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Great Plant Picks Bulbs

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Perennials & Bulbs
By Marty Wingate

It’s like our very own Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s a useful list of what grows best in the Northwest. It’s a delicious collection of fabulous plants that makes us swoon just reading it. It is, of course, the Great Plant Picks.

Now in its third year, GPP is on the way to becoming the ultimate plant list for us. Almost effortlessly, it seems, lists of trees, shrubs, vine, perennials and bulbs appear at this time of year to tell us what’s best. But behind that facade of ease, large committees of horticulture professionals meet several times a year to hash out which plants should and should not be included. Spending your day talking about great plants - sounds like real torture, doesn’t it?

Difficult or not, once again we have a list of plants, chosen for gardens from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C. Some may be familiar to gardeners although, others fall into the horticultural category of “underused.” They are suited to a variety of garden conditions – in other words, whether you have sun or shade, prefer a spring garden or summer bounty, there are Great Plant Picks for you. The list includes 12 perennials and bulbs, and it’s those that we’ll take a look at in this edition.

Beginning with spring, the blue flowers of the sweet pea relative Lathyrus vernus (known as the spring vetchling or spring bush pea) show it’s worthy of a listing with stems of up to 15 lavender-blue flowers. Instead of climbing, like its relatives, the spring vetchling forms a clump about 18 inches high and wide. L. vernus does best in a partly shady spot in a humusy soil; regular water is best.

The elegant stems of variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum var. pluriflorum ‘Variegatum’) add their own charm to the woodland garden. The four-foot stalks rise above neighboring plants, such as ferns and lungworts; the leaves have a noticeable white margin. The flowers—lined up along the stems—are small, narrow tubes, pendant and fragrant.

For full sun to part shade, Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ speedwell is a sweet, four-inch-high ground cover that spreads cheerily, but not aggressively, to about two feet wide. The small leaves have a reddish cast to the underside, and the flowers—small and blue—appear from spring into summer. ‘Georgia Blue’ mingles well with other plants, and can take an occasional tuft accidentally being pulled up while you are weeding.

Three selections brighten up the shade with their radiant gold foliage. Echoing the arching stems of the Solomon’s Seal is the eye-popping foliage of the selection of bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’. The plant grows to three feet, and has large, ferny leaves of a bright yellow, setting off the line of little pink purselike flowers that hang below. It’s an incandescent moment in the lengthening days of spring.

The bold Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ shows off a similar cast to its big, puckered leaves, along with tall spikes of lavender flowers in summer. And more gold is found in the leaves of Campanula ‘Dickson’s Gold’, which forms a low mound of foliage about four inches high and spreads twice as wide. The electric foliage of these plants make a zippy contrast to dark green leaves, such as ground cover ginger (Asarum) and hellebores.

But why this hosta and not another one? Aren’t there other worthy campanulas? Perhaps, and if so, you’ll see them in years to come. Members of the perennial committee have done the hard work for you, discussing, comparing, assessing and removing plants during their three-times-a-year sessions. Alex LaVilla, chairman of the perennials and bulbs committee, as well as manager and buyer of perennials for Swanson’s Nursery in Seattle, says each member brings his or her own plant candidates to the meeting. During the year, plants are lobbied for and voted on, until the list is complete and ready for release.

Great Plant Picks is not an elitist program. Gardeners can find the plants that are chosen at nurseries and from mail-order sources, and given the right conditions, the plants are not difficult to grow.

The three-foot-tall, arching stems of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, for example, are known to many gardeners: the fans of flowers—deep scarlet trumpets—reaching up and out over the iris-like foliage. Good in the garden and good in a vase, a stem of ‘Lucifer’ looks good even after it goes to seed. It’s a warm-weather plant that heats up a sunny spot, and the flower colors suit its midsummer bloom (and the hummingbirds it attracts).

More summer blooms on the list include a pineapple lily, Eucomis comosa ‘Sparkling Burgundy’; its broad leaves are flushed with purple. Pineapple lilies enjoy regular water and full sun. In a prominent spot in the border or in a container, they would show off their cylindrical clusters of late-summer flowers, which are presented against a red stem. Topping the flower stalk is a sprig of foliage resembling the top of a pineapple.

Another deep color for summer comes from the smoky purple flowers of Penstemon ‘Blackbird’, which begins to bloom in June and continues well into fall, when the spent flower stems are cut back to apparent new growth. Its fine form and ease of cultivation persuaded committee members to choose it for the list, too.

Maurice Horn, co-owner of Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, Oregon, and member of the perennials committee, says, “The goal is to broaden the spectrum of plants, adding more color and texture potential,” not just to highlight new plants. So the committee members bring their own expertise to the selection process, and the final selections represent the collective knowledge of the participants. “Experience is the trick of it all,” Horn adds.

Will the lists get longer or shorter as the years go by? Already the Master Gardeners in Olympia are starting trials of Astrantia; Brunnera and fall Colchicums are being examined at the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden.

According to LaVilla, with all the trials that can be carried out, the lists can only get longer as more trials are done, and that’s certainly to our benefit.

Visity Marty's web site

If you're ever in doubt about what to plant, visit the Great Plant Picks web site for a list of recommended plants.
NWGN archive published March 2003

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