For renowned horticulturalist and writer Allan Armitage, plants and gardens are much more than objects of research.
In his 40-year career — first in his native Canada and then in the United States — the veteran plantsman has encountered just about every kind of plant and garden imaginable.
But the thread that ties all of his exploration together, he has concluded, is this: Gardening is meant to be fun.
“Of course it can be a lot of work, too, but the main purpose it serves is to give pleasure, period,” he said. “Everything doesn’t have to be so serious and such a challenge all the time.”
Armitage’s declaration is great news for those gardeners who struggle getting their roses to bloom and lie awake at night thinking about strategies for keeping cat’s claw out of their flower beds.
He will share this perspective Monday night at the New Orleans Botanical Garden’s Pavilion of the Two Sisters.
The event begins at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception and garden tours, followed by Armitage’s presentation at 6:15 p.m., then a book signing at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 at (504) 483-9473, neworleanscitypark.com.
One of the books Armitage will sign is his recently released memoir, “It’s Not Just About the Hat,” a title that refers to the wide-brimmed canvas hat that makes him instantly identifiable in a crowd — and, he says, sometimes invisible without it.
Made by a company called Tilley, Armitage’s hat became an icon “like the Aflac duck and the GEICO gecko.”
“My dermatologist told me that my life would be prolonged if I kept the sun off my face,” wrote Armitage. “I believe that wide-brimmed thing has added years to my life, and I have recommended it to many others.”
The memoir is a compendium of the sort of stories that Armitage plans to share with his audience at Monday night’s garden symposium: tales of his plant-collecting adventures with other horticulturalists, projects undertaken at UGA, and plants that he discovered or helped introduce to the market.
The most memorable is about his happenstance discovery of Verbena “Homestead Purple,” identified by the LSU AgCenter as a Louisiana Super Plant for its versatility, beauty and toughness.
Armitage and colleague Michael Dirr were en route to a conference in Atlanta when they spied a patch of brilliant purple flowers in front of a modest home on the side of the road.
Before asking for cuttings, the two inquired about the origin of the plants and if the owner of the house knew where they had come from.
“‘Nope, but they’ve been here for years,’” she told them. About five years later, Armitage returned to the site to thank the woman for the plant, only to find a strip mall and parking lot where the “homestead” had stood.
But Verbena Homestead Purple isn’t the only plant with an interesting story behind its name.
“Have you ever wondered where the name for St. John’s Wort came from or Toad Lily or Bachelor’s Buttons?” Armitage said. “Some of the explanations are factual, and some are folklore, but they all tell a story.” As Armitage says, there are many more tales than there is time to tell them all.
Now retired from UGA, Armitage makes it a point to keep up with the times.
He has condensed the contents of his many books into a handy Smartphone app that can be downloaded for $4.99. “Armitage’s Greatest Perennials and Annuals” “suggests the best variety for hundreds of plants and backs up … recommendations with years of personal experience, entertaining videos, and stunning photos,” according to a review by the Oak Street Garden Shop in Alabama.
In his own description of the app, Armitage expresses his personal perspective on gardening: “Gardening is not brain surgery, or rocket science — and if I have learned one thing, it is that gardening should never be taken seriously. So have fun. There are no rules.”