New never stops, and the perennials keep getting better

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Goldenrod 'Crown of Rays' (a hybrid Solidago) is tried and true and has been around for many years. Now newer hybrids and selections have been made for more compact plants and different flower forms. 

It seems we chose too many...

... as we selected from all the new perennials!


You took pictures of some plants in my garden when it was on tour, and said you would write about them for your Michigan Gardener magazine article. I watched for them but didn't see them. What issue were they in? - S.B. -


This issue, right here.

We are very glad to write for the Michigan Gardener magazine and work with its excellent publisher and editor. One of the things we love there is being allowed and even encouraged to freewheel. We even have some flexibility in article length. However, there are times when the ideas we submit and available pages don't fit. Then some of our words and pictures end up on the cutting room floor.

For instance, here are perennials, including yours, that did not make one of those final cuts. They remain on our new plant wish list but didn't make it into our Michigan Gardener article, Remarkable, unusual plants on our wish list.

We're holding a good sized, sunny space for "new" natives

"New" and "Native" may seem contradictory but what's been around since before civilization can still be new when it's first brought into garden cultivation, and again when a plantsperson hybridizes or selects for special characteristics among seedlings.

It's very good to see that a lot of native species selection has been going on recently. For too long, natives have been overlooked and left standing in the field with names that draw sniggers: Ironweed, beardtongue, papoose root, etc.

All the plants below need full sun -- that's six or more hours each day of cast-a-shadow-light. In addition, all require very well drained soil and enough water to prevent complete dry-down in their root zones.

Selections and hybrids of false indigo (Baptisia varieties)


False indigo is a big plant, five feet tall and wide, which is why most gardens have room for only one Baptisia. We tend to place this plant where we need a pseudoshrub in snow-piling areas. It's plant with a steady, significant presence even after bloom that can also be cut right out of the picture every winter.

Right: This false indigo hybrid with bicolor flowers made our new plant wish list. It's Baptisia x variicolor 'Twilite Prairieblues'. The plant itself is a good anchor for any combination, with clean blue-green foliage and sturdy stems. The bloom is icing on the cake, each blossom on the tall spike blue-violet with a yellow streak. (Photo ©2012

Plenty of other false indigo hybrids are breaking onto the garden scene. If purple and yellow aren't right for your color scheme, Baptisia varieties can still fit the bill. There are cultivars with cream, yellow and blue- white bicolor flowers.

Gaura (G. lindheimeri) 'Crimson Butterflies'

Gaura's floppiness always put us off, even more than its tendency to come and go in northern hardiness zones. (Who can blame a Texas native for preferring the South?)


Then we met 'Crimson Butterflies', just 18" from the ground to the tips of its dark pink flower stems. The maroon foliage is gorgeous and it has a very long bloom season.

Right: Gaura 'Crimson Butterflies' is a good front-edge, fine texture, long bloomer, as here at the feet of this dwarf spruce.

Hybrid Penstemon

We joked once while touring English gardens, "These Brits are loopy for our North American Penstemon!" (The common name is "beardtongue," referring to a velvety strip that lines one petal like a furred tongue. Yet we've never heard anyone call it by that name.)

Now it seems we've caught that fever. What you see here (below, left) is a selection of foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) called 'Pretty Petticoats' in a garden we planted two years ago. It grows about 3 feet tall, blooms for a long time in early summer if it's deadheaded, and will rebloom in fall as you see here if the growing is good in late summer. (Photo taken in October.)

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Above, right: Then there's Penstemon barbatus 'Pina Colada'. Luscious! (Photo ©2012

We can say of these, "They are fine, upstanding garden citizens in a clay loam and full sun," but we think we hear floodgates creaking open. Perhaps we'll become beardtongue goofy now, and start planting all the other, more finicky, shorter-lived Penstemons. Ah well.

Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum)

Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is native all over eastern North America.

We love its neatly whorled foliage and thin white candelabras (below) held at eye level in July. It's a welcome fresh face and clean lines during the time when a perennial garden makes its annual transition to more-things-done-than-still-to-come.


Once in a while you see a bit of pink in the flower of this or that Veronicastrum seedling, so it's not surprising that someone found a dark-leaved, pink-blooming type in the Asian counterpart, Veronicastrum sibiricum, and propagated it as 'Red Arrow.' It doesn't qualify as a native but it's a plant Janet's drawn to on many levels and is looking to include in her personal heritage garden.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)


There are so many beautiful goldenrods only a full-blown Solidago review could properly honor them. We'll do that one day. The list will certainly include
our favorite edger (S. sphacelata), most dependable
accent (the hybrid 'Little Lemon'), a reminder that
the plant is not a cause of hay fever, and our latest pick, this shining star: Showy goldenrod (S. speciosa).

Right: Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is featured here in seed, still passing in form and color for a blooming plant. We think it's great with the red-gold fall color of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) to the left and butterfly weed's (Asclepias tuberosa) blushing seedpods in the foreground.

This five-foot plant is native just about everywhere east of the Rockies. (It skipped Florida and Alabama, and blessed Ontario while snubbing Saskatchewan and Alberta. Pondering the why of that is another example of the great mental stimulation gardening offers.) It's showy in golden bloom in August and continues to glow right into October as yellow seedheads. Its dense flower heads are a welcome switch from the feathery explosion-type goldenrods (top of the page) that have already stepped from wildflower to mainstream ornamental perennial.

This is a plant that spreads by rhizomes (root-like underground stems), but its vigor, speed and controllability track more closely with blackeye Susan and daisy than the "weed" goldenrods.


When a bit of moxie is a good thing: The aggressiveness of some goldenrod species can be a good thing. We featured the struggle between this goldenrod and a Virginia creeper vine in an article about managing wildflower plantings in What's Coming Up#154.


Letterman threadleaf ironweed
(Vernonia lettermanii 'Iron Butterfly)

The trouble with many sunny Midwest native plantings is that so few of the plants are short, or even mid-sized. Any group of massed, tall plants tends to strike the common viewer as weedy.

Most Vernonia species (let's ditch the common name, ironweed) are so tall that gardeners seeing one for the first time will usually remark on height even before noting the desirable bloom time and color. They say, "What is that very tall plant with dark purple flowers in August?"

However, our choice of threadleaf Vernonia is a variety called 'Iron Butterfly' and only about three feet tall at maturity. Long lived like peonies, these plants take some time to bulk up below ground before they hit their full height.  Those pictured here are in their first year, still under 18 inches and just beginning to bloom in late September. They offer nectar for the last flight of Monarch butterflies.

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As these plants age we'll probably pinch them once or twice in late spring and early summer, or forgo rabbit protection until Independence Day. Then they'll bloom short and late, just like the native Joe Pye (Eupatorium species) and other later bloomers do when treated this way.

'Iron Butterfly' Vernonia may be at the edge of its hardiness in USDA zone 6. The jury's still out. We follow the lead of growers such as Tony Avent of Plant Delights nursery to say, "Give it a try! Tell us what happens. We'll compile and pass along the results."

Most of my garden contains ignorant plants. Fortunately since they cannot read the books, they do not know they shouldn't be able to exist in my garden."   - Dennis Groh -


"New" and "Native" makes a never ending list

There are other native species on our current Wish List. If you'd like to beef up this "new" native planting, check into Choosing perennials for our picks of new plants from the native species Coreopsis, Gaillardia, Heuchera, marsh mallow Hibiscus, and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum). All hail from North America; all except Heuchera occur naturally in the Great Lakes region.