When I first started gardening more than 25 years ago, people who seemed to know the name and qualities of every plant amazed me. Not able to distinguish Amaryllis from Hamamelis, I coveted such seemingly magical knowledge.
Eager to learn, I read voraciously, visited gardens, attended lectures and worked in nurseries. I enjoyed the cadence of botanical names and memorized shapes of leaves, textures of bark and colours of blossoms. I realize, of course, that my approach is not for most people! And I often wonder how best to distill valuable information and pass it along to novice horticulturists and gardeners. So when an invitation to join the Great Plant Picks committee arrived in 2000, I jumped at the chance. The letter began, “The Great Plant Picks program is a new plant awards program designed to help the home gardener identify foolproof plants for their Pacific Northwest garden… The plants will be promoted throughout the buying season at retail nurseries. A website will further promote the program and awards.” It sounded like the perfect opportunity to learn from colleagues, share my experience and inform the buying public. Supported by the Seattle-based Elisabeth Miller Botanical Garden, 30 horticulturists volunteer in one of three groups: trees and conifers, shrubs and vines, or perennials and bulbs. Plants must perform well with little special care or pest and disease problems in gardens west of the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges. Lively discussions result in new plant picks; plant evaluations in garden settings are ongoing. Fifteen plants were chosen in 2001, the first year of the fledgling program (see GardenWise magazine, Summer 2001). A selection of 63 was lined up for 2002. The program’s mandate is to provide gardeners, retailers and growers with as many winners as possible. Here are some of my favourites from the 2002 list, starting with shrubs and vines.
Unbeatable for fragrance and a lift during the dull winter months, all of the Asian witch hazels are garden worthy. Hamamelis mollis has spidery golden blossoms and, in my opinion, the best fragrance of the bunch. It is a parent of hybrids ‘Diane’ (dark-red flowers), ‘Jelena’ (coppery orange), ‘Pallida’ (sulphur yellow) and ‘Winter Beauty’ (orange yellow). For best effect, give these handsome shrubs plenty of room – up to four metres – to spread. Their branches reach up and outwards, leaving plenty of room underneath for short shrubs and perennials. VanDusen Garden’s Witchhazel Collection is underplanted with many interesting plants, including Japanese azaleas, London pride (Saxifraga x urbium) and a glorious blue-flowered perennial called blue-eyed Mary or creeping forget-me-not (Omphaloides verna) (zone 5).
Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’) is another deciduous shrub that continues the winter-interest theme, producing metallic-purple berries on bare stems. Its leaves develop dusky tones in autumn before they are shed for winter (zone 6). Of the dozens of beautiful camellias, Camellia x williamsii ‘Donation’ floated to the top of many experts’ lists because of its large, semi-double pink flowers that appear between January and March. It thrives in semi-shade, which keeps its flowers and glossy evergreen leaves from becoming scorched (zone 7).
From the list of trees and conifers, I’d like to draw your attention to two outstanding conifers. In B.C., one thinks twice before recommending a needle evergreen for the home garden because they become so huge. These two native trees are of reasonable stature. Weeping yellow cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’) is a tall, slender tree with curtains of hanging branches. It’s perfect as a vertical accent, or as a screen (zone 4).
Compact and slow growing, mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) has dark-green needles that pack its closely spaced branches, adding substance to any garden (zone 6). This species replaces the familiar western hemlock at higher elevations along our coast and on the leeward side of the Coast Mountains. Its dense habit makes it the perfect foil for a grouping of broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons. I have also seen it used effectively to anchor a perennial border (zone 6).
Three species of maple are among this year’s picks. Japanese maple (Acer palmatum, zone 6) is represented by ‘Seiryu’ (with cut leaves, unusual in an upright Japanese maple), ‘Osakazuki’ and ‘Katsura.’ Trident maple (A. buergerianum, zone 5) is an ideal tree for the small garden or large container. It grows upright to about 10 metres and tolerates dry soil once established. Each leaf has three lobes, hence the common names, and fall colour includes red and orange. Our native vine maple (A. circinatum, zone 6) is familiar to hikers. It forms a multi-trunk tree best suited in a shrub or woodland border, with ferns for accent. Curiously, vine maple often turns red in late summer, well before other trees, yet it holds its bright leaves until autumn.
Autumn snakeroot (Cimicifuga simplex var. simplex ‘Brunette’) is a perennial I would not be without. Its bold dissected leaves of deep burgundy and its white bottlebrush flowers appear just as the season draws to a close. Plus, it is one of the few tall perennials (to 1.2 metres) for shade, and you can get away with only light staking (zone 4).
A robust perennial for a sunny spot, Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii) commands attention with its grey-green leaves and odd lime-green flowers. This perennial is commanding enough to use as a focal point and it is evergreen, so the drama extends into winter (zone 7). Shoots are biennial; once they have flowered, cut them at the base to make way for newcomers.
Two species of cyclamen have been permanent residents at VanDusen since they were planted under Scots pines two decades ago. Cyclamen coum has glossy, rounded leaves and produces red, white or pink flowers in late winter or early spring (zone 5). C. hederifolium, as its name implies, has ivy-like leaves mottled with silver. Its pink flowers appear in mid to late autumn, before the leaves (zone 8).
Certainly the most elegant of grasses, golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) shines in a container or in the garden in semishade, where it spreads slowly to form a ground cover. Its arching stems carry striped leaves of yellow and green that flush with red in the fall (zone 5). For more information on these and other Great Plant Picks, visit www.greatplantpicks.org. It’s like having 30 experts at your fingertips. With more than 30 years experience in horticulture in B.C. – in wholesale, retail and at VanDusen Botanical Garden for a decade – Carolyn Jones brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to GardenWise and www.gardenwiseonline.ca as staff horticulturist. PHOTOS Paddy Wales: Cyclamen coum; Great Plant Picks: Callicarpa bodinieri, Tsuga mertensiana, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii, Hakonechloa macra; Carolyn Jones: Hamamelis mollis, Cimicifuga simplex var. simplex ‘Brunette’; Lynne Harrison: Acer palmatum; Michael LeGeyt: Camellia x williamsii; Alan Dodson: Cyclamen hederifolium.