Anchor plants in the gardening world are what large department stores are to the shopping mall: rather large, impressive endpoints, things on which or places in which to spend copious amounts of money even after your bank account diminishes and your arms fill with lots of little purchases. Gardens need large structural plants that provide convenient boundaries for beds and offer some architectural form during the winter months after the annuals have died and the perennials have retracted deep into the soil for a well-deserved rejuvenating rest. In my various shade and partial shade garden beds, I have multiple hydrangeas (climbing, Lady in Red, Nikko Blue, and oak leaf varietals); Liriope muscari (not generally considered an anchor plant, but in the smaller beds this grass-like plant provides winter interest and form); Lena’s Scotch Broom; Pieris japonica (both "Mountain Fire" and "Red Mill"); and Nandina (False or Heavenly Bamboo, though it is technically not a bamboo).
But two plants in particular serve as my unexpected anchors: two Heuchera micrantha plants (Purple Palace or Obsidian) given to me on separate occasions by two swell ladies. How that came to be deserves a story.
My gardens are relatively young: nearly two years old to be exact. My partner and I bought our house in summer 2007; thus we did nothing during that summer when money was scarce, and time was devoted both to painting interior rooms (for seven years, I, in my infinite neuroses, carried with me two paint colors, “Bombay Gold,” a deep harvest yellow/gold, and “Chanticleer,” a deep Russian imperial red, until I had rooms of my own to submerge into my preferred palette) and settle into a new, presumably more grounded life. The following spring and summer were my gardening debuts, and fortunately for me, I had both a full sun front yard terraced garden, and a rear, mostly shade garden so I could experiment with two distinct climates and multiple micro-climates, as well as with flowers and leaf types, shapes and textures.
One sultry summer day in 2008, as I made my way, dripping with perspiration, to my car with my new purchases of ferns (East India Holly; Autumn; and Japanese Painted), two elderly women asked me on separate occasions to help them load their cars with their purchases. The second woman, Phyllis, who did not see my cart, pointedly stated as I loaded a few large and fairly weighty pots into her car, “You like ferns.” Given that I had already placed my plants into my car, I wondered how she knew. My quizzical look compelled her to follow-up: “I saw that you purchased several ferns. If you really like them, come to my house and you can take whatever you’d like. Really. My gardens need to be thinned out. After all, that is what gardeners do.” Then she muttered something about trusting me, scribbled down her number, asked for mine, and then implored me to call her.
Honestly, I felt odd about calling her, and so did not. Within two days she called me and reminded me that she had indeed beseeched the “nice young man” who helped her to come and take some ferns. And so I went; her woodland style garden was splendid. She and her husband immediately went to work and loaded—LOADED—my car with ferns, a Japanese maple, ground covers (no vincas, thank you), sedums, hostas, Lily-of-the-Valley, a few others that have passed since their arrival in my gardens, and Heuchera micrantha. Days later, Viet, his cousin, and I were off to Eastern Europe (I, for a conference; all of us for a vacation). Plants that needed extra water to “get settled” died; most survived, thankfully. And I lost her number.
I think of Phyllis often. I wonder if she knows how deeply I appreciate her generosity—not measured simply in terms of plants, but in terms of her spirit. One entire bed in my backyard shade garden is devoted to her (in part because at the time that was the only space I was able to clear and amend the heavy clay-laden soil), and so I think of her each day. And Heuchera micrantha thrives right there at the beginning of that bed, surrounded by ostrich ferns and Lily-of-the-Valley, and soon to be nestled again Corydalis flexuosa (Blue Panda Corydalis) if I can manage to purchase one from the garden center.
My friends Jim and Patricia, too, bestowed upon me the gift of hostas of various sorts, all of which were thinned from their magnificent beds. And my Aunt Annie, herself a “master gardener” in New York, arrived late last spring after Viet and I completed the hard-scaping (the stone walls and stone patio) in the rear garden with American and European ginger; a few unusual hostas; several varietals of fern; my secret lover, Petasites japonicus (Giant Butterbur); and another Obsidian heuchera. It resides on the west side of the property, in the center of the bed, its stunning deep maroon color contrasting sharply with the rich and vibrant chartreuses of early spring greens.
Each looks across the property, the patio, and the beds at the other, providing a nice visual axis to link the deep shade bed with the partial shade bed, and, more importantly, connecting me to the innate generosity of gardeners near and far.