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The Mathematician’s Garden

Mathematician and landscape designer Peter Schaar uses his theories of tropical gardens in Dallas.
By Becky Winn |

The Mathematician’s Garden
Numbers guru and landscape designer Peter Schaar uses his theories of tropical gardens in Dallas.

For mathematician turned garden designer and horticultural consultant Peter Schaar, Dallas gardens are as perplexing as an advanced proof. Despite our proximity to Central and South America, Dallas gardens are most frequently patterned after British and Northern European gardens, which only does so much for this problem solver. I have seen many beautiful gardens in the maritime European style of England, The Netherlands, and Denmark, Schaar says, but they are not the gardens that move my soul. The gardens that move my soul are in the hot climates of the world.

When you step into Peter Schaar’s exquisite garden oasis, you can almost feel the humid, tropical air on your skin. His love for the tropical and subtropical gardens of Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; Southern California; Mexico; and Brazil is reflected in the gardens he designs. Overflowing with plants virtually unknown to Dallas landscapes, Schaar’s backyard is a testament to the limited accuracy of the hardiness charts used by gardening catalogs, nurseries, and growers. Mention the charts and hear Schaar laugh. I learned early on that plants don’t read books, he says, motioning toward the gorgeous brugmansia in full bloom, which is recommended for zones 9 and 10 (Dallas is in zone 8).

Schaar, who spent 30 years as an applied mathematician before becoming a landscape designer, says the two have something important in common. It is the elegant solution. It exists not only in mathematics but in theoretical physics. And it exists in design pursuits, such as gardening. People spend their whole lives in pursuit of it and don’t even realize it.

Sabal mexicana. BELOW: Salvia guaranitica, Agave lechuguilla, and Agave scabra.

Unusual Edibles
Many uncommon and delicious surprises pour over the boundaries of Schaar’s flowerbeds. A fine cook as well as a gardener, Schaar pulls off leaves and offers a nibble as he guides guests through his garden. Here are a few to add to your landscape:

Begonia semperflorens “Blooms from angel wing, dragon wing, and bedding plant varieties impart a sorrel-like flavor.
Poliomentha longiflora “Also known as Mexican oregano, this long-leafed variety is a woody shrub.
Ocimum African Blue This shrub, which is not an annual, has a camphor note to its taste.
Piper auritum “Called Hoja Santa in Mexico, it has an anise flavor.
Tagetes lucida “Commonly called Mexican mint marigold, it can be used as a tarragon substitute.
Diplotaxus tenuifolia “This plant is also called sylvetta or perennial arugula.
Capsicum annuum “Known as Chile pequin, Schaar recommends these tiny chilies for cooking because their diminutive size makes it easier to control the heat in any dish.
Sedum Spectabile Brilliant or Autumn Joy “Leaves are crunchy and have a citrus taste. They make an excellent addition to any salad.


Subtropicals for Dallas Gardens
Achieving the look of a Mexican courtyard garden is easier than you might think. Schaar suggests these varieties to add tropical drama to your garden:

Texas palmetto (Sabal mexicana)
Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) native to Dallas
Desert fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) “not the W. robusta variety
European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis)
Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
Pindo palm (Butia capitata)
Oleander (Nerium) “Suitable varieties include calypso, pink beauty or hardy pink, Mathilde Ferrier or double hardy yellow, and Mexico City white “a variety rescued by Schaar, which is now available at Texas Discovery Gardens.
Cassia corymbosa (Senna corymbosa)
Yellow cestrum (Cestrum Lemon Peel)
Coral bean (Erythrina x Bidwillii)
Bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii)
Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora)
Tree ligustrum (Ligustrum lucidum)
Hardy Chinese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) “available only at Redenta’s Cedar Hill location  
Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia spp and hybrids)
Sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans)
Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) “The Madison variety is cold hardy in Dallas.

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