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Mid-January, and the ground's not frozen! If this is global warming, climate changes spell trouble for plant metabolisms. But today, I'm musing about lovely plants I've tried over the years, for which it's been too cold here. Maybe now....

Gaura lindheimeri has slender, wiry stems topped with sprays of small, delicate flowers in white, pink, or maroon (or a combination). In a breeze, stems sway and flowers flutter, resulting in both common and cultivar names that include the word "butterflies." Varieties can stay as low as twelve inches, or reach seven feet. Originally a desert plant, it tolerates both humidity and drought, likes either full or part sun, and will grow in any soil (though it likes a little compost). Flowers come from late spring 'til frost. I was so in love with this airy, romantic plant that I had to have one, even though it's usually listed as hardy only to zone 6. I put it over the leach tank, which warms the soil. But the soil there is shallow, and I didn't know that gaura wants to grow deep roots.

The spiny seed pods of the New Zealand burr (Acaena) can be a nuisance on pets, but you're less likely to get them all over you, because the plant grows only a few inches tall. You could shear them off, but they're pretty — especially the bright red ones on the copper-leafed variety I planted, called 'Kupferteppich.' What I liked just as much, though, was the texture of its foliage. Imagine tiny strawberry leaves with their sawtooth edges; then add three or four more pairs of leaflets lined up along a petiole (leaf stalk) less than two inches long. (The related salad burnet makes a much larger, stretched-out version.) Growing densely, acaenas make a striking ground cover. Many are invasive, but Kupferteppich was supposed to be less so. In any case, zone 5 winter controlled it all too well.

In 2004, I bought a 30-inch shrubby St. John's wort named 'Albury Purple' — swept away by its combination of purple and green leaves, yellow flowers dusted with red-tipped stamens, and red berries that turn black. Each winter, about half gets brown and shriveled, and half keeps those vibrant purple leaves "evergreen." If it could winter over more branches, it could become a gorgeous, husky bush.

Townsend's always colder than the other towns this column appears in: you may have an even better chance than I.

Photo by C.H. Clark - Some of my St. John's wort still looks pretty

Text and photo © Copyright 2007 Catherine Holmes Clark

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Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 19 January 2007

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