Six Plants I Can’t Live Without

April 20, 2009 | By | Comments (46)

Grumpians, what six plants if eliminated from the Universe would drive you to the brink of despair? That is the monumental question I and other bloggers from around the country wrestle with this week. Read my list below, then click on the links to read the other blogs. Don’t agree with our choices? Tell us yours!


1. Native Azaleas—Evergreen azaleas from Japan and China may be more popular than federal bail-outs, but give me our deciduous native azaleas every time. Each spring, I marvel at their grace, beauty, range of flower colors, and sweet fragrance. If God has made better plants, I have yet to meet them.The flowers shown above belong to Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canascens), which is quite common in our Alabama woods. My garden also contains Florida flame azalea (R. austrinum), Alabama azalea (R. alabamense), Oconee azalea (R. flammeum), and the summer-blooming plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium). Go native, Grumpiana!


2. NarcissusTulips may be gaudier and come in more colors, but daffodils and jonquils are the best garden bulbs for the South — period. They come back year after year, rodents don’t eat them, and many naturalize and spread to form drifts. Because they live so long with so little care, many become heirlooms passed from generation to generation. You can’t say that about tulips. And the simple fact is this — no other plant signals spring is nigh better than the earliest, cheery yellow daffodils. On my list of favorite Narcissus — ‘Avalon,’  ‘Bell Song,’ ‘Falconet,’ ‘Geranium,’ ‘Hawera,’ ‘Ice Follies,’ ‘Intrigue,’ ‘Jetfire,’ ‘Minnow,’ ‘Quail,’ and ‘Trevithian.’


3. Spanish mossLike gray shawls draping the shoulders of old women, the long, airy beards of Spanish moss are the South’s most iconic symbol. I remember growing up in Maryland and returning with bags filled with with this ephiphyte from our trips to the Carolinas. We knew Spanish moss wouldn’t survive winter up there and also needed moisture to survive, so we hung it in our laundry room. Too bad we forgot it also needs light. Spanish moss loves the lowlands and always grows its lushest near the water where the air hangs heavy like wet towels. It prefers certain trees over others — you often see it dangling from branches of live oaks, magnolias, and cypresses, but hardly ever from pines. Thanks to global warming, it’s now thriving in a neighbor’s tree in Birmingham.


4. Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis)This is one of those plants I love because it gives me what no other plant does — about two months of blooms beginning in early February. Eat your hearts out, Wisconsin cheeseheads! Hybridizers have come up with a dazzling array of new colors and floral patterns, but I’m content with the simple white and rose. The evergreen foliage is pretty year-round, the plant is carefree and tolerates drought, and seedlings provide many new plants. In my opinion, this and hosta are the top two perennials for shade. But since everyone (including bin Laden) grows hostas, I’m picking this.

Antares mum

5. ‘Antares’ mumHaven’t heard of this flower? There’s no reason that you should. It’s an old, unidentified, passalong mum that I named for the first-magnitude, red giant star in the constellation Scorpio. It’s a tall, floppy mum that will grow up a trellis if you let it and it also spreads by roots. It blooms very late, often not until mid-November. My father got it from his cousin, Welcome, many years ago in Maryland. Then I transplanted a clump to my house in Alabama. Each time it blooms, I remember where it came from. Wherever I end up, I’m taking it with me. My wife can come too.

Kudzu blooms

6. KudzuMaybe I was wrong about Spanish moss. Maybe this vine is the South’s most iconic symbol. It grows over a much wider range. Heck, it grows over just about everything. Brought to the South for erosion control, cattle feed, and shade for porches, kudzu (Pueraria lobata) has been much reviled for covering the world like Sherwin-Williams. But it has its good side — every part of the plant is edible and you just haven’t lived until you’ve relished some deep-fried kudzu leaves. Kudzu is so ingrained in the Southern environment and culture that if it disappeared tomorrow, we wouldn’t recognize the place. I mean, what would we use to cover old school buses, rusty propane tanks, and abandoned houses? Kudzu, we need you now more than ever.

Check Out These Excellent Blogs for More Plants Folks Can’t Live Without

Defining Your Home Garden. Written by Cameron in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Digging. Written by Pam in Austin, Texas.

Diggin’ It. Written by Judy in Boston, Massachussetts.

Fairegarden. Written by Frances in somewhere in Tennessee..

Fresh Dirt. Written by garden editors at Sunset in California and Washington.

Gardening with Confidence. Written by Helen in Raleigh, NC.

Hoe & Shovel. Written by Meems in central Florida.

Sweet Home and Garden Chicago. Written by Carolyn in the Windy City.

Mea culpa! Some of you have written asking what happened to Jim Long’s list. It’s totally the Grump’s fault. I neglected to send him the correct date for the blogathon. You can still read Jim’s list in the comments below. Sorry about that, everybody!


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  3. linda

    i have lots of ground going up my sidewalk and for some reason we can’t grow grass, so we are going to plant liriope and mulch around it. how can i grown liriope from the start rather than buying so much from a nursery. thanks,

    July 17, 2012 at 6:21 pm
  4. Grumpy Gardener aka His Excellency

    Thanks, Bill. If I ever move to Iowa, that’s what I’ll plant.

    June 22, 2009 at 2:50 pm
  5. Bill

    Buck’s Roses are grown to withstand the long cold frigid winters of the north (something you don’t have.)

    June 22, 2009 at 10:39 am
  6. Grumpy Gardener

    Good tip, Martha. Coleus are also easy to root this way during the growing season. FYI, if your local garden center is so backward that it doesn’t carry ‘Henna,’ you can order it from

    May 7, 2009 at 11:49 am
  7. Martha

    Regarding “Henna” coleus, don’t cry on Dr. Steve’s shoulder when frost threatens your beautiful plant. Just pinch off several lengths and root them in water. I have several now growing and will enjoy them all summer.

    May 7, 2009 at 10:54 am
  8. tdelene

    I completely agree about daffodils… as a recent transplant from Florida to North Carolina, the daffodil blooms in our yard were a godsend. It was such a long winter, and it heartened me to know warmer weather was on it its way when they popped up!

    May 6, 2009 at 12:17 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener

    Good choices, Bonnie. Everybody in central Texas, take note!

    April 29, 2009 at 7:04 am
  10. Bonnie

    Great exercise to undertake. Here’s my shot for central texas conditions:
    1. Confederate jasmine
    2. Moonflower
    3. bulbine
    4. Lamb’s ear
    5. Mexican bush sage
    6. Fountain grass or any ornamental grass for pete’s sake.

    April 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener

    I have grown yesterday, today, and tomorrow and would definitely grow jacaranda if it would live here. Pride of India, also know as Chinaberry, was one of the first exotic plants imported into the United States. It loves it here. A lot of people in the South regard it as a weed tree because of all the seedlings.

    April 27, 2009 at 7:45 am
  12. Mandy

    I have been cursed with an adventurous life and have lived on three continents with vastly different gardening conditions. I will just list my favourite 6.
    Yesterday, today and Tomorrow
    Pride of India
    Jacaranda tree
    Iceberg roses

    April 26, 2009 at 10:18 pm
  13. Grumpy Gardener

    I’ve seen a large chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) in full bloom in Delaware and it was spectacular. Don’t think it would live long in central Alabama though. Just goes to show that nobody should feel bad about what they can’t grow, when there are so many good plants they can grow.
    Hey David, do you know that I once received sackfuls of hate mail because I wrote that mimosa was a “weed tree?” Lucky you weren’t reading then. You might have mailed me some anthrax.
    BYW, my mother’s favorite flower is bearded iris. I have a yellow passalong iris from Margaret Sanders in Mississippi that a nuclear blast couldn’t kill. Blooms without fail every spring.

    April 23, 2009 at 3:32 pm
  14. david lassiter

    Magnolias, especially SweetBay Magnolia here in the midwest,bearded iris all colors,hostas,korean azaleas,gardenias,mimosa trees, smoke tree as a shrub,I love the stem structure that I have created with these specimens and the lighting underneaath diffuses to make a beautiful landscape at night and my baby, a tri-color paperbark birch. Alot of what I love is from growing up in the south, 30 miles from Callaway Gardens. I have introduced the southern species into my landscape and most have survived our winters. Right now everything is in bloom here in Missouri.My Canadian Chokecherry is in full bloom. The floral aroma is so intense it floats thru out our house.

    April 23, 2009 at 10:27 am
  15. Dee/reddirtramblings

    Very interesting choices. I’ll think on this tonight and create my list tomorrow. Thanks for such a thought provoking meme.~~Dee

    April 22, 2009 at 9:26 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener

    Those are real kudzu flowers. What, you think the Grump makes this stuff up? Every part of kudzu is edible, not just by animals, but by people. The flowers can be candied or used to make jelly. And deep-fried kudzu leaves are delicious.

    April 22, 2009 at 5:20 pm
  17. Annie in Austin

    Some kinds of narcissus will survive here in Austin, Texas, Steve – but they don’t look happy enough to make my list of six. The list keeps changing, but the current contenders are some variety of Cercis/Redbud, some kind of iris, a fragrant evergreen like Sweet Olive or Michelia, some kind of Salvia, a clematis and one still not decided. Maybe. This list might change in ten minutes.
    The posts from all over the country have been fun to read and your photos of Spanish Moss & Kudzu first made me smile – then do a double-take. Those are Kudzu flowers? I’ve only seen the vine draped over trees when we’re on a highway. Up close, the flowers are lovely and the leaves have an interesting shape. I read that goats think they’re mighty tasty.
    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    April 22, 2009 at 3:58 pm
  18. Grumpy Gardener

    See today’s Grumpy Gardener about Chinese fringetree.

    April 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener

    If I were asked to name the best food in the world, it would be sweet corn just picked from the garden. I can eat more than a horse.
    The best places to look would be at your very best local garden centers, not the home centers. Keep in mind that some plants, like the blanket flower, pepper, and coleus, may not be in yet.
    What you want are old-fashioned mums, the kind that grow loose and open and live for generations. Go to the Gardens page and type in “The South’s Best Mums” in the search box. You’ll see a story I did. A good mail-order source is Niche Gardens (

    April 22, 2009 at 12:27 pm
  20. Jessica Damiano

    Hey, Steve. Thanks for stopping by — you’re a funny guy!
    I just blogged about 6 gardening tools I couldn’t live without, and I’m interested to hear about yours. Pop back over when you can.

    April 22, 2009 at 9:58 am
  21. Vikki

    Thanks Steve I have SO enjoyed reading all the blogger entries and compairing the 6 favorites.
    I live in southeastern VA (Chesapeake) on the NC border in zone 8. Here are my best loved 6.
    1. Hydrangrea (all of them…Endless Summer does very well here)
    2. Knockout Roses
    3. Chinese Fringe Tree
    4. Crepe Myrtle
    5. Viburnum Shasta
    6. Daylily

    April 22, 2009 at 9:06 am
  22. Jill in Atlanta

    Any idea of similar mums that can be purchased? I’d love one that came back reliably and spread by roots.

    April 22, 2009 at 8:00 am
  23. Jim Long

    I believe, if there were only 6 plants left, this would be my, “must have” list: potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, a good shade tree, tomatoes, and lilacs, (because I just feel so good when I smell lilacs, or turn them into a sorbet).

    April 22, 2009 at 12:11 am
  24. lazygardener

    Spanish moss won’t grow where there’s heavy pollution. So it’s a great sign that your area’s pretty okay.
    Love your recommendations, but they just serve to remind me that Houston’s not really “South.” Most of those can’t take our intense heat, spring and fall monsoons and heavy, slightly alkaline, gumbo soil.
    So, for Houstonians, my favorites are antique roses, bulbine, plumbago (especially the white but give up on finding that. I’ve bought it all), duranta or golden dewdrop, firespike, hibiscus, shrimp plants and bush daisy (Europys). These are all year-round bloomers for us. Seasonals: amaryllis, swamp daisies, cosmos, antique roses, wow, the list just goes on and on!

    April 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm
  25. Sandra Rea

    Where can you purchase the “Eight Great Plants You Gotta Grow!” listed in the May 2009 Southern Living article? I am especially interested in the ‘Admiral Semmes’ Deciduous Azalea.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:51 am
  26. Christi at A Southern Life

    Back in the day, when I was involved in politics, a lady called me to let me know there was a very serious problem that the federal government needed to address. It turned out that she was very concerned about kudzu taking over the US!
    I would have to have a gardenia bush.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:13 am
  27. Grumpy Gardener

    Thalia is a very good narcissus — I should have included it in my list. These are good choices, but what is a Buck rose? And what species is Summer Ice daphne?

    April 21, 2009 at 6:49 am
  28. adrienne wilber

    My favorite plants in my garden that I would be disappointed if they did not make it through the winter would be:
    1. Chives – I like the plant’s shape and flowers.
    2. Cytisus burkwoodi burkwood which is a broom shrub with beautiful pink flowers.
    3. Enkianthus – great shrub, dainty flowers, nice size and leaves.
    4. Distant Drum Rose – Its a Buck rose that looks and smells great and very hardy.
    5. Daphne – Summer Ice. My favorite plant, smells great, flowers for several months and cute size.
    6. Lamb’s Ear – Even though it seems to multiply on its own, I love it. It is a plant my son always liked and it got him into gardening because he liked the way the leaves felt. It always cheers me up to see it in the garden. I sometimes dig some up and share with it friends.

    April 20, 2009 at 7:40 pm
  29. Mrs.Ashton

    I love the narcissus also but you did not mention my favorite. I am partial to the Narcissus Thalia!
    Mrs. Thalia Ashton

    April 20, 2009 at 5:59 pm
  30. Grumpy Gardener

    Sorry to break the news, Nell Jean, but kudzu just loves your climate. One of the first places it was planted in the U.S. was north Florida.

    April 20, 2009 at 4:50 pm
  31. Nell Jean

    I grow the first 3. Well, I don’t ‘plant’ Spanish moss, it just is. That last is a joke, right?
    I don’t think kudzu grows this far south, but we have enough wisteria to take care of the situation.

    April 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm
  32. joey

    Love all your choices but rampant Kudzu scares me, especially since I’m not moving as fast as I once did 🙂

    April 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm
  33. Grumpy Gardener

    Yes, Rebecca, living here in the South can indeed be frightening. Of course, people in Kansas have to live with the Wicked Witch of the West and she’s pretty scary too.

    April 20, 2009 at 1:11 pm
  34. Rebecca

    Kudzu. *snicker* I remember playing some computer game when I was younger where you grow a habitat, and kudzu outbreaks were always the worst.
    Oh, and spanish moss always scared the bejeezes out of me as a kid. It was like a haunted tree. What can I say, you don’t see that stuff in Kansas.

    April 20, 2009 at 12:21 pm
  35. Frances

    Great minds as they say, for we share three must haves too. That mum sounds like a close relative to my sheffies. I will look for it, that color is wonderful. Thanks for letting me play along. 🙂
    edited for public viewing HA
    (I love to say HA in comments)

    April 20, 2009 at 10:51 am
  36. Susan

    Spanish Moss…I would have never thought about that as a plant to mention. I guess because I never plant it even though I have been know to pick it up off the ground and toss it back on the tree. I would not want to live in the south any longer if there were no Spanish moss – Great choice! That includes azaleas, too.

    April 20, 2009 at 10:50 am
  37. Judy Lowe/Diggin’ It

    I love all the native azaleas (in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, they were usually called wild honeysuckle, and you can see why from a glance at the blooms).
    And why not include kudzu — after all, in the South you couldn’t get away from it even if you wanted to!
    This has been a fun exercise. I wondered if we’d all have many of the same plants, but there’s such a wide variety. I’ve enjoyed it and learned from it.

