fact that they have the broad leaves of moist-climate plants.  Or the dark shadows they trap beneath them—dense, woodland shadows rather than the shimmery dappling of most southwestern perennials.  (Ironic, since salad burnet is native to dry, grassy meadows.)  And of course, from dense woodland shadows to rippling woodland streams is but a short mental step (in this free-associating little head, at least).

One of the almost unbreakable rules of thumb I use when choosing plants for my small garden is that everything should fill more than one purpose—provide both spring blooms and fall color, say, or bird sanctuary and summer shade.  Winter interest or windbreak, bee-pleaser or kitchen herb, all of that is fine, but unless it's a tulip or a crocus, a plant has to do double duty at the very least.  Edible salad burnet, with its mild, cucumbery flavor, ornamental shape, and evergreen leaves that shade to red in winter, seemed ideal from its catalog descriptions, but I assumed it would be too thirsty for the southwest.  It isn't.  It has a long taproot (as I found out the wrong way the first time I transplanted one, poor little burnet) and, as long as it's kept in partial shade, can handle almost anything.

For such a soft plant it can be astonishingly sculptural, especially when it's stretching out new leaves in spring or fall:

While its petal-less flowers aren't ornamental, they are definitely intriguing. 

I'm not always sure how to integrate burnet with other garden plants.  It pairs well with rue and other things with fine or dissected leaves, as well as with the taller spikes of irises, but something else is still missing to make them all come together.  (Oddly, I don't care for it with grasses, which in a meadow plant seems wrong.  But there you are.)  Despite that little perplexity, though, I am still as smitten by salad burnet as I was my first year here, after first seeing its winter leaves turn red.

Imagine my surprise when I was idly looking through an old garden notebook from the Vermont years and came to the end-of-summer assessment, which said, "Salad burnet:  dull as dishwater.  Don't bother with it again."

Huh.  My standards of excitement were maybe a little higher ten years ago than they are now, and yet... what more did I want?  There's no knowing, since I didn't even remember having grown burnet in Vermont until finding that notebook.  It's just as well that I did forget, or I wouldn't have bothered with it again and so wouldn't be enjoying a garden full of salad burnet now.

That notebook is a funny one—at least on the surface it was a typical attempt to record what worked and what didn't, and to keep track of weather patterns and all those good things.  But the entries are detailed and enthusiastic only from the moment I planted the first indoor seeds in March until just after the last frost, around the first of June.  Then they come to a screeching halt until fall, when the weather there starts getting nippy again.  The journal seems to have done double duty, helping me track the biggest transition seasons, yes, but also jollying me along through the tail end of winter, letting me start the growing season early and hang onto it late, even if only on paper. 

I came across a Slate article by Libby Copeland the other day about Susan J. Matt's Homesickness:  An American History and still find myself thinking about its last sentence, which describes rootedness "as an expression of a basic human craving: continuity with the past."  Many of us who have been nomadic seem to long less for a particular place than we do for continuity.  We want to feel that the disparate parts of our lives have some ongoing link between them, and not as though we have been cut-and-pasted from one life into another.  (Chronic illness, I think, presents the same challenge, an ache for some sort of connection with who you were before.)

Gardens are certainly generous givers of continuity; many of you have written about cuttings or seeds or plants you cherish because they came from gardens of people you love.   Even when the link is less direct, it can still be strong.  Despite burnet's sturdy compatibility with growing conditions in the southwest and its grassland provenance, at some not-quite-conscious level its shape and color evoke for me a land of broad-leaf forests and shadows and streams; a land of ferns.  It's a tiny thread connecting the third of my life spent in the northeast with the present.  It doesn't quite "go" with much of the rest of the garden, but it still belongs.  Like the Vermont garden notebook, its real purpose is turning out not to be the one I thought it was.

As if being edible, ornamental, and evergreen weren't enough, now it has yet another job to do. 

Salad burnet with native silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima)—hmm.


  1. I've never heard of salad burnet being grown in a garden, Stacy. As a student, I remember traipsing up on to some chalk hills, throwing quadrants over our shoulders and then counting the number and variety of plant species within them. It was the first time (and last?) I came across SB - and being on poor thin soil, on chalk, it was tiny, inconsequential. Mildly interesting as a chalk downland plant but no more so than many other teeny weeny little plants e.g. euphrasia (stick's in my mind too). But against that grass of yours it works and it's BIG! Looks tasty too. I stand corrected.

  2. I don't know this plant, but your pictures of it are very intriguing. It's funny how our tastes change over the years. What I wanted years ago in a garden is completely different than the garden I have now. And probably completely different than what it will eventually become. Glad you tried SB again. Never say never!

  3. Stacy, this is a fascinating post about a plant I do not know much about. I will have to research it more. I love the thought of plants having added value...a wonderful idea for a post I think. I actually am posting Monday about pass-a-long plants from friends. They do evoke such wonderful memories and connectedness to our pasts!!

  4. Dave, it makes you wonder how many others of those teeny weeny chalk downland plants would have a big garden presence if they just had some dirt to grow in. (What a great school project, by the way.) The largest SB in my garden is about 18" high and maybe 2' across and thickly leaved all the way through. I'll probably like the grass with it better once the grass has settled in--it just got planted in August from a 2" pot and still looks a little awkward.

    Holley, yes, tastes seem to change so gradually that you don't even realize they have until you look back over several years. I think by the time summer finally rolled around in VT I was too hungry for bright flowers and pizzazz to be interested in "mere" greenery.

    Donna, thank you. May I just say, I am incredibly impressed that you already know what you'll be posting about on Monday. It sounds like a lovely one--I'll look forward to reading it. As I vaguely recall, the way I came across SB in the first place was to go to Agway in late February when the seeds came in and decide to take one of everything on the rack. Research is a better idea...

  5. I try to buy plants with multiple functions as well. I don't do that in every case because there are some plants that convince me they are worthy of being in my garden on their own merits...:)

  6. Rootedness is important to me too, not sure why. Sometimes I walk past the bus-stop I used to wait at when I was 5years old going to school and see someone standing there who was waiting with me back then. There's a connection even though we've never spoken. Maybe I should have a chat about gardening next time - it's a great ice-breaker.

  7. Rootedness? Yes, each time we moved (nomadic) from Switzerland to South Africa, or back - I missed my garden and my cat in SA, my roots. I always used to feel my heart was literally in SA - that song - I left my heart in San Francisco ...

  8. Looks like a lovely plant! I'll have to find a home for it in my garden next year!

  9. Michelle, some plants do make a good case for themselves, don't they? The nice thing about garden “rules” is just how easy they are to ignore.

    b-a-g, you've made me think about how many layers of connection create that sense of rootedness—including connections with people we don't actually know. It's funny how much history you can share with someone just by repeating the same small happening over many years.

    Diana, no matter how much you can love and enjoy other places, they don't have the sense of “rightness” as your true home. (Which doesn't have to be where you grew up, of course.) When you're in that home landscape it's as if hackles you didn't even know you had suddenly lower again.

    Mud, it's also really easy to grow from seed—it sticks in my mind that Osuna Nursery carries them. I've even been wondering whether it wouldn't be a good house plant.