Why miniature plants evoke giant feelings

Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Last year at the annual nursery convention I met a guy who had these cute little miniature cranberries. They had been hybridized at the University of Michigan, an offshoot of the Cranberry Improvement Program. They had gotten so tiny that there was almost no space between the leaves, they lay so tightly upon one another that they looked like feathers. Dwarfism had been so complete that even though they would flower, they could not set fruit.

I looked at these shiny green mounds of fishscale sized leaves and thought ``I don't care that there is no fruit, or that they grow so slowly that they will look like this for a year at a time - they are soooo cute that I want them.'' So I bought 25 and had them shipped along with the rest of my order from that grower.

When they arrived in April I once again thrilled to their diminutive oddity, but affairs of greater importance overwhelmed my delight and they were placed in a spot where they would get watered, but out of the main traffic pattern. I promptly forgot about them, moving the Mugo Pines and big Rhododendrons about, trying to fit them into some type of system so that we could take care of them.

Every now and then I would catch sight of them, always with a wistful sense of pleasure; they seemed so patient, so unassuming, even though they had that Audrey Hepburn-like presence. Last week I was again rushing to repair some broken water system, when I looked down and there they were, but something was different. It looked like some tiny pink moths were holding a cotillion on the polished surfaces of the foliage.

Guilt and sorrow swept over me, had I ignored some warning that there was a pest I should have known about? I hurriedly bent and lifted one, blowing the insects away, only to discover that these were no predatory lifeforms, they were firmly attached blossoms. I had no idea when they were going to bloom, I thought that since this was a sterile hybrid so it would probably not even have visable flowers.

These tiny pink blooms are so lovely that I forgot my broken pipe, dropped to my knees and got my face right down next to the pots. The petals are swept back so they have the wing-like shape that was so arresting, but the color and texture of these little baby flowers are absolutely enchanting.

Recalled to my urgent tasks I hurried away, but the thought of tiny fascinations stayed with me for days. There are dozens of little plants that have won places of affection in our hearts. People are thrilled with lacy Japanese Maples, Miniature Conifers have become one of the hottest markets in worldwide horticulture, and Dwarf Roses fly out of the nurseries and florist outlets so rapidly that they scarcely pause to be unwrapped.

Bonsai plants symbolize the entire natural world in a tiny pot, miniature African Violets adorn glass shelves in the windows of many local homes and even dwarf Ivy has become a star with dozens of named varieties being available. What is it about these little versions that make them so attractive?

The reduced spaces most of us live in contributes to the fascination, and the rapid pace of life means less time to care for large yards, but that is not the whole thing. I believe we care for these little gems because of a sense of the parental. They arouse our nursing instincts, make us feel protective and guardianlike. We anthropomorphize our way into a personal relationship with these dwarf plants as if they were kittens or baby chicks. Our delight has much to do with our recognition of ourselves in the little foliage.

Big bold landscape plants fill our needs too, and we love our roses and lilacs for their heady contributions to our spring and summer flower arrangements, but they don't make us want to cuddle them or poke at them with a gentle finger to feel their texture. Pine trees and primroses have their designated spaces, we are thrilled to see the tulips again each season, but the delicate little dwarf narcissus draws clucks and cootchy-coos like nothing else.

People tour gardens, visit forests and glide down jungle rivers admiring the lush foliage. They plant towering Delphiniums, relax under the generations old trunks of the Maples and Beeches, and they stroll through botanical gardens admiring the giant conifers collected from other continents. They really change gears though when they see the tiny alpine gems in the rock gardens. Exclamations become tender, our other side emerges. Miniature plants reach our larger feelings. They seem to call to us to get down and love them.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

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