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Horticultural Bottom Ten – Chicago Edition (1st Installment)


Tags: horticulture, plants, Gardening, bottom ten, norway maple, rose of sharon, siberian elm

Created: 7/15/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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Gardening has, for many years, been America’s most popular hobby, so it should come as no surprise that numerous people have attempted to make a buck or two dispensing horticultural information to the masses. Gardeners clamor endlessly for the advice of experts, and so your average bookstore is absolutely lousy with flower books, to say nothing of the countless gardening websites available for the perusal of the plant-addled. Most of these resources focus on what to grow and why. As I considered topics for a blog post today, it occurred to me that I should avoid contributing to this information overload.  There is an eminently more useful service I can offer to the horticulturally inclined. And so, calling upon my years of training and experience, I've come up a with a list of plants that should never ever be planted by anyone, ever. Witness the first installment of the soon-to-be-indispensable Harper’s Horticultural Bottom Ten!*

Norway Maple tree

Norway Maple – Acer platanoides.

This plant should need no introduction. Wherever you are in the city of Chicago, statistically speaking, a well-swung dead cat will either hit the side of a Dunkin Donuts or the trunk of a Norway Maple. This tree looks like it was lifted straight from your first grade art project - you know, back when you stupidly drew trees like green lollipops on brown sticks. Puerile geometry is pretty much all Norway Maples have to offer; yet people inexplicably keep planting them. Yes, the fall color is decent, but the brilliant oranges and crimsons of our native Red and Sugar Maples make the Norway’s pale yellow look sickly by comparison.  If that’s not enough to dissuade you from planting a Norway, please, for the sake of all that’s good in the world, read on. This tree’s shade is so dense that it’s tough to grow much of anything beneath it, especially since its shallow roots crowd out other plants. Its seeds sprout everywhere, requiring you to pull multitudes of saplings lest you end up with more of these affronts to botanical decency darkening your property. Oh, did I mention it’s an invasive species? And that YOU CAN’T EVEN MAKE MAPLE SYRUP WITH IT!? Sheesh!

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus.

Your grandma had one of these. She also had Pat Boone records and a crocheted cover over the Kleenex box.  Just sayin.’ The Rose of Sharon looks good on paper – a tough shrub with reliable mid to late summer color. But you see, that’s what makes it so insidious. You want to like this shrub. You think you should.  It’s got huge pink or blue flowers after all.  What’s not to like? That’s what I’m here for, gentle reader, to tell you what’s not to like. Those flowers you were so excited about have limp, fleshy petals, insipid colors, and discordant, reddish centers. They smell…weird. After they die, they continue to hang around, all floppy and messy (see photo), for several days. And the rest of the plant has nothing at all to recommend it.  Its form is sort of like an upside-down Christmas tree, until it gets older and full of heavy flowers and starts looking like an upside-down Christmas tree trodden by elephants. The seed pods are unattractive and their contents sprout readily into hard-to-pull seedlings. Oh, and the curled up flower buds are a favorite home for slugs, as well as every homeowner’s favorite, Japanese Beetles.

Siberian Elm

Siberian Elm - Ulmus pumila.

Unscrupulous plant peddlers sometimes sell this tree as a Dutch Elm Disease resistant alternative to the majestic American Elm. Unfortunately, it lacks the impeccable vase-like form of its American cousin, leaving it with - let me do the math here - ah yes, precisely zero ornamental characteristics. With weak wood that leaves the lawn littered with broken twigs, and massive horizontal roots to impede your mower, expect to spend more time than ever on yard work after you plant one of these embarrassments of the arboreal world. Here’s how I would describe the form: Take a bunch of parsley in your fist. Smash it into the wall a few times. Tie the stems together to form the “trunk” and poke it in the dirt. Congratulations, you now have a perfect bonsai replica of a Siberian Elm. Let me leave you with a few comments from the renowned plantsman Michael Dirr: “A poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere!…One of, if not the, world’s worst trees…Native to eastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Korea and, unfortunately, was not left there.” I think there’s a lesson there for us all.

To be continued - watch this blog for the next installment!

*Someone out there is about to fire off an indignant comment pointing out that there are examples of some of these plants on the museum grounds.  Rest assured, I sure as heck didn’t put ‘em there.


Seth Harper, Horticulturist

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No Comments

  • Shan said (on 7/25/2013 )

    Great Blog! It totally explains my backyard, which is a battle zone between Rose of Sharon & Norway Maple saplings (dropped from a neighbor's tree). I am trying to pull them all out, but I think the plants are winning!

  • Mary said (on 7/26/2013 )

    But it is so satisfying to pull out those Rose of Sharon seedlings.! I don't want to be deprived of that...

  • Tom Bachhuber said (on 7/26/2013 )

    I never realized learning about unattractive, unappealing plants could be fun; thanks Seth! I hope you'll have the good sense to add weeping willow to your list, specifically the one in my backyard which drops hundreds of leaves each and every season--yes, even winter.
    And with the slightest breeze, sheds countless branches to be picked up throughout the day/week/month/year. Oh, did I mention its soft wood makes it a threat to topple over on our house during even a modest rainstorm?

  • Dave Harmon said (on 9/3/2013 )

    I'd say that <a href="">hybrid pears</a> deserve a place on your list. While they flowers are pretty and the fall leaves are drop-dead gorgeous, they also have a few problems:

    1) They shed limbs. AIUI, their growth pattern stresses the branch crotches, so that over time primary branches will start breaking off the tree (if it doesn't split outright).
    2) They also shed lots of inedible fruit, which makes a smelly mess.
    3) Worst, most of those hybrids are only <i>self</i>-sterile, meaning that they <i>can</i> fertilize a different hybrid. The results have a nasty tendency to revert to the Callery pear: a low, tough, woody shrub, very difficult to remove once it gets settled. Also, those reversions often have 3-inch thorns, sharp and strong enough to go through a tractor tire.

  • Jeff Smith said (on 5/18/2017 )

    Great article, personally find it clever of you to resort to a list of what not to plant "clever thinking" and definitely a little more interesting as yes what we should so is most certainly been covered, a list of undesirables, what people need to avoid spreading and can think of a few plants and trees that I dislike, I'm sure Seth you can add to that list and make it a little longer :-)

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