Desert Island Plant Challenge

– Posted in: Miscellaneous


Many thanks to Shirl of Shirl’s Gardenwatch for coming up with a great idea for a community activity: The Desert Island Plant Challenge. The concept of a warm desert island – as compared to the frozen wasteland we call Pennsylvania in January – sounds awfully good right now! We get to pick any three plants to take with us, ornamental or edible, though she assures us that there’s already plenty of food on our island, so we don’t have to choose purely for practical reasons. She also tells us that any plant will grow there, so we don’t have to be nit-picky about our choices being appropriate for a real desert island. So, gee, that makes it easier, right? Not.

To be honest, I was surprised at what I ended up with for my must-have three. There’s no fragrance from either flower or foliage, which is a bummer, and no chartreuse, either. If I’d had more time to ponder my three picks, maybe I would have chosen differently. But for today, here’s what I’m packing for my desert-island garden.

Forsythia viridissima var. koreana ‘Kumson’. Good grief – a forsythia, of all things? Well, I was going for multi-season interest, and this deciduous shrub has a lot to offer. It starts opening scattered blooms as early as November, taking a break during the coldest parts of December and January before beginning to open a few again on mild February and March days.


Bloom peaks in April, in a nice clear yellow that’s easier on the eye than the brassy yellow of many other forsythias. After the blooms finish, the new leaves emerge green heavily netted with light yellow to ivory to white.

forsythia-kumson-april-14-08 forsythia-kumson-aug-23-06

The markings of the leaves dull a bit as the foliage ages, but bright new growth through the summer continues the interest. And then in fall, the leaves take on nice purplish red shades, making a pretty complement to the autumn blooms. It’s not a knock-your-socks-off thing, but there’s enough seasonal change to make it interesting nearly all year ’round.


Stipa tenuissima. I call it pony tail grass; you may know it as Mexican feather grass. By any name, it’s a beauty. I love the bright green color of its new growth, and the way its fine-textured foliage positively begs you to run your fingers through it.


I love the way it catches even the lightest breeze.


I love the way it appears silvery and then golden as the flower- and seedheads develop in summer.


I love the way the swirling mounds of bleached foliage hold up so well through the winter, creating delicate sculptures when traced with ice…


…and bouncing back even after being smothered by snow.


I don’t love having to cut it down in spring, because it’s sad to get rid of the still-nice old foliage. But new growth comes up quickly – often in just a few days – so there’s practically no down time. It’s fantastic in borders and absolutely splendid in containers. I’ve got a couple of clumps packed and ready to go!

Zinnia elegans. There’s not much room left in my suitcase, but that’s okay, because I need only enough space for a packet of zinnia seed. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead admiring a zinnia, let alone growing one. I’m glad I got over that! They’re big, they’re bright, they’re easy, and they’re fun.

 zinnia-purple-prince-coleus-bellingrath-pink-aug-12-08 zinnia-aztec-orange-vernonia-catalpa-atriplex-rudbeckia-aug-25-07

It would be especially good if the packet included a mix of flower forms as well as colors, so I could amuse myself with selecting different strains over the years. And just think of the money I could make selling the cut flowers to all the tourists who come to visit my desert-island garden.


So, what would you take to your own island? Leave a link at Shirl’s post so we can check out your picks!


Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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jodi January 21, 2009, 10:22 pm

I LOVE your choices, Nan! Forsythia makes me smile with its foliar fireworks, the grass taunts me but I’d go with a hardy grass (if I hadn’t picked my three plants)…and I love zinnias even though I don’t grow them. There’s something very tidy and geometric about them, and the green ones…well, I adore green flowers of all types. It’s going to be fun to see what others choose, too.

Yes, it was tough to choose just one grass. The stipa is awesome even as an annual, so I’d save the seed, just in case my island had an unusually cold winter.

eliz January 22, 2009, 12:11 am

My picks were much more pedestrian, but I left them as a comment elsewhere. I figure with a desert island I won’t have to worry about winter interest so I left it out. (I ignore winter interest in Buffalo too, so go figure.) You have made some very classy and interesting choices!

