University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Each year, members of the Perennial Plant Association-- the industry group representing growers and professional garden designers nationwide—vote on their top perennials.  From the final group of new cultivars (cultivated varieties), or those deserving wider use, the perennial plant of the year is chosen.   The elite group of perennials voted by professionals is a good place to start when choosing those from the thousands available for your own garden.  This year the list includes a couple for sunny sites, and a couple for shady sites.

There were two perennials named last year, and voted again this year, to the top list.  'Northwind' is an ornamental switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with bluish-green foliage, compared to the green of the species or reddish of some cultivars.  It is also one of the most upright of the switchgrasses, many tending to flop over with age later in the season.  The 4 to 5-foot clumps are topped, late in the season, with one to 2-foot flowery plumes called "panicles" of small yellowish flowers.

As with all switchgrasses, it prefers full sun and a moist and fertile soil.  It will tolerate sandy or clay soils, and drought once established.  It is hardy to much of the north (USDA zone 4 or -20 to -30 degrees F average low in winter). This perennial looks good in masses, in the middle to back of borders, on slopes, and combined with many other perennials.

Another repeat from last year is 'Caramel', one of the many new coralbells (Heuchera), grown mainly for its apricot leaves in light and dark shades.  It does flower in warm areas with light pink small flowers on spikes above the foliage in early summer.  This is one of the selections of the hairy coralbells (H. villosa), a southeastern U.S. native, although it originated as a chance seedling in France.  Under good conditions and warm climates it can reach 15 inches high and a bit wider. 

'Caramel' is listed as hardy to USDA zone 4, with trials underway at the University of Vermont on the hardiness of this and other coralbells.  It does best in full sun in the north if kept watered, part shade in the south.  The best soil for it is a rich, moist loam but well-drained.  Try 'Caramel' in masses in borders, under shrubs such as roses, along edges of beds and paths, and in containers.  Contrast the leaf color with that of darker blackish coralbells, or contrast the leaf texture with ornamental grasses. 

‘Hot Lips’ is a cultivar of our native turtlehead (Chelone lyonii), a long-blooming perennial with rosy-pink flowers that resemble a turtle’s head (with its mouth open).  Flowers in mid to late summer are on reddish stems, between 2 to 3 feet high, in spikes toward the tips.  Both the stem color and the dark green leaves make this cultivar different from the species.  It is attractive paired with golden-leaved sedges (Carex), astilbe, or ligularia. 

This plant is hardy to at least USDA zone 4, and prefers full sun (over 6 hours a day) to part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun).  Unlike many perennials it thrives in moist soils, but tolerates average ones, so would be a good candidate for a rain garden.  It also tolerates somewhat alkaline soils better than many perennials.  Turtlehead is a long-lived and low maintenance perennial.  It can be propagated by division in spring, or rooting stem cuttings in water in early summer.

‘Jack Frost’ Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) also may be called heart-leaf brunnera from the shape of its leaves, up to 6 inches wide.  This spring-bloomer has small blue flowers resembling forget-me-nots.  They’re attractive against the silvery leaves with green veins, a color that shows up well in part to full shade.  Except for very dry soils, it will tolerate most.  Growing 12 to 15 inches high and wide, it is hardy to USDA zone 3, long-lived, and requires little care. 

This cultivar of bugloss was found in a nursery in Michigan as a mutation of ‘Langtrees’.  Try combining it with heartleaf bergenia (Bergenia), Japanese painted fern, lungworts, bleeding heart, astilbe, white variegated sedges (Carex) or hostas, or dark-leaved coralbells.

Recent Perennial Plant of the Year winners that you might consider too include the threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), golden Hakone grass and hellebores (both generally hardy to zone 5), 'Rozanne' perennial geranium, 'Walker's Low' catmint, 'Becky' shasta daisy, 'David' garden phlox, and Japanese painted fern.  More on these, and other winners, can be found online either from the Perennial Plant Association ( or Perry’s Perennial Pages (

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