The World’s Ugliest Plants
In 2009, the British Royal Horticultural Society asked readers of The Telegraph one of the great questions of the universe: What is the world’s ugliest plant? In the poll that followed, ten plants were exposed as the most revolting of Mother Nature’s species, with the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) taking out top spot as the most hideous plant by public opinion. But scrolling through the list of so-called foulness, I was surprised by my lack of disgust. Rather than horrified I felt curious, in place of fear, there was wonder. Each of the ten plants were strangely alluring to me in their own mysterious ways.
For every plant that found itself onto the RHS ugly plant blacklist, there was at least one person protesting for its place amongst their most beloved plant species instead. Even the corpse flower, (whose botanic name literally translates to ‘giant misshapen penis’), the rare Indonesian native recognised for its once in a decade bloom and pungent scent of rotting flesh, attracted admirers: The corpse flower is not ugly at all – it just smells foul! wrote one surveyee.
Of each of the plants included by the RHS, many are endemic to harsh environments where survival depends on an innate evolutionary ability to be repellent. Take the vegetable sheep, or tutāhuna (Raoulia eximia), an extraordinary plant native to the high mountainous regions of New Zealand. This spreading perennial protects itself from prey and freezing alpine conditions by forming a dense cushion of white woolly hairs. The corpse flower on the other hand, uses its powers of repugnance to tempt and tantalise carnivorous insects that are essential for the spread of pollination and the future survival of the species.
Thousands of visitors flock to botanical gardens across the world to experience the rare performance of the titan arum in flower, its dark red flesh and pungent scent embodying the characteristics of rotting meat.
In 2016, the number of visitors to the corpse flower during its days of bloom at the Chicago Botanic Gardens exceeded 20,000.
Clearly, we are fascinated by ugliness. In Mother Nature, and humankind too, it’s everywhere you look, an altering angle of beauty, in a different place each day, depending on who you ask. On the subjectivity of aesthetics, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, wrote in 1742, ‘Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.’ So why then, are we positioned to feel that ugliness in the plant world is an unusual or wicked thing, reserved only for obscure species in far-away wildernesses? And what makes a plant worthy of being convicted as ugly anyway? Is it a bad thing to be ugly?
Working in a small-town plant nursery gives a unique perspective on the shifting perceptions of beauty and ugliness that exist within a community of people.
What I’ve learned more than anything else is that people are vocal about what they do and do not like, what they believe to be beautiful and therefore worthy of a prized position in their gardens, and what they believe to be hideously ugly, and worthy only of a garbage bin.”
I sometimes meet the latter response with indignation, personally offended on behalf of the plant in question regardless of whether I consider it to be worth the argument or not. This may have something to do with the long-term relationship you enter into with nursery plants, nurturing and caring for them across the seasons, at their best and at their worst. Not so long ago, I could have rattled off my own list of ugly – nandinas, geraniums, agapanthus, photinia, osteospermums… but spending time and energy trying to understand them so as to keep them alive has impressed upon me the inner workings of their ugliness and now I’m not so sure. While I’ve subtracted and added some new additions to my own list (every cultivar of osteospermum, the stomach churning fungus that grows in pots overnight, every pittosporum that developed root rot and subsequently died) it’s not necessarily a catalogue of plants I dislike, but instead appreciate better for their aspects of ugliness.
So, in attempt to challenge the RHS declaration of ugliness and explore some of the ways grossness exists in our everyday plant lives, I’ve categorised several of the foul findings I’ve been made aware of in the nursery, via customers or my own acquisition. It’s not to say these plants are bad or shouldn’t be used – quite the opposite actually, several of the plants below are some of my favourites, and ugliness, like Mr Hume writes, is entirely subjective. I firmly believe every garden needs a least a little ugliness here and there. Besides, it will find its own way in even if you don’t intend it to. But how you respond and interpret it is up to you – after all, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.
