New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. Nature
30 October 2019

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.

By Stefan Buczacki

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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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

Content from our partners
We need an urgent review of UK pensions
The future of private credit
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors

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