Extension Educator, Horticulture
Catalogs and ads offer a utopia of fragrant flowers and vibrant veggies. Each plant bigger, better and easier to grow than its counterparts.
As you are plant shopping keep in mind the secret language of the plant people. A few examples include: "grows vigorously" which means it will envelop your car overnight. "Unique fragrance" equals a smell that will peel paint.
Do your homework and read the fine print. I know many people are not familiar with botanic names, but that is the only way to know what you are getting. Once you know the botanic name, even if you can't pronounce it, you can find information about the plant. Botanic names are unique. Common names can be very misleading.
A good example is an ad I saw recently in the newspaper. It was touting the luxurious beauty and fragrance of Siberian lavender. I had never heard of anything called Siberian lavender so I kept reading. The ad stated (with lots of exclamation points) how Siberian lavender produces "thousands of flowers"and has the "delicate scent of lavender perfume year after year." Wow sounds pretty fantastic. I continued to look to find the botanic name. In the minuscule fine print it said "Variety: perovskia atripliafolia" (which I assume to be the misspelling of Perovskia atripicifolia) also known as Russian sage. Russian sage is a nice perennial plant with silvery white leaves and soft bluish-purple flowers held in loose spikes. However, even from far away on a foggy day I doubt Russian sage would hold even a slight resemblance to lavender. Russian sage does have a fragrance, but it's more reminiscent of sage than of lavender.
As we all know if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is ... on our shopping list. Sorry there are no miracle plants.
Or how about the grass that provides a great-looking lawn in sun or shade requiring little mowing, watering, or fertilizing, regardless of how many kids, dogs and ATVs play on it. Ads say such grasses exist, yet the traditional grass species used in our area, Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, or perennial ryegrass, don't fit these claims. Are there "miracle" grasses out there? Unfortunately the ads don't always tell the whole story.
Bruce Spangenberg formerly with U of I Extension shares turfgrass examples of so-called "miracle plants." Zoysiagrass is frequently promoted in magazines or catalogs as very heat and drought tolerant, and creating a vigorous lawn. This is true, but zoysiagrass is actually adapted for southern locations and will be dormant for much of the season in most of Illinois. In spring and fall when other lawns are nice and green, zoysiagrass is usually straw colored.
Another grass advertised as needing little care, little water, and little mowing is buffalograss. There is no question buffalograss is a very drought tolerant North American native. However, buffalograss takes a long time to get established thus allowing weeds to invade. Quality is very low for home lawn use. Like zoysiagrass, buffalograss will be dormant for much of spring and fall.
In our climate with plenty of moisture, buffalograss does not compete well with weeds. However, research is being conducted to develop improved varieties, so perhaps buffalograss will someday be a good choice for Illinois lawns.
Other advertisements may promote super grass hybrids or mixes that will stay green and grow very easily regardless of the situation. Once again, examine the product closely. Many times inferior turfgrass species may be in the mix, such as annual ryegrass.
Seek catalogs that give botanic names. Do some checking with your local library or U of I Extension to see what plants are right for your area. It may save you some frustration energy better used on the weather, insects, and diseases.