From the pear-leaved willow to the willow-leaved pear, many familiar plants are impostors

There really is no perfection in gardens – one plant escapes a problem by looking like something else, but in turn acquires a fault of its own.

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He thought he saw an elephant that practised on a fife: he looked again, and found it was a letter from his wife.” More than a trifle over the top, even for Lewis Carroll, but those were the words that came to me a couple of weeks ago in my garden when I stood admiring the rich red autumn foliage of a long-time favourite shrub called Hydrangea quercifolia or, in English, the oak-leaved hydrangea.

Now admittedly, a hydrangea with leaves like an oak tree is not in the same league of mistaken identity as Carroll’s fife-playing elephant, but it brought to mind the large number of garden plants I admire that are masquerading as something else.

Some while ago, I was given a large, beautifully illustrated book – one of those books written by someone from another walk of life but who has discovered there is added credibility from professing a love of gardening. Unfortunately, imitators are not always meticulous, and in this book, its show-business author was shown in front of a tall shrub adorned with large off-white flowers. The caption revealed that the gentleman loves shrub roses, especially single-flowered types such as the one he is photographed against. Sadly, he had stumbled into the classic mistake of confusing the elephant with the letter from the wife. His single-flowered shrub rose was in fact something quite different, masquerading as quite something different again. It was another of my favourite plants, the pale lilac-flowered shrub called Abutilon vitifolium, the vine-leaved Abutilon. Its leaves resemble those of a large Vitis or vine while its flowers are, I suppose, passably rose-like in form.

Hollies are fine garden plants, too – some more so than others. Among the best are those with foliage that looks unlike any conventional holly. Ilex x altaclarensis ‘Camelliifolia Variegata’, the camellia-leaved holly, is a striking evergreen bearing almost spineless dark green leaves with golden margins. There is not, to my knowledge, a holly-leaved camellia, although there is an apple-flowered one, Camellia maliflora: a not at all bad pink-blossomed plant that picked up an RHS award a few years ago. If you cannot find it, you could turn instead to the true Malus or apple species and select Malus prunifolia, the plum-leaved apple, and then complete your quest full circle with Prunus ilicifolia, the holly-leaved cherry.

I am always particularly intrigued by those instances where resemblance is manifest both ways. The classic example is the pear-leaved willow, Salix pyrifolia and the lovely willow-leaved pear, Pyrus salicifolia. The latter is a really valuable plant, having so much of the appeal of a weeping willow with none of its antisocial drain-seeking habits. It also lacks that scourge of the weeping willow, anthracnose disease, and although it can suffer slightly from the pear and apple afflictions, scab and mildew, I do commend it nonetheless.

There really is no perfection in gardens – one plant escapes a problem by looking like something else, but in turn acquires a fault of its own. And in the final analysis, I still find myself pondering whether these plants appeal in spite or because of their similarity to something botanically different – although if it is of any assistance in resolving the dilemma, I can’t help thinking that a letter from my wife, no matter what its content, must always be preferable to an orchestral elephant. l

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone