University City

Investing in a money plant

April – when everyone’s mind is on money – is a good time to pay tribute to the money plant, an old-fashioned and underappreciated garden flower that never fails to bring dividends to Charlotte gardens.

Money plant (Lunaria annua) is an investment that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving. It is very easy to grow, and its fans delight in its informal foliage, bright flowers of purple or white and captivating seed pods.

One Myers Park garden I visited on a tour was so filled with lunaria that it resembled a botanical Wall Street takeover. (Of course, that is the wealthiest part of town.)

This traditional plant has dozens of names, most of them inspired by its seed pods. Dried and cleaned of their outer covering, they look like silver dollars jingling in the breeze and are prized for cut-flower bouquets and dried arrangements.

They also look a bit like a tiny full moon, prompting the Latin name Lunaria and another common name, moonwort.

To Elizabethans, the pods looked like the written music of the time, inspiring the odd, now-forgotten name “pricksong plant.” In Shakespeare’s world, composed music was said to be “pricked,” or written down, and the seeds inside the translucent pods look like pages from a collection of madrigals and lute songs by John Dowland or Thomas Morley.

Gerard, the Renaissance herbalist, lists yet another name, Honesty, “used by our women.” Gerard didn't elaborate, but (dishonestly?) neglects to mention that those country women were probably more knowledgeable masters of herbology than he was.

Thought to be native to the Balkans, money plant has long been part of English and American gardens. Peter Loewer reports that the money plant was popular with New England settlers by the mid-1660s, and that Jefferson grew it in his gardens at Monticello.

The money plant is a member of mustard family, along with such familiar vegetables as broccoli and collard greens. It’s vigorous and deer-proof, standing about 2 feet tall and spreading to about a foot and a half wide, sometimes forming solid verdant stands.

The spring-blooming flowers, sweet scented and usually purple – though there is also a white type – brighten the landscape between March and May and make decent flowers for cutting.

Like such other cottage favorites, money plant is a biennial, meaning it takes two seasons to complete its life cycle and create seed.

The natural seed pods on the plant create interest in the fall garden, but for use in flower arrangements they must be dried and gently cleaned of their outside husk.

You can save the seed (or purchase it) and sow it in the fall, to start the process of bloom the following year. The plants will also self-seed in the garden, though not always where you want them, and may naturally fall into an every-other-year blooming pattern.

Though some garden snobs turn their noses up at money plant and other rustic flowers, money plant has passionate followers, too (who doesn’t like money?).

L.A. Jackson, former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine, likes two varieties with variegated leaves, with white margins setting off the dark green foliage: purple-flowered “Variagata” and white flowered “Alba variegata.”

Joey Williamson of Clemson University Extension said it grows best in fertile, well-drained woodland soils, in dappled sun and partial shade, a close match for the Myers Park garden under tall oaks. He recommends combining money plant with spring-bloomers such as daffodils, green and gold, and native columbine, and plants with fine-textured leaves such as Christmas fern.

Money plant is also a traditional favorite with kids, who enjoy using the dried pods as currency.

Not only can the kids save those “silver dollars,” they can plant the seeds and watch as their investment pays off in many more flowers (and “dollars”) the following year – on condition that they take good care of the soil and their plants. Gardens are great places to learn these kinds of lessons.

On this Earth Day, April 22, let’s all take a minute to thank our gardens for what they teach us, and resolve to take better care of our shared Earth in the year ahead.