Plant murderer: guilty as charged!

It’s true: I’ve killed many plants. If you think you have killed a lot of plants, I am sure you have nothing on me. And sometimes I feel kind of bad about it. Thinking back on certain plants I used to grow, and shouldn’t have killed is a bit emotionally draining – and more so when I may not have a chance to grow that plant again, or at least not for a long time.

I’m not talking about plants that I have given a fair chance to succeed, yet they failed. For example, Chusquea valdiviensis did great in my garden for years, and grew to a huge size, until the big freeze of December 2009 took it out. Well, no worries – I took good care of it for as long as it needed, I mean, it got 60′ tall – and now we know it just isn’t that hardy.

No, I’m much more likely to feel bad about killing plants that I did not care for as well as I would have liked. My number one cause of plant death is things not getting moved into the greenhouse early enough, often for lack of space because I have been accumulating more plants over the summer than will fit in my greenhouse(s). Or, something comes up and I can’t build it as fast as I want to – or I simply over-extend myself while failing to prioritize – this is definitely one of my natural tendencies.

My #2 cause of plant death is drying up. Yeah I know, plants need water – even drought tolerant plants, when they are growing in pots. Occasionally things dry up in the summertime when I don’t manage to keep them under a sprinkler. But I have also lost many plants to drying up in the winter, because I have had them so crowded together, under tables, etc. that I can’t reach or see them. Drying up is definitely related to overcrowding for me.

But in any case, the problem usually comes down to some form of sheer neglect. Here are some examples.

Once I left on a hot day for a day trip to go shop at one of my favorite nurseries. I thought I had watered everything pretty well before I left but when I returned, my one seedling of Pittosporum dallii was dead because it had dried up after sitting out in the sun all day. This is one of the rarest Pittosporums, from a small area high in the mountains of New Zealand. It ought to be very cold hardy, and it has been reported as impossible to grow from cuttings, and the seeds may take 12 months to germinate (which I think mine did!). I have never seen it offered since I killed this one.

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Golden Lyre’ is, I think, one of the most appealing older Grevillea cultivars, with beautiful yellow flowers like little bells, and interested round-tipped leaves. I have learned recently that it is nearly extinct in cultivation, making me wish even more that I haven’t killed them all one by one, mostly from leaving them out in pots through temperatures that were a little too cold. I’m also bummed that I killed all my forms of G. aquifolium, among others.

A friend gave me a nice specimen of x Chiranthofremontia lenzii, which I killed when I left it out through 22 degrees by accident (though I kind of thought it might handle 22 degrees). Fortunately I may be able to replace it sometime when I go to California again. I also killed a collection of Fremontodendron californicum from the coldest place it grows in the wild. I just looked one day and there it was, dead. Darn.

In 2001 (?) Maurice Wilkins, head gardener at Arduaine Gardens, Argyll, Scotland, sent me the last of his seeds of Schefflera impressa that had bloomed and set seed for him in 1998. Just one seed germinated and I took great care of it for a long time. Then in 2004 I potted it up and some fungal disease quickly attacked it, and it died. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for that one, but still….

I’ve had plenty of chances with the rare, and quite hardy, Eucalyptus chapmaniana since I first got a small seed packet of it. I’ve sold, traded, and given away many of them. In one instance I potted a bunch of them up and left them on the top shelf of the greenhouse on a hot day, then went for a hike in the mountains – oops, not many of them survived that. A couple specimens eventually got planted out but were overcrowded. The deer kept scraping my last one to the ground, leaving it too small to endure the last couple of hard winters. Now I have no more seed of it, and no way to get any.

I used to have some cool Leucadendron hybrids such as ‘Rising Sun’, ‘Wilson’s Wonder’ and ‘Flame Tip’ – not hardy, but fun to grow and propagate. (I’ve still managed to keep ‘Maui Sunset’ and ‘Safari Sunset’ going.) These froze, dried up, the cuttings I took froze or dried up, or some combination of the above. I had plenty of chances to take better care of them.

Treeferns. Don’t even get me started. I may have been doomed to fail with treeferns from the moment I dumped a million sporelings all over the ground and got them all mixed up with each other, many of them lost forever. Dicksonia squarrosa, I froze three times. I might have put my last one in the greenhouse if I knew how cold it would get just one night. Dicksonia fibrosa, a nice trunked one that I had for years, froze. Cyathea australis, dried up. Cyathea dregei, lost under the snow during a big freeze, and died – oops. Cyathea tomentosissima, I’m not sure what happened to it. Actually, it could still be out there under a table in the greenhouse, but I haven’t seen it in a long time.

I used to have 99 kinds of bamboo. Every year I kill a few more. Now I don’t mind losing a few since bamboos are not really meant for Sequim. The problem is I have no idea which ones I am killing. In fact, I don’t even want to go near them. I haven’t fertilized my collection in two years, or potted them up in four. And bamboos are heavy feeders! I’ve just put off even dealing with them for that long, because I have so many other things to attend to. I’m hoping some of the more special ones may have survived – maybe I’ll finally have a chance to make an assessment soon before the spring season really gets going.

Ceroxylon is a genus of beautiful high altitude palms from the Andes that thrive in cool weather, and some seem to be rather frost hardy. Seeds used to be about $15 – 25 for 100 of them. Now that I have killed all of mine, except a single specimen, seeds tend to be more like $140 – $220 per 100, and less available than before. I’m not paying that much!

I could go on… Gunnera insignis… a special form of G. manicata… special forms of Butia… Cycads… palms… cacti… you name it.

Now it’s not all bad news. Fortunately, I have forgotten most of the plants I have killed. Forgetting is a great way to not feel bad about killing specific plants. If “all the plants I’ve killed” remains sort of ambiguous, it seems more like this big grey shadow that haunts me rather than a bunch of individual souls. And hey, some of those plants are things I’m really not interested in growing now – too tender, too impractical, or just too not-my-sort-of-plant anymore.

And perhaps I even have a few legitimate reasons not to feel bad. No matter how many plants I kill, I still seem to accumulate more new plants than I kill (mostly through propagation) – hence the problem of fitting them all into the greenhouse every year. And hey, they’re just plants. Call me politically incorrect but somehow I’d feel worse if I were killing life forms more similar to my own. Third, in sharing this experience, perhaps I can help readers not to feel so bad about killing a plant even if it was through sheer neglect.

Should I feel bad about killing plants? I’m not sure if I can really help it. That’s just how I am. But the best therapy is to keep propagating and growing more of them! Should I balance this with trying not to over-extend myself and repeat this cycle? Maybe… that’s the hard part though.

Now I’m wondering, what’s dying out there in the greenhouse while I’m sitting here typing this?

Leucadendron ‘Wilson’s Wonder’, May 2008. R. I. P.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mark W
    Jan 13, 2011 @ 11:04:11

    I’m glad you posted this. Since I/we deal with rare plants, I tend to feel very guilty with my neglect. Sometimes I avoid my greenhouse, mainly in winter, when I know there is a problem. Not good.

    But it’s good to know that everybody experiences issues.

    My losses include 10′ tall, fruiting Vasconcella quercifolias (my wife really misses them!), a beautiful Capsicum galapagoense specimen, and a 8′ tall Macadamia tetraphylla (yea, nice try!). I’m currenty working with, and ready to be disappointed by various Cyphomandra sps.


  2. Trisha
    Mar 06, 2016 @ 19:52:07

    Great post! I sprouted 30 tomato plants from seed I saved myself and felt soooo guilty at the thought of killing any of them.


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