Common ugliness (plants that regularly divide opinion and create controversy)
Geraniums – this one I’ve learned to really love, more for sentimental reasons than any other. But it’s a polarising one.
Roses – whilst I’m firmly with the rose lovers on this one, not everyone appreciates a rose bush. It might have something to do with the thorns, bare winter stems and need for care and attention. I will say this though, not all roses are created equal. Here’s looking at you, scentless roses.
The stench of ugliness (plants that stink)
Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – Ah, the Bradford Pear! Beloved for its beautiful shape, pure white spring blossoms and scarlet-bronze autumn foliage. Surely, a standout, beautiful tree by anyone’s standards, right? Wrong! Pyrus calleryana is hiding some serious undercover ugly. Those snow-like blossoms exude a pungent scent close to that of semen, a curious observation I recently heard myself remarking to a customer as they purchased a handful of Bradfords to line a driveway. After an awkward silence where we both tried to pretend the last thirty seconds of conversation had never happened, she bought the trees and went happily on her way. If that’s not evidence of the subjectivity of ugly then I don’t know what is.
Spurflowers (Plectranthus) – Or ‘The Cat Piss Plant’ as it was dubbed by my sister Anna soon after she fell pregnant and couldn’t function anywhere within the vicinity of the ‘rancid’ stinking plectranthus bush that grew on her outdoor terrace.
Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima)
Starfish cacti (Stapelia grandiflora) – phewee, stinky! Or according to one horrified lady, ‘yuck!’
All of the lillies
We’ve all grown that one plant that starts out perfect, pretty, lovely! That is until you look away to admire another angle of the garden and BOOM! Previously mentioned plant has taken over in a VERY. UGLY. WAY.
Periwinkle (Vinca minor) – I planted this against all expert advice. Needless to say, the experts were right.
Euphorbia wulfenii – my friend Polly will need to dedicate every weekend of the rest of her life trying to remove this wandering bad boy from every crevice and corner of her garden.
Evening primrose – the wolf in sheep’s clothing of garden bed fillers.
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles)
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s the Conduct of Life, he wrote: ‘the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.’ The Diggers Club founder, Clive Blazey, might agree with this sentiment, stating in his own writings that there is no excuse for ugliness in the garden, his own ugly list including plants commonly planted around fast food places, like nandinas, diosma, and camellias.
Petunias – our most popular selling punnet plant. For reasons unbeknownst to me.
Bleeding Tooth Fungus (Hydnellum Peckii) – the fungus that will haunt your nightmares.
Carnivorous plants, especially Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula)
Stone Plant (Lithop) – there is just something about these succulents that sends a shiver down my spine.
Mushrooms – if you’ve ever found one growing out of the bedroom wall of your Sydney share house you’ll understand.
Unidentified mould that lives in some of the pots in the nursery
That’s not a plant, that’s a weed!
Every ornamental grass – I should never have ordered in Poa at the nursery. Let’s not get started on miscanthus. I’ll be run out of town if I try for purple love grass.
Bamboo – I agree.
How can you love me with a name as ugly as mine?
But really, how can you?
Rosa ‘Ekstase’, ‘Aspirin’, ‘Parole’, ‘Slim Dusty’, – the list goes on…
Bog Sage (Salvia uliginosa)
Toadlily (Tricyrtis hirta)
All of the daphne cultivars – ‘Eternal fragrance’, ‘Princess Daphne’, ‘Sweet Amethyst’
Achillea – ‘I’ll kill ya!’
All of the plants on the RHS blacklist of ugly
RHS Ugly Poll
And the poll that started it all…
Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
Stinky squid (Pseudocolus fusiformis)
Vegetable sheep (Raoulia eximia)
Tree tumbo (Welwitschia mirabilis)
Elephant’s trunk (Pachypodium namaquanum)
Monkey cups (Nepenthes)
Sea onion (Bowiea volubilis)
Thorn of the cross (Colletia paradoxa)
Bastard cobas (Cyphostemma juttae)
Birthworts (Aristolochia gigantea)