University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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CHOICE PERENNIALS FOR 2012
 
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 (www.perennialplant.org).   These choice perennials of the professionals is a good place to start when choosing for your own garden from the thousands available.  This year the list includes an upright ornamental grass, a perennial for moist sites and one for dry, and one for shade.

‘Northwind” is a cultivar of ornamental switchgrass (Panicum virgatum, said as PAN-eh-cum vir-GA-tum), with olive-green to bluish leaves through the season.  It is one of the more upright cultivars, staying vertical in winds without staking as many similar switchgrasses require.  Reaching 4 to 5 feet tall and up to 2 feet across, it is topped with fine-textured flower panicles above the leaves in late summer.  ‘Northwind’ also was a top choice last year of perennial professionals, so if you like the effect of ornamental grasses, look for this one.

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.

‘Hot Lips’ is a catchy name for this choice cultivar of our native turtlehead (Chelone lyonii, said as key-LO-knee li-ON-ee-ii).  This perennial too was a top choice last year by the perennial professionals.  This long-blooming perennial is named for its 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.

‘Angelina’ is a sedum (Sedum rupestre, said as SEE-dum rue-PES-tree), good for dry soils but growing in most as long as well-drained.  Easy to grow, this ground cover under 6 inches high spreads quickly.  The needle-like leaves start out a pretty chartreuse in spring, then turn golden yellow in the full sun it really needs.  In fall, the leaves turn to shades of orange and red.

This sedum is quite hardy, growing to USDA zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F).  Use it in rock gardens, along walks, massed as a ground cover in sun, and even in containers and hanging baskets as an annual.  Try it with the blue ornamental fescue grasses, the taller sedum such as ‘Matrona’ or ‘Purple Emperor’, or some of the blue to purple perennial salvias and speedwells.

Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum, said as pol-eh-go-NA-tum o-door-A-tum) is the final choice plant of the professionals for this year, and one I have grown for many years.  The arching stems reach 2 feet tall, sometimes more, and the plant slowly spreads to create an informal clump of stems.  One attraction is the white, bell-shaped flowers in spring that hang from the stems where leaves join (the leaf axils).  Another attraction is the oval soft-green leaves with white tips and margins, turning a soft yellow in fall.  A final attraction in some years and sites is the blue-black berries in fall. 

As with other Solomon’s Seals, grow this one in a moist site in part shade.  Once established though it will tolerate full sun in the north (if sufficient moisture), and even dry soils.  It is quite hardy to USDA zone 3, similar to the sedum.  This perennial combines well with other shade-loving plants such as ferns, hostas, European ginger, perennial vinca (in areas where this is not invasive), barrenworts (Epimedium), and lungworts (Pulmonaria).

Other choice and hardy perennials of the professionals from recent years include ‘Caramel’ coralbells, ‘Jack Frost’ Siberian bugloss, and the thread-leaf or Arkansas bluestar.  More good and proven choices of perennials for the north, and all their details, can be found on Perry’s Perennial Pages under Plants of the Month (perrysperennials.info).

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