WHATEVER YOUR GARDEN NEEDS, YOU CAN FIND IT ON THE EAST END
Perhaps because the circle is the least obvious shape in the garden, I find myself more and more drawn to things with round leaves. True, there are lots of "O" shapes that harmoniously blend into our garden pictures: most containers on countless patios are, well, round, and the most ubiquitous shape for boxwood is, of course, the sphere. But this particular kind of roundness is not the same as my current fascination with discoid leaves. Neither heart-shaped nor ovate, it's the fat, round leafed things with substantial heft. And since these garden delights—like everything that is elusive or worth having—are very few and not easy to find, I have compiled for you a small array of circular beauties.
The universal symbol of artistry and the sacred seat of Buddha is the lotus. The way God has perched its leaf on a long stem, looking as if it's holding court, is an absolute paean to all things beautiful. Nymphaea, the come-hither, siren-sounding Latin name for the whole group of floating plants includes water lilies, with leaves nearly as round as the lotus, but easier to accommodate, smaller and stuck to the water's surface like a dreamy Monet.
If you do not have an impressive, or even humble, pond in which to cultivate Nymphaea, and that wafting largesse is what you want, then it is Petasites for you. Same look without the water. This is a beautiful plant with a very bad reputation, because it is one of the veritable thugs that will take over if you turn your back on it for a few seasons running. If you love it though, this wild and wonderful plant can be controlled. It is not deep-rooted and nasty, but has rhizomes that are whitish in color and easy to find as they skim just beneath the soil's surface. You would never think that a driveway bordered on one side by a tall hedge and the other by pickets could acquire an otherworldly tropical look; but with rambunctious Petasites poking through the fence, it has exactly that. My eight-foot-square patch, creeping on 12, is controlled by just pulling it up at will—a shovel not even needed. Giving it away to garden visitors is even more fun.
Other big, beloved rounds are in the Ligularia and Rodgersia family. (This is not the first time I have waxed exotic about my beloved leathery Ligularia.) Even when they have charming names like 'Desdemona' and 'Britt Marie-Crawford' the right description is handsome, not pretty, but it's that great disk-like shape dancing above a shady garden that really does it for me. Astilboides tabularis is the most perfect of the big round leaves with a slight scallop to the edges, but another of those confusing taxonomic nightmares. When I first met this plant it was in the Rodgersia family, but for some reason—perhaps because it is so nice—it has been renamed and given a genus all its own.
Leaf patterns that radiate from a central core and are, let's say, perforated or filigreed, add hugely to the charm of this spherical garden picture. The biggest, Ligularia japonica, is cordate-ovate according to Hortus, and serrated, which means great round fringy leaves spout from its center. Similar, but a bit smaller and even more incised (or raggedy), Syneilensis is a plant new to me last year. Its easier name, Shredded Umbrella Plant, perfectly describes it, but this one I can't even find in Hortus. Fortunately, both of these beauties can be had at Marders and complement one another.
The Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum, is the most elegant and delicately cut of these fringy rounds. Look closely at each spindly black-stemmed frond and you'll find a demilune of finely-defined leaflets. This is especially apparent when they emerge in the new season and the fronds begin to nestle one on top of the other.
The lacquer-leafed European ginger, Asarum europapeum anchors the ground of all of this lovely roundness. The first time I saw this ground-hugging, glistening plant, I thought it looked like nothing else and knew it was for me. At the time, no one was selling it, but I finally tracked it down by mail order from one of those specialists and paid the price, as outrageous as it seemed. After coddling it into various positions, it seems to love our East End and really kicks in after one or two seasons. It is so friendly and abundant that it, too, can be readily shared—a good thing because you still can't find it anywhere.