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Flowering Perennials: The Best of the Best

If you've ever planted flowering perennials, you know there are hundreds to choose from. So how do you know which ones are the best? One easy way is to consider only those that have won the Perennial of the Year award from the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). The PPA looks for perennials that are not only beautiful, but hardy, and easy to grow and maintain. In short, you can't go wrong if you choose from the PPA's winner's circle, providing you pick plants that are matched to the light and soil conditions of your garden.

In this newsletter, we profile the best of the best: twelve great perennials from among the twenty-one perennials that have won the PPA honor over the last two decades. At the beginning of each profile we list what zones it will grow in, and provide info on the light and soil conditions it requires. We then describe that perennial, drawing on the great information that the PPA makes available.

We'll start with the earliest winners, and work our way up to the 2010 Perennial of the Year.

1991 Heuchera Palace Purple

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 8

Light: Full sun in northern gardens to partial shade in areas with very long, hot summers.

Soil: Well-drained and generously enriched with organic matter.

The Coral Bells ‘Palace Purple' Heuchera plant was one of the first of a myriad of purple colored Coral Bells and it is still among the most popular. Now considered a classic, its bronze-tinted dark green leaves emerge in the spring, changing to a rich purple with red undertones as the season progresses. The signature creamy bell-shaped flowers appear on slender spikes in early summer. There are few diseases and pests that trouble this perennial, and there should be no problem with fungus as long as the soil is well-drained. Though it will grow in full sun, it does best in at least partial shade.

1993 Veronica Sunny Border Blue

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Light: full sun to very light shade

Soil: well-drained

This perennial has luxurious glossy green foliage, and a long bloom period during which it sports 18-24 inch violet-blue flower spikes that butterflies love. These elegant spires of color, as one fan described them, look especially pleasing when grouped with white, pink, or yellow flowered plants. Easy to grow and requiring minimal maintenance, they are often massed at the front of borders. After growing them, you might just concur with the gardener at the GardenWeb Forum who wrote, blue spikey flowers are why I garden.

1997 Salvia Mainacht May Night

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 8

Light: Full sun best

Soil: Average to dry garden soil; dislikes winter wet

A wonderful perennial that blooms long and prolifically, it produces dazzling violet-purple flower heads that arise out of large rosettes of dark green aromatic leaves.  It produces abundant flowers from late spring or early summer (depending upon zone), until the first frost, and is renowned for re-blooming with sustained performance if it is carefully deadheaded. It has a height of 18 and a spread of 18-24 and stays in excellent compact form. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds love it, as do most gardeners who consistently describe it as a winner, and a keeper. It makes a great companion plant for rose bushes, as well as for coreopsis.

1998 Echinacea purpurea Magnus

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Light: Full sun best

Soil: well-drained garden soil

The Coneflower ‘Purple Magnus’ Echinacea plant is a bold, beautiful summer-into-fall perennial with carmine, non-drooping flowers. It blooms in mid-summer on 2-to-4 foot sturdy stems. Butterflies love these large purple flowers. Excellent for cutting, and the flowers, leaves, and stems can be brewed to make a cold-fighting herbal tea or decoction. One of the hardiest varieties of Echinacea, it is highly drought tolerant once established, and self-sowing. It easily re-blooms with deadheading, and the seedheads provide food for birds in winter. It makes for a very nice border planting, and also looks great when placed in the back of the bed. It combines very well with Phlox paniculata ‘David'.

1999 Rudbeckia fulgida var sullivantii Goldsturm

Hardiness: Zones 2 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: well-drained, consistently moist soil

Acclaimed internationally as one of the most popular perennials for the past fifty years, the Goldsturm's bright flowers contain 1-2 inch golden-yellow petals which encircle a nearly black cone of disk flowers. The leaves are coarse, dark green lanceolate to ovate, 3-6 inches long; stem leaves are smaller, almost bract-like. The “gold storm” blankets the tops of 18-30-inch tall plants from mid-July to October. It is a long-blooming, low maintenance, long-lived perennial which tolerates clay soils and mild droughts, but grows best in well-drained, consistently moist soil. Remarkably hardy, it is one of few perennials that will grow in all zones, and has few pest or disease problems.

