In The Garden: Fashion and Passion

What drives the market in marigolds?

BACK WHEN I first started gardening, in the ’70s, the fuss was all about impatiens. This rather humble annual with a muted palette of white, pink and faded-brick red made a splash in the world of flora because it came with one big plus: It bloomed, long-term and reliably, in shade. Gardeners who’d hitherto been filling their unsunny beds with such foliage stalwarts as hosta and ferns were agog at the opportunity to see something in those spaces besides green. The sudden burst of popularity resulted in an impatiens breeding frenzy, as seed houses and garden centers vied to offer new colors in the genus, bigger flowers, variegated foliage, double forms. Plant gatherers combed the wilds for previously unknown species; Burpee made a brief splash with a yellow African form that never went very far. Breeders had better luck with the New Guinea strains, with their huge blossoms and handsome leaves streaked magenta and bronze.
Impatiens are still a mainstay of suburban yards and municipal planters, but the hoopla over the genus has pretty much died down. Today, gardeners have their eye on innovations in sunflowers and petunias, two more formerly dowdy old favorites that breeders are taking to new heights. Ten years from today, who knows what now-obscure blossom will be the rage? Though we don’t often think about it, there are trends in the floral world just as surely as there are in fashion. We go from miniskirts to dirndls to capri pants to sheath dresses in our backyards, and back again.
Take, for instance, gerbera daisies. A few decades back, no one had ever heard of gerbera daisies, though today their vivid hues and arrestingly simple form make them a prized component of everything from supermarket arrangements to bridal bouquets. They were part of a wave of South African flowers that came to popular attention in the 1970s, along with felicia, arctotis and osteospermum. I don’t think it’s coincidence these plants seized gardeners’ attention just as Nelson Mandela’s push to end apartheid was gripping the world. Their place of origin gave them international cachet. Buying them seemed like a fist-bump in support of the African National Congress; it was plants as politics.
Investing in gerberas may have been a low-key form of protest, but gardeners tend not to be especially intrepid. We are, in fact, almost by definition, the opposite — timid types more concerned with our immediate surroundings than the bigger picture. If we go gallivanting all over the globe in support of a cause, who’ll deadhead the snapdragons? Homebodies that we are, we explore the world vicariously through the plants in our beds. We grow morning glories from Japan, English daisies, Egyptian pea vines, and feel worldly and sophisticated as we spread the mulch around their roots.