An important insight early in my re-education in “plants we take for granted” came from Beverley Nichols, an English writer whose works have recently been revived by Timber Press. Nichols was a man of his age (early 20th century), complaining about his manservant lying a-bed too late of a morning, employing gardeners to tend his conservatory, and so on. He is frightfully opinionated–and completely addictive. You won’t read him for garden advice–at least unless you have an English estate–but I do recommend you read him for his take on people, cats, and plants, and his use of the King’s English.
Now that I’m done with that plug for his estate, let me move on to the moment of revelation. Our neighborhood has a number of old bottlebrushes (callistemon) stuck here and there in the landscape. Untended, unwatered, they’re mostly gnarled and scrubby, and if I noticed them at all, I mostly noticed how untidy they were. And then one day my husband was reading Nichols’ Garden Open Tomorrow, and read out loud (as he is wont to do even though he can clearly see I’M READING, TOO) the author’s description of seeing a bottlebrush for the first time in Kew Gardens’ Australian greenhouse: “It is a flamboyant, extravagant, and altogether unlikely creation; the arrogant scarlet flowers are like fantasies of spun glass tied to the branches by a modern decorator.”
On my next walk I stopped to consider the bottlebrush that hung over the sidewalk, asking for nothing—not water, not fertilizer; maybe only some attention—and decided, by God, that was an accurate description. It was truly spectacular. And we already had a previously-unappreciated one on our bank, surrounded by ivy. So we cleared the ivy, and planted three more. The bees and hummingbirds could not be happier, and when the sun shines on the blossoms, they do indeed look like spun glass. And look at it (above) after a rain! It looks like a Chihuly piece!
So in your plant selection, do consider the bottlebrush. They attract hummingbirds and bees, come in a number of cultivars to fit a variety of situations, from patio tree to hedge to foundation plantings; Callistemon viminalis, the weeping bottlebrush, can stand in for people nostalgic for the weeping willows of their youth, and the smaller-sized Callistemon “Little John“ is a wonderful compact, blue-green shrub that, in Bob Perry’s words, is “highly tolerant of heat, aridity, and cold termperatures below 20 degrees.” Can’t get much more versatile than that.