A very good point about winter interest not being a big issue on a *desert* island. But as I couldn’t reconcile it being a desert with my being able to grow absolutely anything I wanted, I decided to pretend that the island’s climate was pretty much like good old PA. Except maybe a little warmer in the winter. That would be good.

Helen/patientgardener January 22, 2009, 5:19 am

I like your choices with the exception of the Zinnias as I just cant grow them.

Oh yes you can, Helen. You can grow anything you want on your island; Shirl says so! But you don’t have to want zinnias, since you’re not already fond of them.

Sylvia (England) January 22, 2009, 5:34 am

Nan, I love your choices, I left mine as a comment on Shirl’s post. I have a large Forsythia, I would prefer your variety but as mine it is a nice solid bush which give structure to the garden it stays. It also have lovely autumn colour.

I grow very few grasses but I do like the idea of running my fingers through Stipa tenuissima, perhaps it will go on to my wish list. Zinnias, I have never grown – it is on my list, I haven’t put in my seed order yet so maybe!

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Thanks for your comments, Sylvia. I’m on my way back to Shirls’ to see what others have chosen so far, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve picked for yourself.

Shirl January 22, 2009, 6:19 am

Hi again Nan 🙂 This is great fun seeing what we all choose but at the same time being surprised at our own choices – me too 😉

Ah… that is very likely to be the grass I’d choose but I finally decided to have my green and movement fix with my bamboo. I always run my fingers along it as I pass mine. I did consider the sun lovers like the zinnias especially as in my own garden I get little full sun. Yes, as you said anything goes here – so considerate to consider your tourists too 😀

I think your choice of bamboo was stunning, and the others were intriguing too. Hooray for your great idea for this chilly day!

Frances January 22, 2009, 7:03 am

Hi Nan, when I saw forsythia I thought what the… but that foliage is fantastic and the fall color too, most excellent choice. I almost chose the stipa too, it is the best grass here and is evergreen. I do cut the flower stalks off mid June, but there is really no down time for it. And hooray for the zinnias too, so colorful. These also happen to be three neat plants too. 🙂

I think I may like the stipa all the better for not being evergreen here. Occasional forays into silk flowers aside, I do enjoy plants that change dramatically with the seasons. Can’t wait to see your picks!

Tyra January 22, 2009, 9:23 am

Hi Nancy, what a fantastic post and beautiful pictures. I’m glad you brought the Zinnia excellent choice, a favorite I totally forgot to bring.
I wonder are we going to the same island? If yes I’ll sure will come and visit you and dear Zinnia.


Hey, Tyra, what a wonderful thought. Of *course* we’d all be on the same island! Gee, if we were all in one place, then maybe we wouldn’t need to blog anymore.

Lisa at Greenbow January 22, 2009, 9:37 am

Great choices Nan. I almost picked forsythia so I am glad that you did. I just can’t stop imagining everyones choices in one big garden. Beautiful!

Maybe we need a master list of picks so we know what everyone is bringing. I wonder if there will be any duplicates?

Adam Woodruff January 22, 2009, 10:09 am

Good morning Nan, great post. Stipa tenuissima is one of my favorites too. I think I’d have to take reseeding Verbena bonariensis and Cynara cardunculus as well!

I’m very fond of cardoon too, Adam. And the verbena did appear in my top 10. Cutting to just three choices was really hard.

Gail January 22, 2009, 10:17 am


That is one fantastic forsythia! Would that I could replace the forty foot hedge of regular old forsythia with this beauty! I so wanted to take zinnia with me..perhaps I could hide a few seeds in my pocket it is after all a nice fantasy trip in the middle of winter to a desert island! A beautiful post Nan!