2000 Scabiosa columbaria Butterfly Blue

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: Well-drained soil amended with organic matter and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH

The Pincushion ‘Butterfly Blue’ Scabiosa plant has lacy lavender-blue 2-inch flowers with a paler domed center covered with stamens that give the appearance of pins in a pincushion. It blooms on rigid 12- to 15-inch stems above nearly flat grayish- green basal foliage that hugs the ground. This long-blooming perennial grows best in well-drained soil. The foliage remains clean and unblemished throughout the season and the delicate blue flowers add softness to the garden when massed with bolder-colored plants of yellow, bright pink, or red. However, despite its delicate appearance, ‘Butterfly Blue’ is a sturdy plant, and its nectar-rich flowers will attract butterflies in the summer.

2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl Foerster

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 9

Light: Full sun to partial shade

Soil: fertile soil with sufficient moisture yet well-drained

This highly acclaimed cultivar is one of the most versatile, attractive, and low maintenance ornamental grasses. The deep green, shiny foliage of this cool season grass appears in early spring and lasts until early winter. Loose, feathery flower inflorescences appear in June and are initially light pink in color. As the seed heads mature, they become very narrow with a golden tan color that lasts through the fall season. The growth habit is vertical with a tuft of foliage 2-3 feet tall and flower stems to 5 feet in height. It's a long-blooming, long-lived perennial that will tolerate heavier clay soils and drier sites. Sometimes called perpetual motion grass, it is set in motion by the slightest breeze.

2002 Phlox paniculata David

Hardiness: Zones 4 – 9

Light: full sun to partial shade

Soil: moist but well-drained

The Garden ‘David’ Phlox plant is a particularly showy variety. The pristine flowers of purest white grow bloom out of bell-shaped mounds amid thin glossy leaves. The fragrant white flower panicles are 6 to 9 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide with 1-inch diameter florets. These eye-catching mounds rise on durable stems above the foliage of the main plant and rarely need staking. Many landscape designers call ‘David' “the backbone of the summer border.” It provides great garden color and fragrance from July through September. If you are looking for a winning combination of fragrance, color, mildew resistance, and long season bloom, this is it.

2006 Dianthus gratianopolitanus Feuerhexe Firewitch

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 9

Light: full sun

Soil: well-drained

The enticing clove-like scent of this low-growing evergreen ornamental make it a great choice for planting along walkways where passersby who brush against it will stimulate the release of its scent. Its brilliant purplish pink flowers with white centers grow on a broad carpet of bluish-gray silvery foliage.These pert, bright blooms also make Firewitch a perfect choice for the rock garden or for planting in wall crevices. This species will tolerate short periods of drought.

2007 Nepeta faassenii Walker’s Low

Hardiness: Zones 3 – 8

Sun: Full sun

Soil: well-drained; neutral Ph.

Walker's Low catmint has become increasingly popular due to its lovely blue-violet flowers and their long bloom time, attractive grey foliage, ease of propagation, lack of pest disease problems, and low maintenance. It has crinkled, aromatic, silver-green foliage with prolific, small, dark blue-purple flowers clustered densely on upright arching stems creating a charming and colorful effect, even from a distance. Walker's Low catmint will bloom almost continuously from May until frost, and has many landscape uses, due to its lovely color and vigorous, billowy habit.

2009 Hakonechloa macra Aureola

Hardiness: Zones 5 – 9

Light: partial shade in hot climates; moderate sun in cooler areas.

Soil: Moist, humus-rich, well-drained

Pronounced ha-KON-eh-klo-ah MAK-rah, this perennial is more commonly known as Japanese Forest Grass. Though preferring moist conditions, it is highly adaptable to drier conditions. If you live in the north you may want to give it a little more sun exposure to bring out and maintain the signature golden color. That golden hue changes to pink and shades of red in the fall, adding color when other garden plants are fading to brown. Growing in clumps, this variegated grass develops a graceful, waterfall-type habit that is even more beautiful when breezes blow.

2010 Australis Baptisia Plant

Hardiness: Zones 3-9

Light: Full sun best

Soil: well-drained

The False Indigo or Wild Blue Indigo ‘Australis' Baptisia's newly emerging shoots produce violet-blue, lupine-like flowers in erect 10- to 12-inch racemes atop flower stems extending well above the foliage mound of clover-like, trifoliate, bluish-green leaves. The spring flowers are present for three to four weeks. The flowers give way to inflated seedpods which turn charcoal black when ripe and which flower arrangers consider to be ornamental. This perennial is happy in just about any type soil and climate, and once established, it is drought resistant and moisture tolerant. Blue false indigo grows three to four feet tall and three to four feet wide in an upright habit. This exceptional perennial is one of the most adaptable native species.

So there you have it: twelve great perennials, the best of the best.

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