By Debra Smith Special to The Herald
Gardeners around here are lucky.
If they don’t know what to plant, horticultural experts have recommended nearly 900 of the best-performing ornamental plants for Northwest gardens. That information is available anytime for free at www.greatplantpicks.org.
The plant list is called Great Plant Picks, and it’s an educational program provided by the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle. The nonprofit just released another 79 picks for 2013. This year’s theme is Small Spaces, Big Impact.
This year, the folks at the Miller garden wanted to focus on the best plants for people who have a tiny yard, or perhaps none at all, said Richie Steffen, the curator at the botanical garden. It’s his job to oversee the many rare and unusual plants at the garden.
“Our plant palette changes,” Steffen said. “The plants available 10 years ago are different than today. A ton of new stuff is coming out every year.”
The nonprofit draws together 30 experts from all corners of the horticultural industry, has them recommend their favorite plants for the maritime Northwest and then makes the group whittle down the list to the very best, he said.
The plants on the list have to be the cream of the garden: hardy, reliable, minimal-fuss workhorses that also look fantastic, preferably for more than one season.
The list covers ornamentals, including shrubs, trees, vines and perennials.
Although it was a bit like choosing between children, Steffen whittled this year’s new offerings down to the 10 he loves most. Here they are, along with notes on what makes them special:
Red-bark vine maple Pacific Fire (Acer circinatum ‘Pacific Fire’): This tree has the same intense color that people love in a coral bark maple, but holds that intense color for many more years.
Clematis Josephine (Clematis ‘Evijohill’ Josephine): This climbing vine features a fully double bloom that ranges from pale to rosy pink. That double bloom is rare. Some older varieties had double blooms, but they would bloom double the first time and produce a single blossom the second. Josephine is double all the time.
Its growth also peaks out at 6 to 8 feet — manageable for a vine that might be twisting its way up a trellis on your deck. Steffen’s assessment: “Totally fabulous.”
Columnar European beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’): You do need a little space in your yard for this beech, but not a lot. The original plant was found growing wild on the Scottish estate Dawyck.
These tall trees are quite striking in the landscape. The trees can reach 30 feet in height in 10 years, while staying only 4- to 6-feet wide. “It’s a wonderful exclamation point,” Steffen said.
Trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis): Surprisingly tough, crazy blue and totally amazing — that’s Steffen’s assessment of these tiny perennial trumpets that emerge in early spring. They only grow to a few inches tall, but the stunning, deep blue color makes them a worthy addition to the garden.
Blue dwarf hosta (Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’): This is, hands down, the best miniature hosta, Steffen said. He grows them in his own garden. He finds them to be adorable, with their leaves like little mouse ears, and exceptionally tough for a hosta.
Slugs don’t seem to devour them as readily as other hostas either. Its tight form makes it an ideal addition to containers.
Blue mountain plum-pine (Podocarpus lawrencei ‘Blue Gem’): This easy to grow, adaptable tree is bright blue-green. While most evergreens are toast if you cut them back too far, this one flushes back nicely if somebody gets too enthusiastic with the pruning sheers. Indeed, it can even be sheered into a blue-green hedge.
Pink compact hybrid rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘Yaku Sunrise’): This is one of Steffen’s favorite rhodies. It stays compact and produces slightly cupped dark green leaves with indumentum, a fuzzy softness on one side of the leaf.
The buds are a deep rose pink and when they open, they fade to a pale pink. Once the blooms are through, the new growth on the plant is silvery, extending the interest of the plant.
Hens and chicks Cobweb Houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum ssp. tomentosum ‘Stansfieldii’): This tiny succulent produces reddish leaves with a white cobweb effect. Like all hens and chicks, they produce runners and lots of babies to share with friends and neighbors.
Chitalpa (X Chitalpa tashkentensis): Steffen described this tree a bizarre hybrid of the big-leafed cigar tree and the narrow-leaved desert willow. The result is an attract tree that is tough and drought tolerant.
It stays relatively small, topping out at about 15 feet, and produces narrow leaves with short spikes of pink flowers.
Devil’s tobacco (Lobelia tupa): This perennial, a native of Chile, doesn’t look anything like the lobelia most people are familiar with. This lobelia grows up to 8 feet tall and offers a show of big, bold leaves, and bright orange and red flowers. The flowers resemble a flamingo bell, Steffen said.
Great Plant Picks
All the picks for this year are available at www.greatplantpicks.org. You can find resource pages that list local nurseries that sell recommended plants.