When I moved into my house in mid-February a year and a half ago, one of the first things I did was to walk around the yard, and try to figure out what the previous owner had planted. The winter had been exceptionally mild, and she had done little garden clean up, so it was easy to identify the remnants of marigolds, the desiccated hosta leaves and the naked canes of miniature rosebushes. When I came to the front strip, between the sidewalk and the street, I noticed that there was a bare patch of earth, approximately 18” long and perhaps 8” wide. “Grubs”, I thought, or maybe just drought or dog-related grass mortality. I made a mental note to throw some grass seed on the spot come spring.
When spring arrived, however, I involved myself in an orgy of purchasing and planting, and forgot about the bare spot. When grass-cutting season commenced, I noticed that the spot had miraculously covered itself with something that had narrow bluish-green foliage. The little plants were obviously not chickweed, ground ivy, plantain, lambs’ quarters, or even the dreaded Japanese knotweed. They were, in fact, none of the many common weeds that had been appearing and reproducing themselves at astonishing speed around the rest of my yard and garden. As usual, prudence and my indolent nature saved the mystery plants from being lopped by the mower or rooted out with the garden hoe.
Eventually May arrived, and while I was waiting anxiously for blooms on my new rosebushes, I saw that the formerly bare spot was now arrayed with pink, cup-shaped blossoms. All flowers seem like a miracle to me, especially if they happen to be growing successfully in my garden. I wasn’t familiar with these four petaled blossoms, but I was fascinated by the fact that they were growing, with no help from me, in rather poor soil.
Of course, it is never enough to have something that succeeds so well. I was seized by a burning desire to know more about my plants. I needed a common name, a botanical name, and I wanted to find out if my pink-flowered charmers had any cousins that might also flourish in the vast amounts of poor dry soil that I had at my disposal. I turned to several garden books that arrange listings for ornamental plants by flower color. I found nothing in the red or pink sections that looked like what I had. I checked the wildflower encyclopedia. Nothing. I was in despair for about a week, petrified that someone would ask me the name of my beautiful blossoms and I would have to make something up, using the vast supply of pseudo-Latin names that I have invented for just such occasions.
As often happens, serendipity intervened. A friend brought a belated housewarming gift that was labeled “Evening Primrose” (Oenothera missouriensis). The plant was in bloom, sporting 4” yellow blossoms that, except for color, were identical to those on the plants in my front strip. I raced to Hortus III, a large and exceptionally useful plant encyclopedia, and looked up the Oenothera genus. I found out that there are some 80 species, most of which thrive in full sun, and the majority of which are native to the Western Hemisphere. Some evening-flowering Oenothera are known as “Evening Primrose”, like my gift plant, while day-flowering varieties are sometimes known as “sun cups” or “sundrops”. Reading on, I determined that I probably had Oenothera speciosa, which, according to the book, has white to pink flowers. About a week later, one of the major seed catalogs arrived, and finally, on page 70, I found a picture of my Oenothera, and I knew that I had been saved yet again from horticultural embarrassment.
The problem with the name primrose is that it crops up all over the horticultural universe. There are, for example, over 400 species of the spring-flowering, moisture loving Primula, and most of them are commonly known as primroses. Every other pale yellow plant in some plant catalogs, especially those on the high end of the trade, is referred to as being “primrose” in color. Then, of course there are the many members of the Oenothera clan. It’s a good argument for Latin names.
My species of Oenothera, obviously delighted at being correctly identified, has set out to take over the front strip. This year, in its second year blooming for me, the patch of Oenothera has tripled in size, and the plentiful spring rains have caused the plants to have longer stems than usual. In short, they are magnificent. I do not pick them, because it seems to give the neighbors so much joy just to stare at them. I continue to ignore them, except when they are blooming. They are my personal “lilies of the field”, and I take them as evidence that at least a part of my garden exists in a state of grace.