No need to pack seed, Gail; since we’re on the same island, come on over and gather some from my patch!

easygardener January 22, 2009, 10:48 am

Great choices Nan. I especially like the Stipa (I’ve got one). So good for movement and catching the light – but constantly attacked by my cats.
See you on the island!

Heh – sounds like your cats too have great taste in plants!

Darla January 22, 2009, 10:59 am

That grass is great and what garden is without zinnias? Glad you got over that too!

What I wouldn’t give for a gardenful of zinnias at the moment, Darla. Right now, I have only a bunch of seed packets. But the potential is there….

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 22, 2009, 11:25 am

Interesting choices, and not what I would have expected you to pick. I’ve definitely got to jump on this Zinnia bandwagon.

Yes, another recruit for the zinnia club! Now, I’m heading over to see what you selected.

Gayle Madwin January 22, 2009, 11:38 am

I’m bringing Sequoia sempervirens to remind me of the California coast range, Lupinus albifrons to remind me of the California central valley, and Ceanothus lemmoni to remind me of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Having moved just recently, you’re brave to contemplate moving again to the desert island, but it’ll be a beautiful and happy place. I know what the sequoia looks like (from pictures), but I’ll have to depend on Google to learn about your other picks.

tina January 22, 2009, 12:00 pm

What wonderful choices Nan-and super fantastic pictures showing them all in all the seasons! You have everything covered with the shrub, grasses and color-love all the forms! and beauty! I must get that stipa too one of these days.

Thanks, Tina! Do try to get the pony tail grass this year. It’s not very big, especially if you treat it as an annual, so it could fit just about anywhere.

Sherry January 22, 2009, 12:31 pm

I love your choices.
Lovely photographs too.
Our Island will be beautiful.

I appreciate the comment, Sherry. Yes, it’ll be awesome. With so many of us on that island, it’s a good thing Shirl limited us to just three picks.

Karen - An Artists Garden January 22, 2009, 12:45 pm

Nan, lovely choices, especially the pony tail grass. I was surprised by the forsythia, as I have a blanket dislike of it, but you have put forward one that looks very interesting, so I may have to re-think my thoughts on this shrub.

Forsythias used to make me cringe too, but the particular yellow of this one, and its amazing foliage too, make it really special.

Yolanda Elizabet January 22, 2009, 12:58 pm

Forsythia is one of my favourites too. Yesterday I found bunches of Forsythia for sale and I bought them. Now I’m waiting for the buds to open.

Love the grass you’ve picked, an excellent choice and I adore Zinnias. I tried them for the first time last year and am smitten.

Aren’t you lucky! It would be such a treat to have some for indoors. I think I’ll go out and cut some this afternoon. Maybe they’ll be in flower by the next Bloom Day.

Nicole January 22, 2009, 1:45 pm

Those green zinnias are gorgeous, and so is the grass. Thanks for doing this post from which i learned about the challenge.

Isn’t it a beauty? I should have added labels: that one is ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’. The purple one is ‘Purple Prince’ (with ‘Bellingrath Pink’/’Texas Parking Lot’ coleus), and the orange is ‘Aztec Orange’).

Karrita~ My Mother's Garden January 22, 2009, 4:54 pm

Hi Nan~

I love your three choices! Zinnias are one of my favorites and the stipa grass is truly beautiful.

Welcome, Karrita! It’s great to hear from another zinniaphile.

Joe January 22, 2009, 5:11 pm

Hi, great choices here. I especially liked the blue flowers on the first picture.

Thanks, Joe. Those are the flowers of ‘Brookside’ geranium.

Layanee January 22, 2009, 5:22 pm

All gorgeous shots! I will visit you on your island!

I think we’ve established that we’re all moving to the same island, Layanee, so it’ll be easy to visit each other. And hey, think of all the fun we’ll have trading seeds and plants!

skeeter January 22, 2009, 6:54 pm

Great choices! 🙂

Thanks, Skeeter!

