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Marin IJ Articles

Wildly Successful Plants, Northern , by Pam Peirce. A Review

  • Julie Monson
  • By Julie Monson
    UC Marin Master Gardener

    Pam Peirce, the author of Golden Gate Gardening, the complete year-round guide to food gardening in San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California, recently published another garden guide which is as useful and interesting as Golden Gate Gardening. It’s a book focused on flowering (rather than edible) garden plants and one that I highly recommend: Wildly Successful Plants, Northern California (2004, Sasquatch Books).

    Ms. Peirce is extremely knowledgeable without appearing pedantic, and her books are filled with common sense and understanding of the foibles of gardeners who are busy people, doing their best. Her descriptions are full and interesting, and her suggestions for ways to use plants in the garden are practical as well as creative.

    As Ms. Peirce explains in her introduction to Wildly Successful Plants, her casual and horticultural observations for a few years after moving to San Francisco convinced her of the obstinate survival and hardiness of a small selection of garden plants. These are the plants that grow in cracks, vacant lots, neglected and tended gardens—plants that almost anyone could grow. Moreover, these “survivors” are stunning in the garden, particularly when combined in settings with a variety of other sturdy and perhaps not-so-sturdy plant material. From her observations, she has selected 50 plants to discuss in some detail: annuals, perennials, bulbs, succulents and cacti, shrubs and woody vines. Nor does she ignore ground covers. For the most part these plants are not edible, and they do flower. In our Bay Area/Northern California climate these plants have the greatest chance of thriving and bringing joy to the gardener. Not surprisingly, most of them will be very familiar to avid gardeners, for they are frequent garden inhabitants and have been for a long time.

    For each of her choices, Ms. Peirce provides interesting background information on the plant’s horticultural and cultural history, offers suggestions for ways to use the plant in the garden, and gives advice on plant care, reproduction and control. She also includes information on hybrids and similar species along with an explanation of how the plant’s name evolved. These mini-chapters are illustrated with excellent photographs and contain fascinating information not usually available in standard garden references.

    For example, in her section on columbine (Aquilegia), she tells us that the word, columbine, derives from the Latin for “dove,” and that in the early Middle Ages the flower symbolized the Holy Spirit. By the late medieval period, columbines came to symbolize the cuckoo because its petal spurs reminded people of the cuckoo (cuckold), a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. Columbine’s Latin name, Aquilegia, may have come from the Latin word aquila (eagle) referring to the flower spurs. Around 1640, Europeans found they could easily create hybrids of this already popular garden flower. Early short-spurred hybrids were called “granny’s bonnets.” She tells us that columbines are attractive in beds, borders or massed informally, and that they grow successfully in pots. They also attract hummingbirds and, although their bloom period is short, their foliage is attractive for months.

    Her text is uniformly clear and well organized, and the plant information often fascinating. Many of these plants are very common. Knowing interesting, sometimes esoteric, facts about their history adds luster to their presence and a respect that seems overdue. Her book is, therefore, more than a guide to 50 plants. Wildly Successful Plants, Northern California is fun to read and would be appreciated by the novice as well as the experienced gardener: an excellent gift.