By Charles Kidder
People love lists. Ten Best Movies. Ten Best Cars. Ten Best Golfers. And so on. So, what about Ten Best Plants?
Maybe I’m a chicken, but I really wouldn’t have the temerity to come up with a list of Ten Best Plants. How do you really define “best” in this context, where so much is subjective? Instead, let me put forth a list of Ten Plants I Would Not Garden Without. (Pardon the poor grammar.) Even then, my list is not written in stone. Ask me for the list a couple of months from now, and it might be considerably different. So, in alphabetical order, here it is.
Baptisia (scientifically, also Baptisia) These long-lived perennials add oomph to any garden. They shoot up quickly in the spring, flower in early May, then assume a shrub-like appearance for the remainder of the year. With massive root systems, they are drought-tolerant, and as legumes, they can fix their own nitrogen. There are many selections available, with white, yellow, blue, pink and multi-colored flowers. Sun is best, but partial shade is also okay.
Coneflower (Echinacea) Native to the American prairies, as well as some savannas in the eastern U.S., coneflowers are survivors. Wild specimens are usually pinky-purple, with white and yellow varieties and species also traditionally available. But recent breeding work has led to many new colors and flower shapes: hot-pink pompoms, golden-orange puffballs, purple petals edged with lime-green, etc. All coneflowers appreciate full sun and good drainage. The closer-to-wild varieties will produce lots of seed; goldfinches will take most of them, but you’ll still have new plants popping up in the garden.
Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) Ubiquitous in Southern gardens, most folks never tire of crape myrtles. How can you not like a plant that blooms in white, red, lavender or pink for weeks in mid-summer, even while most other shrubs and trees have pooped out? Decorative bark in tones of copper, gray or green is a bonus, lending interest through the entire year. Crapes are tough plants, but do want full sun and good air circulation.
Hellebore (Helleborus) is one of the few evergreen perennials with bold, attractive foliage; plus, they have pink, purple, white or yellow flowers in late winter, when not much else is going on in the garden.
Hellebores do best in the shade of deciduous trees; you’ll likely find many seedlings growing underneath the parents, which are easy to transplant to other areas of your yard. Owing to their poisonous properties, hellebores are allegedly not preferred by deer.
Holly (Ilex) Among some oddballs on this list, at least this is a plant most people are familiar with. I most appreciate the hollies for their amazing diversity—big or small, evergreen or deciduous, American or Old World, spiny leaves or merely gently toothed— it’s hard to imagine a garden where at least one holly wouldn’t fit in. In southern woods you’ll find the American Holly (Ilex opaca), a medium-sized tree, while around your home’s foundation, you may well have one of the dwarf Chinese or Japanese varieties. Most hollies will do okay in either sun or shade, but will be more loose and open when grown in lower light levels.
Magnolia (Magnolia) It’s hard to imagine Southern gardens without the Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora): large glossy leaves, huge fragrant flowers and “cones” with red seeds. The one possible drawback to this species: it gets big, although there are smaller varieties. Another option is the smaller deciduous Asian magnolias, generally with pink or white flowers that bloom precariously early in the spring. Or if you prefer to stick with natives, the Sweetbay (M. virginiana) is smaller and more delicate than its big cousin.
Oak (Quercus) No American tree conveys strength and durability quite like the oak. I like all of them, but I’d confess that the White Oak (Q. alba) is at the top of the list. If I lived in the Deep South, the Live Oak (Q. virginiana) would be a serious rival. Oaks of one species or another can live in almost any condition, from dry sand to soggy bottomlands. Even if I weren’t growing an oak in my garden, I’d want at least one to be in sight.
Poet’s Laurel, Alexandrian Laurel (Danae racemosa) You won’t find this Caucasus native on the shelves at the big box stores; slow growth would make it too expensive. It can seed around gardens a bit, so if a friend has one, try to beg a seedling. Poet’s Laurel has four-foot arching stems with evergreen leaves, small white flowers and showy orangey fruits in the fall. Its greatest attribute is providing a year-round green presence in the dry shade under trees, an environment not kind to many plants. Don’t plant it in the sun.
Sage (Salvia) There are many sages out there, including the culinary sage (S.officinalis), an attractive plant, but not fond of our clay soils. I prefer Saliva guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, sometimes known as Brazilian sage. Growing 3’-4’ tall, it sends up spikes of black and blue flowers that bees and hummingbirds love. The one downside: depending on where you garden or what you read, Brazilian sage may not always be hardy here. Give it full sun, excellent drainage, and pile a thick load of mulch on it when cold weather sets in.
Yucca (Yucca) You may well think I’ve lost my mind with this choice, but I do like these spikey creatures. They love the heat, and Eastern species tolerate our clay. Perhaps the showiest for our area is Y. filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, with a bright yellow band down the middle of the leaf. Warning: put yuccas where you want them and not near other plants. They will spread and are virtually impossible to get rid of.
Well, an eclectic list for sure. Try coming up with a list of your personal favorites. Then do it again a few months later and see how many plants still make the cut.