    April 20, 2009 at 10:15 am
  38. Stacy

    Husband served in the Navy, was stationed for years at the AIC…he recalls Spanish moss in places like Richmond, Williamsburg, and I’ve seen it in Roanoke.
    Birmingham’s humidity is actually worse than ours here in central Florida (I grew up in Huntsville, lived in Bham), a perfect environment for epiphytes.

    April 20, 2009 at 10:07 am
  39. Grumpy Gardener

    Thanks for the comments everybody. I knew including Spanish moss and kudzu would draw a reaction, but you know me, I love stirring the pot.
    Yes, Helen, I know Spanish moss is a haven for chiggers. Wonder how long it took people in colonial times who used it for stuffing mattresses to find that out?
    Cameron, I seriously doubt kudzu is deer-resistant, since cattle love it and I like it too.
    Carolyn, kudzu has come to Chicago? Tell them to plant it on the walls of Wrigley Field!
    Meems, I wonder if you could grow Florida flame azalea?
    Pam, I have always been a champion of despised plants.
    I grew up in Maryland (near Baltimore) and never once in my 28 years there did I see Spanish moss. If it does indeed grow in MD, it must be near the southeast coast. My point about it growing in Birmingham is that Birmingham is very hilly and 250 miles from the coast — not exactly prime Spanish moss habitat.

    April 20, 2009 at 9:40 am
  40. Stacy

    “Global warming” has nothing to do with it. This epiphyte has always ranged from Maryland/Virginia southward.

    April 20, 2009 at 9:02 am
  41. Cameron (Defining Your Home Garden)

    Grumpy — I wonder if kudzu is a deer resistant plant? 🙂
    Seriously, the native azaleas are my favorites and I long for the time when I had a flaming orange one underplanted with columbine.
    Thanks for organizing this tour through the zones. It’s very interesting to see not only gardener faves, but the regional differences.

    April 20, 2009 at 8:45 am
  42. Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence

    Your have a cousin named Welcome?
    I’m not surprised you mentioned Kudzu. You have mentioned it favorably in the past.
    The look of Spanish moss, especially on an ancient Live Oak is one of my all time quintessential southern sights. Did you fail to mention Spanish moss being a nice home for chiggers on purpose? Your bad! I can see you enticing out-of-towners taking home a souvenir. Once home they begin to itch in places they didn’t know they had!
    Nice selection. I too love the daffs, hellebores and native azaleas…if only I was able to choose 6 more.
    Thanks for organizing us Grumy!
    Helen Yoest

    April 20, 2009 at 8:22 am
  43. carolyngail

    It is rumored that kudzu has made it to the outskirts of Chicago, Steve 🙂
    Love the native Alabama azalea.

    April 20, 2009 at 8:15 am
  44. Pam/Digging

    I’m still chuckling over your choice of kudzu, Steve. That sure surprised me. How well I remember trying to identify kudzu monsters from the back seat window on childhood road trips through S.C. It is an iconic, if generally despised, plant in the South.
    Your selection of Spanish moss also surprised me, but you’re right–it does signify that you’re in the South.
    Interesting exercise. Thanks for inviting me to play along. But I’m going to catch a lot of heat for not choosing my oft-blogged about ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave.

    April 20, 2009 at 7:50 am
  45. Jean

    Grumpy..your first choice is also mine. My native azaleas are beautiful this year. I even have a yellow one that I bought last year.Kudzu is all over the south and it has eaten a few old houses too and maybe a few family pets.Spanish moss…not here..too cold. I think the other azaleas need a mention too. The south has them all over..including my yard.

    April 20, 2009 at 7:45 am
  46. Meems

    Great choices, Steve.
    I bet the pinxters are fabulous in your area. I have looked long and hard to buy those and can’t find them here. They don’t LOVE my zone but I’m willing to give them a try. There never was a more beautiful azalea and its native to Florida also.
    Neither daffodils or tulips do well this far south – doesn’t get cold enough in winter I suppose.
    The spanish moss is one of my favorites as well.
    Thanks for hosting this and for making me narrow my choices to six.

    April 20, 2009 at 7:39 am

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