Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2005
Regional Report

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Our native coneflower is available in many new shapes and colors.

Going Wild with New Natives

It's part of our nature to be intrigued with the new, if for no other reason than we are capable of creating change. Just as some people anticipate new car models each year or the latest couture, so a gardener's ritual is to read about the most recent plant introductions. Certainly, each new year finds no dirth of the popular and somewhat readily hybridized plants, such as daylilies, roses, or petunias. However, for me, one of the most exciting trends in gardening is the increasing selection of native plants as well as selected or hybridized cultivars of them.

The arguments surrounding native versus foreign plants can be somewhat contentious at times. My view is that not all plants from foreign shores are bad and, conversely, not all natives are good. Still, the rising popularity of native plants bodes well for the environment and gardens, as a whole. Although I can but scratch the surface of the more recent introductions, here are some that have caught my eye.

Explosive Echinaceas
Sturdy, easy to grow, and long blooming -- these qualities have made echinacea, or purple coneflowers, a garden staple. For years, there was a handful of readily available varieties. That number has now exploded, and variations abound. Plants may be shorter, the flowers larger or more strongly scented, or the foliage variegated. Petals may be frilled or double-deckered, and the center might be green. But the big news is in the colors. Yes, there are more shades of pink and there are still whites, but now there are varieties with flowers in shades of yellow and coral.

Some of the cultivar names to look for include 'Doubledecker', 'Orange Meadowbrite', 'Sunset', 'Sunrise', 'Razzmatazz', 'Fancy Frills', 'Fragrant Angel', 'Green Eyes', 'Jade', 'Little Giant', 'Ruby Giant', 'Prairie Frost', and 'Sparkler'. Will all of these be superior garden plants? Not necessarily, when there is such a rush to market, but it is still worth your time to explore at least a few of these new varieties.

Heavenly Hydrangeas
The phrase "hot hydrangeas" could also have been chosen, because these shrubs, once considered old-fashioned, are now among the most popular of garden plants. Most of the latest and greatest are of Japanese or Chinese origin and are not hardy enough in parts of our region to bloom reliably. (This growing season will show the resiliency of 'Endless Summer'.) By concentrating on native hydrangeas, success is much more likely ensured. Both the oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and the smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens) have seen an expansion in the availability of cultivars.

If the oakleaf hydrangea's 8-foot height is too much for your garden, consider the 4-foot 'Sike's Dwarf', 'PeeWee', or the yellow- to chartreuse-leaved 'Little Honey'. Besides the ever-reliable and floriferous 'Annabelle', look to 'White Dome', with its lacy white blooms; 'Hayes Starburst', with double sterile florets suspended above the main flowerhead; or 'Samantha', with large rounded flowerheads.

Other Shrubs and Trees
A few of the other native shrubs available in "new editions" include:
1. Rhus typhina 'Tiger Eyes', a golden-leaved form of cutleaf staghorn sumac;
2. 'Blue Muffin' viburnum, a compact form of V. dentatum, with an impressive display of blue berries in the fall;
3. 'Peve Minaret' bald cypress, a dense, 6-foot, pyramidal form of Taxodium distichum;
4. 'Summer Cascade' river birch, a weeping form of Betula nigra;
5. 'Spring Flurry' serviceberry, a strongly upright Amelanchier laevis;
6. 'Blue Shadow' witch alder, a Fothergilla major variety with glaucous foliage and honey-scented flowers;
7. 'Sweet Thing' sweetbay magnolia, with compact, multistemmed, dense growth;
8. 'Bobbee' bayberry, a compact form of Myrica pennsylvanica;
9. Three forms of ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) with variously colored foliage: 'Diablo', 'Summer Wine', and 'Coppertina';
10. 'Little Henry' sweetspire (Itea virginica), growing to only 3 feet tall;
11. Various selections of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), such as 'Sweet Suzanne' and 'September Beauty'.

With all this temptation, I might have to expand my gardens!

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