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'Chocolate' plants are eye candy for the garden

“Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power ... it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”

— Baron Justus von Liebig, "Researches on the Chemistry of Food," 1847

Most people have never heard of Justus von Liebig, the founder of organic chemistry, but he’s important to gardening because he discovered that nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. When we say a plant is nutrient-deficient, our assessment is based on a formulation developed by von Liebig.

Furthermore, the chemistry lab classes we took in college are based on the Baron’s designs and teaching methods as a professor at the University of Munich. And for those who have ever used beef bouillon to flavor soups and gravies, they have von Liebig to thank because he invented meat extract in 1840.

However, some might argue that the most important contribution von Liebig made to society was giving chocolate his stamp of approval as a healthful food. If the Baron said chocolate was wholesome, then it was wholesome.

The same year von Liebig made his proclamation about chocolate, an English chocolate company, J.S. Fry & Sons, created the first solid chocolate bar. Before that, chocolate was consumed as a beverage. In 1861, Richard Cadbury was the first chocolatier to package his candy in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day. Why not give sweethearts something delicious and good for them? A new holiday tradition had begun.

Cadbury’s heart boxes might have had a mischievous double meaning. Long before the Baron extolled the virtues of chocolate, ancient Mayan civilizations grew the cacao plant for its aphrodisiacal qualities, and they called chocolate the “food of the gods.” Legend has it that the 16th-centry Aztec emperor Montezuma drank three gallons of chocolate a day to keep his sex drive in overdrive.

Fast forward to the 21st century. According to one Nielsen survey, Americans (mostly men) purchase more than 58 million pounds of chocolate candy for their sweeties on Valentine's Day.

Unfortunately, Americans are ambivalent about consuming chocolate. Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto" (2008), discusses a survey in which American and French chocolate enthusiasts were shown the words “chocolate cake” and were asked what word they first associated with them. Whereas the most frequent response among the French groups was “celebration,” the top response for Americans was “guilt.”

So much unnecessary anguish over chocolate — have we forgotten what the good Baron told us?

Then again, this is a gardening column, so I won’t dwell any longer on the merits of eating chocolate. One way we can have our chocolate, and occasionally eat it too, is to grow a chocolate garden. Here is my list of favorite plants that look or smell like delicious chocolate, and grow well in our region. As a bonus, most of these plants are great for attracting pollinators. For more about “chocolate” garden plants, visit my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

1. Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) – 4-foot perennial often grown as an annual; full sun; moist, well-draining soil.

2. Chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata) – 8-inch perennial; full sun, sandy soil, drought tolerant.

3. Chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) – Climbs up to 30 feet; full sun to part shade; moist, well-draining soil.

4. Chocolate mint-scented geranium (Pelargonium) – 2-foot annual; full sun to part shade; moist, well-draining soil.

5. Chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita) – 1-foot perennial herb; full sun to part shade; grow in container in rich, moist soil.

6. Chocolate coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) – 2-foot annual; shade; moist, well-draining soil.

7. Milk chocolate sedge (Carex comans) – 1-foot grass; full sun; moist, well-draining soil.

8. Chocolate sunflower (Helianthus annuus) – 4-foot annual; full sun, well-draining soil.

9. Sweet Hot Chocolate daylily (Hemerocallis) – 4-foot perennial; full sun; moist, well-draining soil. Flowers are edible but don’t taste like chocolate.

10. Chocolate Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium rugosum) – 5-foot perennial; full sun or part shade; moist, well draining soil.

A chocolate garden is certainly eye candy, and pleasure for the nose, too. My advice is to complete the multisensory experience by eating chocolate while gardening. It’s good for you.

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.