Friday, May 14, 2010

Super Perennials: Five Little Known Cultivars You Should Know

Trying out the occasional new plant in the garden is a low risk endeavor; using a new plant in a mass of 1,000 or more for a client, the stakes are higher. That’s why I lean heavily on several tried and true plants that always perform, even when the gardener may not. New perennial cultivars come out almost daily. The explosion of Echinacea cultivars in the last two years is an example of the future of plant breeding: quantity over quality. Knowing the right cultivar matters, as plants vary wildly from one another. Here is a list of a few of my favorite perennial cultivars in the last few years.

Purple Lance Astilbe, Astilbe chinensis var. taquetti (also ‘Purpurlanze’ and ‘Purpurkerze’)
One of my favorite Astilbe is also one of the latest to bloom. This late-July bloomer is unbelievably vigorous, handling even full sun if given enough moisture. The color is spectacularly showy, a blazing purple that transforms a shade garden. Originally introduced to me by mentor Wolfgang Oehme, this plant has also been used to great effect by Piet Oudolf. Great for massing.  Image from Benson Gardens.

 Autumn Bride Coral Bells, Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’
Another Heuchera cultivar?!  All the Heuchera breeding mania has focused on wildly-colored leaves, so this little gem has hardly been noticed. Heuchera villosa (technically Heuchera macrorhiza, but all of the nurseries use villosa) are perhaps the most versatile and landscape appropriate Heuchera on the market. Tolerant of full sun or deep shade, moisture or drought, this semi-evergreen Coral Bell produces large hosta-like foliage. It blooms in August when little else in the woodland garden is blooming. Excellent as a specimen or in mass. ‘Autumn Bride’ is the green leaved variety, but if you have the colored-foliage bug, then try “Brownies” or “Mocha.”  Image from

 Wlassov’s Cranebill, Geranium wlassovianum
This excellent groundcover Geranium was introduced to me by my friend and Geranium guru, Ching-Fang Chen. The handsome lobed foliage with chocolate splotches is every bit as spectacular as the purple-pink flowers that emerge in early summer. If properly irrigated, this Geranium will handle full sun or light shade. Full, dense foliage makes an excellent carpet, unlike the increasingly ubiquitous 'Rozanne' cultivar.  Fall color can be outstanding orange to red tones. Good mixed with other vigorous groundcover Geraniums like Geranium macrorhizum, or excellent by itself. 

Horatio Goatsbeard, Aruncus x ‘Horatio’
A cross between A. aethusifolius and A. dioicus that combines the best of both parents. Downy white plumes emerge in early summer from delicately cut golden foliage. Like the species, this blooms best with lots of filtered light, but can handle some shade as well. A good plant to interplant with ferns or sedges, or excellent in mass for a bigger show.  Slightly more compact than A. dioicus.

Serenade Japanese Windflower, Anemone x hybrida ‘Serenade’
I’ve always been confused by which of the many Anemone cultivars to use. Not any more. Unlike other Anemones, ‘Serenade’ is a vigorous ground cover. It is shorter than most Anemones, making it good for the front of the border. In addition to its full foliage, ‘Serenade’ is one of the longest blooming Anemones on the market.  Recent trials at Chicago Botanic Garden show this plant to bloom an average of 64 days. Light pink blooms from September through early November. Strong stalks are less susceptible to flopping.


  1. This is a very helpful and generous post - thank you for sharing those guys with me, I will let you know when I use them! (You are so right about Echinacea, I specified one on a current project and was substituted E. 'Tomato soup' - what a name!

  2. Thomas, you are at the top of my list of must read blogs, the references you make are also very helpful and interesting. Very intelligent writing, thank you!

  3. Finally, an explanation why landscape architects are so conservative in the selection of plant material. Thank you for shedding some light on this subject.

  4. Just moved to our humble first house last year in the NYC area, 0.07 acres to be exact, and I can't stop buying plants!! What's tough is the northern exposure/shaded front yard, and the massive maple in the back, but so far, Garden 101 looks okay.

    My goal is to spruce up the front with something other than standard hostas and scrubby pine-looking things; a search for "astilbe and azeleas" got me to this blog.

    Anyway, thanks for the information and personal insight! I'll be checking back.


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