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'Unfashionable' Flowers Bloom Eternal

'What can I wear?" Maureen asked, tossing another dress from the wardrobe onto the bed. It was a pretty thing in mellow russets and browns that I particularly liked her in.

"What's the matter with that one?" I said.

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"I can't go to the Adamsons' in that."

The dressed sighed. I sighed.

"Why not?"

"It's so out of fashion."

And of course she was right. It was as out of fashion as our dining room suite, our stove, our TV, and the car in our garage.

That they were all the swingiest, trendiest, state-of-the-art inventions only two years ago counts for nothing. Fashion doesn't care about such matters. It doesn't have to justify itself. It changes when it feels like it, and we follow along out of cultivated habit. Whole economies depend on us doing so.

That is all right - we all accept fashion's place in the great commercial scheme of things - but when fashion moves into the garden, that's when I sit up and take notice.

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It was Mr. and Mrs. L. from Glasgow that started me thinking. They were a nice couple, new to gardening and eager to do the right thing. They came into our little nursery to buy a shrub.

"We'd like a 'Floppy Disk,' " they said to Maureen. Maureen was momentarily lost. Floppy disks belonged in the office. She raised her eyebrows.

"A potentilla," they enlightened her. "It's a pink one, a new one. It was on the telly last week."

We had plenty of pink ones, healthy, vigorous plants blooming profusely, but they wouldn't do. They were the old varieties, "Princess" and "Pretty Polly." It was "Floppy Disk" that Mr. and Mrs. L. wanted, the new one. The one that was now in fashion.

Looking through an up-to-date plant directory, we discovered that there are now more than 50 varieties of potentilla. (That's even worse than with roses.) There are a dozen varieties to every letter of the alphabet, romantic names like "Evening Star and "Golden Showers," "Honeymoon" and "Handel," dreamed up specifically to make us reach for our pocketbooks.

And we buy them, even though a season later "Super Star," the hybrid tea that had "florescent and fragrant blooms of shot silk vermillion...." has lost its label and become "the orangey-red one in the corner that always gets mildew."

Once upon a time, new varieties were a matter of discovery, the climax of long treks in the mountains of Nepal and China. They "happened" as a result of an adventurous bee sharing a kiss with a rhododendron in this valley and one down by the river in the next. The new creation was heralded as a new birth, a wonderful gift from nature.

Today, a new variety comes about through manipulation with probe and syringe and is then micro-propagated in a featureless glass-house factory to produce the vast numbers needed to scoop the market. The poor old plant has no say in whether it is to end up as an F1 Hybrid, or to be truncated and reheaded with a quite unsuitable transplant.

What I would like to see is a referendum of plants with a representative group reacting to these modern-day plant rights abuses.

I can't imagine that delphiniums, whose whole culture has been geared to blue - a color they wear with such incomparable facility, really want to be seen in dresses of yellow and pink. Or that petunias, whose bright and open smiles have greeted the sun for so many summers, are suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to pucker their edges and end up as mixed picotees.

There really is no need. If you could stand here beside me in our garden in Moffat Water, Scotland, you could see 500 different species of plants and trees. Within 50 miles there are another 1,000, and I guess another 5,000 within the bounds of this tiny country. Each has evolved naturally and yet in infinite variety.

Each has shape and form, color, perfume, every attribute that is in our directory of desirability. Interestingly, their design, which one assumes has purely functional purposes - to shed rain or catch it, to withstand wind or filter it, to attract pollinators or repel predators - has somehow succeeded in doing all this without offending the universal laws of harmony.

In fact, quite the reverse: Each displays wonderful symmetry and balance, color and cadence. All without the tampering hands of humans.

Mr. and Mrs. L. from Glasgow went away plantless and disappointed, the unfortunate victims of fashion. I returned to our wood to clear round the stems of the young ash we planted last season. On the way, I passed a mass of Veronica filiformis, a haze of soft blue among the grass.

I bent down and looked closely at the tiny flowers, so small a drop of rain would overspill their cups. Each had four perfect petals and a miniscule heart of primrose yellow, and as if this wasn't enough, the heart was outlined in a deeper shade of blue. The design of this flower went beyond verse to poetry, from beauty to inspiration.

Now if Mr. and Mrs. L. of Glasgow ever see them on TV.... But they won't. Veronica filiformis will never be in fashion. Its common name is Creeping Speedwell, and everybody knows that Creeping Speedwell is a weed.

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