It’s no secret that one of my favorite places to be is in the garden. There’s nothing else in the world quite like putting a seed in the ground and watching it sprout, leaf out, grow buds and put forth a beautiful flower or a plump tomato. It’s no small miracle, and it never seems to get old: It’s as much a revelation the thousandth time as it is the first.
Although I’m fairly public about being a plant geek, what’s not so well-known is I’m also an adventurous foodie who loves to cook and try new and obscure dishes and cuisines — and I’m (admittedly) annoyingly adamant about photographing every single one of them. No one at my restaurant table gets to eat until I’ve snapped a shot of their entrée. And just as in the garden, I’m always on the lookout for unique experiences in the kitchen and the bistro.
The only thing more exciting to me than plants and food is experiencing them in new places. I’m a meticulous sightseer — and planner. Everyone in my party is treated to a printed itinerary, and there is no guessing about what time we will arrive at the garden or where we’ll be dining (or even what I will be ordering). I’ve scoped out and sampled a spam burger and taro pie at McDonald’s on Oahu, escargot and duck confit at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and cacio e pepe in Rome. And, naturally, I’ve visited my share of domestic and foreign gardens, public, private and in the wild.
Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice,” and that applies to plants as well as to people. It was in Sedona that I got over my fear of succulents, and in England that I realized that the common privet isn’t a lowly, boring hedge after all.
Here are some other plants that I’ve enjoyed in my travels, many discovered simply on the side of the road. I highly recommend adding their homes to your own plant- and food-seeking bucket list.
Amalfi Coast, Italy: Bougainvillea
Climbing over arbors, framing doorways and hanging dramatically from cliffs, the bold blooms of this thorny vine are omnipresent in the coastal towns of Sorrento, Positano, Ravello and Amalfi. Suited for horticultural zones 9-11, which include Florida and California, bougainvillea won’t survive our zone 7 winters, but we certainly can grow it in a pot outdoors over the summer and treat it as a houseplant during the offseason.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed while sipping limoncello and nibbling on sfogliatelle.
Sedona, Arizona: Agave
Although they resemble aloe vera and cacti, agave are related to neither. Prolific along the rocky pink-hued dessert slopes that characterize the region’s landscape, agave spend from 25 to 40 years working to produce a single bloom before dying. If they’re lucky, someone will harvest them along the way and use them as the base ingredient in tequila or sweetener, depending on variety. Because it requires sandy soil and a high altitude, a Long Island agave patch isn’t in the cards.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed while feasting on fried cactus tuna, which is actually just prickly pear fruit.
I-95 South, from North Carolina to Florida: Crape myrtle
A genus of about 50 species, Lagerstroemia were roadside (and landscape) trees and shrubs enjoyed only south of zone 8, but hardier varieties have been introduced in recent years. After discovering them during annual road trips to Florida, I planted the frost-tolerant, white-bloomed Natchez variety.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed near Cracker Barrel, where there’s always fried catfish, fried okra and iced tea waiting.
Austin, Texas: Texas bluebonnet
A sister of lupines, the Texan variety (Lupinus texanos) is not only the official flower of the Lonestar State, it’s the most eye- catching. Bright blue flower spikes carpet roadsides and dominate the landscape from March through May. The good news is they can be grown in cooler climates as annuals; the bad news is they’re tricky to grow, with a low germination rate and lower flowering rate if conditions aren’t perfect. Requires very well-draining sandy, loamy soil and six hours of sunlight daily.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed en route to the Salt Lick in Driftwood for crave-worthy ribs, brisket and sausage, with a side of German potato salad.
Hyde Park, London: Orange crown imperials
Often called fritillaries on this side of the pond, bright orange crown imperials share beds with yellow daffodils and purple hyacinths in London’s equivalent of Central Park for a spectacular spring display. And, yes, these would be right at home with your own daffodils. Plant the deer- and rodent-resistant bulbs in fall in rich, well-drained soil where they’ll receive filtered sunlight.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed while munching fish and chips, mushy peas and nursing a pint.
Blooming along the River Seine and throughout the streets of the City of Lights, this Asian import turns the landscape purple from spring through early summer. You might know it as empress tree, and you might have heard it’s invasive, difficult to clean up after and fragile. Yes, its velvety leaves don’t break down as easily as others and, yes, branches tend to snap over winter. Seek out sterile varieties if planting, or maybe just visit Paris in springtime.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed in the distance while dining on duck confit and du Puy lentils.
Gaylord Opryland Resort, Nashville: Coffea
Boasting more than 50,000 plants, this indoor garden conservancy is a sight to behold. Entirely contained under a soaring atrium, the 9-acre property is completely temperature controlled to best suit tropical plants like coffea. What a treat to stroll along the banks of the “river” and see and touch bright red coffee beans clustered along branches. No chance of a backyard harvest on Long Island, but Coffea is an easy-to-grow houseplant. Just provide humidity and bright light. In time, you might even get enough beans (seeds, actually) to brew a cup.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed while sipping a mojito — not typically Tennessean, but a surprisingly high-quality version — at the open-air cocktail bar.
Oahu, Hawaii: Pineapples, plumeria, banyan trees
There’s only one Hawaii, but there are too many stunning plants there to pick just one. The scent of plumeria greets you as you exit the plane and doesn’t leave until you head home. Pineapple fields at Dole Plantation are a feast for the eyes, and banyan trees are a memorable sight with aerial roots that cover the soil and grow up to support the trunk. You can’t grow one in your New York garden, but a frangipani (plumeria) houseplant can thrive indoors. And it was in Hawaii years ago that I learned how to grow a pineapple at home: Cut the leafy crown off the top of a fruit and allow it to dry at room temperature for about a week. Place the dry crown atop potting mix in a container and twist it in, pressing gently. Place by a sunny window, water weekly and fertilize every four months. In about 18 months, the plant should sprout a red cone at the top, followed by rows of blue flowers — the precursors of the pineapple, which will appear between months 18 and 22. Allow the fruit to remain on the plant for a minimum of six months, until golden.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed on the ride to the North Shore for shave ice and azuki beans.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico: Flor de maga
The national flower of Puerto Rico is a small to midsize tree with saucer-sized hibiscus-like blooms. The 3½-inch wide, dark reddish pink, cup-shaped flowers will stop you in your tracks as they jet out from a sea of glossy, heart-shaped leaves that can reach 8 inches long. As a tree, it isn’t practical, or possible, to plant successfully on Long Island. Even in its own environment, flor de maga takes five to seven years to bloom. Stick with hibiscus, and bring pots indoors over winter.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed on a stroll to the old town for pernil and fried plantains.
Castroville, California: Artichokes
When driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Anaheim to San Francisco, a short detour from Monterey took us to Castroville, the heart of the country’s artichoke industry. We were greeted by a sea of farm fields devoted entirely to the thistle, with purple-topped chokes as far as the eye could see. There also were miles of artichoke stands and artichoke gift shops. And then we saw it: The Choke Coach stands proudly on the side of the road across from Pezzini Farms, with a few humble plastic tables and chairs off to the side and a long line in front. Skip the hot dogs and go straight for the French fried artichokes, fresh-picked from nearby fields and served with garlic Dijon, lemon dill, mayonnaise or ranch dressing. To grow (and, ultimately, fry) your own, treat the perennials like annuals, planting deeply in fertile, well-draining soil in spring. For the highest chance of success in New York, look for the Imperial star, Violetto or Grande Buerre varieties.
Bon appetit: Enjoyed with fried or steamed artichoke hearts, naturally.