Every spring, garden centers and stores are filled with hundreds of beautiful perennial flowers. New varieties promise the world: special colors, bigger flowers, shorter stature, and disease resistance. Many look fabulous in the store but are less than thrilling in the garden. The best perennials are more than just a pretty flower—they have good foliage, disease resistance, and add texture or structure to the landscape. For me, a perennial favorite has to be the strong and independent type. They need to drink responsibly, stand on their own, and live for years without dividing. Yet even the best of the best will disappoint if they are planted in the wrong place or with the wrong crowd. So it’s important to remember that there are different favorites for different environments. The following are perennial favorites grouped by sunny and shady conditions.
Top Picks for Sun
Achillea x “Coronation Gold,” with masses of large bright yellow flowers atop upright ferny foliage, is hard to beat. Achillea m. “Paprika’s” vibrant fire-orange-red flowers ripen into an array of terra-cotta colors—it’s my all-time favorite red. The newer Achillea “Strawberry Seduction” and Achillea “Sunny Seduction” are highly touted for their sturdy, compact, upright habit, but they pale in comparison.
Allium x “Summer Beauty” is a tried-and-true favorite. Blooms appear in July with two-inch, globe-shaped lavender flowers on strap-like foliage. Its interesting seed head and compacted, upright form are prized for their winter interest and bold texture. Newer on the block, Allium x “Millenium,” the 2018 perennial plant of the year, promises the same strong leaf texture with a profusion of bright rosy-pink flowers instead of pale lavender flowers. For an interesting diminutive Allium, late-blooming Allium senescens has small curly bluish foliage. All Alliums can handle part shade as well as full sun.
Salvia n. “May Night” was the 1997 perennial plant of the year and is one of the best early-blooming perennials for sun. It begins blooming in May with dense spikes of indigo-blue flowers and continues blooming through the end of June. Salvia n. “Caradonna” is taller with deep purple flower stems and blue-violet flowers and starts blooming in June. There is now an abundance of new Salvias on the market that vary in heights and come in an array of colors, including white, pink, light blue, and purple. All may warrant trying, but these two favorites will be hard to beat.
Top Picks for Deer and Rabbit Resistant, Shade, and Good for Pollinators
Helleborus x hybridus, the 2005 perennial plant of the year, is an amazing shade plant renowned for its tolerance of drought and neglect. Often called the Lenten rose, it starts flowering in early April with the clusters of one-inch blossoms that seem to hang on forever. Traditionally sold as hybrid mixes, cultivars are now available in colors that run the gamut from white, red purple, black purple, pink, yellow, and green. Helleborus x “Ivory Prince” is prized for its outward facing blooms held well above the leaves. Pulmonaria o. “Sissinghurst White” is a tried-and-true favorite whose round, white polka-dot leaves look great all season.
Though not as long lived, Pulmonaria l. “Bertram Anderson” with silver-spotted, lance-shaped leaves and vivid blue flowers, is stunning. Newer hybrids “Majeste” and “Samurai” boast almost pure-silver leaves and flower buds that mature from pink to blue. Though listed as drought tolerant, Pulmonarias are happiest with well-drained, evenly moist soils. All Pulmonarias bloom in May with clusters of blue, bell-shaped flowers and are excellent for brightening up shady spots in the garden.
Many of my favorite perennials shine when given the right home, but to make it into my top five they must be long blooming, drought tolerant, deer and rabbit resistant, and good for pollinators: birds and butterflies. Echinacea p. “Kim’s Knee High,” Coreopsis “Zagreb,” Nepeta “Blue Wonder,” and Amsonia “Blue Ice” are great runner-ups that consistently outperform the new varieties. Still, l cannot wait to try the new introductions: Echinacea KISMET, Coreopsis “Broad Street,” Nepeta “Purrsian Blue,” and Amsonia “Storm Cloud.” Old friends may be hard to beat but don’t be afraid to be daring and adventuresome. Every spring I get excited to meet the new kids on the block.
Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape at ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit zdainc.com .