Jan(ThanksFor2Day) January 22, 2009, 11:54 pm

Your forsythia choice is amazing. I have never heard of that variety and now I wish I had it instead of the stuff I have! It’s great for all seasons, not just ONE-something I would like.
I have no experience with the grass, either. I have had zinnias but like someone else said as I read through the comments, I’ve not been able to grow them well. It could be the placement of them…too much shade, perhaps…

Hi there, Jan! Now that you mention it, I think my appreciation for zinnias began when I moved from my previous shady garden to this full-sun one.

Robin January 23, 2009, 1:04 am

I packed zinnia seeds for the trip too! They are a must have and since they take up virtually no space, I didn’t count them in the three. I cheated.

Grass blowing in the gentle ocean breeze would be a lovely addition.

Hey, if seeds don’t count as a pick, then I really need to repack my suitcase!

Pam Kersting January 23, 2009, 8:25 am

I love the post GGW! It’s funny, because I too, am a super fan of Zinnias — my zinnia plant of choice though is Zinnia linearis. I wrote about it on my blog here …

I really don’t think I could take just three plants. That would be absolutely too difficult, but I’ll try to name three. First, the Live Oak Tree (Quercus virginiana) to give me a little shade and shelter to relax under. Second, I’d take a daylily — please don’t make me choose which one at this time! I love them ALL! And lastly, I think I’d bring a Sango Kaku Japanese Maple OR Canna sp. ‘Tropicana’ for some bold color!

Great picks, Pam. Maybe you could bring several daylily hybrids along; think of the fun you could have crossing them.

Dawn January 23, 2009, 11:22 am

Got to love a forsythia for the beautiful color! But the zinna get me every time, with the perfect petals and color! Great choices!

Thanks, Dawn. It sure would be a treat to have some of those perfect blooms right now!

Shirley Bovshow "EdenMaker" January 23, 2009, 12:21 pm

To be in “island heaven” I would need to have wild musk roses, an arbutus tree and sempervivum of every variety!

Fun question.

I don’t feel too bad about not taking roses for myself, since you and several others have already packed them (I think you’re the first one I’ve seen that specifically chose the musks, though). Arbutus sounds great, and yes, definitely sempervivums too!

Jan January 23, 2009, 9:15 pm

Nancy, I love your choices, esp. Stipa tenuissima. I didn’t even think of that one even though it is among my favorites.

Always Growing

Thanks, Jan. Sounds like we have plenty of company in being fond of that grass.

Sweet Bay January 23, 2009, 10:57 pm

I love your pictures of the Stipa, especially with the blue geraniums. Very beautiful.

I had not heard of that Forsythia culivar before — it looks very intriguing. 🙂

Hi there, Sweet Bay! Thanks for visiting. ‘Kumson’ is pretty easy to find, as far as I know. Don’t hesitate to buy a small plant if that’s all you can get; it grows quickly.

MacGardens January 24, 2009, 1:37 pm

Wow! I love your choices. I’ve just added the first two to this years plant wish list. Is that fall picture of the Forsythia producing both flowers and fall foliage at the same time?

It sure is! That shot was from late October last year.

Kylee from Our Little Acre January 24, 2009, 10:47 pm

I agree, about the Mexican Feather Grass! I’m currently trying to overwinter mine – outside. It’s on the south side of the house and protected from wind, too, so maybe it will make it. Right now, it’s buried under the snow, which should help!

Great choices, Nan!

I hope yours makes it, Kylee. I had some losses the first two years, but the established grouping now seems very dependable, maybe because the dense top growth acts like a protective mulch.

Shady Gardener January 25, 2009, 6:49 pm

I don’t have enough sunshine (or sunny space) for zinnias, but I love them a lot. Your grassy photos are a shoe-in for a deserted island. 😉 I think you have something for the variety of seasons!

Thanks, Shady! I’ll come visit your bit of the island when the sun gets too intense over in my corner.

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