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The Spell of Empty Space

Four years ago I planted a flat of Brazilian Vervain (Verbena bonariensis) that I bought from Priscilla Williams. This plant has tall, almost leafless stems holding up the purple flower clusters. (In my garden they were four feet; but they can get up to six: the stems, square in cross-section, are thin but quite strong!) Although there's a denser clump of leaves at the base, the plants have effectively no visual mass; you can see right through the latticework of stems to whatever is behind them.

The effect is unusual. The sandpapery stems are stiff and straight, branching and angular. Not the graceful, wafting curves you usually think of when you call something "airy." But they do in fact make you more aware of the air — the space — in the garden.

It's not just a matter of taking advantage of the vertical dimension for growing, the way tall plants do, or trellises. This plant opens my eyes to what an artist calls "negative space": the gaps, the places where you might say there is nothing, if weren't for a sudden awareness of the qualities of the "nothing," its shape, its placement in relation to other elements....

And that of course makes me look again at the plant that frames that "nothing," noticing the crisscrossing patterns, savoring the purple pompoms, noticing the visual combinations the plant makes with plants around, it and in back of it.... It made great contrast in front of green 'Envy' Zinnias, and shadowy woods beyond.

Although I knew that V. bonariensis self-seeds enthusiastically, the next spring I failed to identify the seedlings. There were hundreds of them: showing characteristic wrinkled, tooth-edged, oblong, dull green leaves. I pulled them up in handfuls, wondering what this new weedy thing was ... then a month later, when I realized, regretting that wasted wealth! So I bought a couple more flats that year — but since then, I've been quicker to recognize them in the spring.

However, being a warm-climate plant (native from Brazil to Argentina, perennial in zones 7 to 11), they don't sprout very early in the spring, and I haven't had much bloom till August. So I'm considering starting some indoors from seed. I'll start some in mini-greenhouses outside, too, and compare: will they benefit from the warm headstart, or not?

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 24 January 2003

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For more information
  • A discussion on the Perennials Forum at GardenWeb (At GardenWeb, which is a very active site, threads are deleted fairly quickly: record the information you want and don't rely on this link!)
  • Floridata: Verbena Bonariensis