02 February 2011

Winterless-post: favourite perennials

As we stagger through the seemingly interminable ordeal that is winter in Nova Scotia, it’s sometimes hard to remember what our yards looked like when it was sweet summer. While this seems to have been a particularly long and gruesome winter, we’ll make it through to spring again soon. I keep telling myself the pulmonaria will be blooming before we know it,

This is the time of year when plant breeders begin ramping up the excitement by unleashing scores of new cultivars on a gardening public eager to try different plants. I’m as keen to experiment as anyone, but I also have plants that are such proven performers in our garden, I’d never think about casting them out in favour of some sweet new thing with a fancy plant patent and complex name. Many of us love to push the zone by trying plants that aren’t reliably hardy, but we also like to grow plants that come back reliably, year after year, like dear friends. That doesn’t mean they won’t, occasionally fail to thrive or even expire, but no plant is foolproof unless it’s plastic.

Submitted for your approval, some of my favourite perennials.

Asclepias. There are several different species of butterfly weeds, or milkweeds, but I love them all because they are the larval food plant for the monarch butterfly. If you want monarchs around, you need milkweed species. It’s that simple. Granted, the plants will get chewed, but so what? I'd rather have chewed leaves than no monarchs.

Astilbe. Even when not in bloom, these plants are terrific because their foliage is very handsome and lacy, and some plants have leaves and stems tinted a contrasting colour. Astilbes like shade, but can take some sun, provided wherever you situate them is a bit on the moist side. This is 'Colorflash Lime', which has brilliant gold foliage in the spring that gradually turns a bright green. 

Astrantia. Masterwort seems to be a too-well-kept secret, because so many people look blankly at me when I rave about it. Those of us who have it, tend to love it for its long period of bloom, graceful little flowers in white, rose, red, tints of green, and for sure it is totally beloved by pollinators. 

Baptisia. Sometimes called blue false indigo, it should be called patience plant, because it takes three or four years to establish and begin flowering. However, the bright green foliage is very handsome on this perennial, and the lupin-like flowers (it’s a lupin and pea relative) are beautiful and long-lasting. This cultivar is called Twilight Prairie Blues.

Bluestar (Amsonia) is another of those underutilized perennials, and I don't know why. It's among the most easy-care plants in my garden; I've never had to divide my plants, they are unbothered by disease and just grow quietly. A little late to emerge in spring, but then they put on this display of dainty blue stars, followed by bright gold foliage in autumn. The species Amsonia hubrichtii is perennial of the year this year, an excellent choice.

Campanula. My favourites are the peach-leafed bellflowers, which grow in nice clumps and will rebloom if deadheaded. Some bellflower species are prone to roaming, so check labels to be sure you haven’t picked one that will outgrow its location.  

Echinacea. Coneflowers are my “desert island perennial” a must-have plant in our garden. The bees and butterflies tend to agree, because they love these flowers as a source of nectar. I love the new-fangled cultivars, both double and single, but I still love the species for their clean, elegant lines and strong stems.

Cranesbill or hardy geranium (Geranium) – These are well behaved plants, most with highly attractive foliage as well as flowers in a wealth of colours from white to blue to hot pink to nearly black. Some have foliage that is deep chocolate brown or nearly black, such as G. ‘Okey Dokey’.

Euphorbia. The flowers of euphorbias aren't what excite us; it's the colourful bracts that surround the tiny flowers that rock our world, such as this 'Bonfire' cushion spurge. Think of poinsettias, and you'll know exactly what I mean.  One thing to be aware of is the milky sap that exudes from broken stems or leaves—it’s not good to get in your eyes or on skin. Trust me on this. 

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla) – If this plant never flowered, I’d still grow it and recommend it to others, and anyone who has ever seen its scalloped leaves festooned with jewel like water droplets knows exactly why. The flowers are delicate sprays of tiny, green-yellow blossoms, long-lasting in our garden, and eye-catching in bouquets.

Monkshood (Aconitum) – I’ve often seen garden writers recommend growing monkshood if you’re thwarted by delphinium, because monkshood is a tougher plant.  It also blooms later in the season, at least in our garden, and comes in several attractive colours. The only caveat is that all parts of the plant are toxic, so shouldn’t be planted where dogs or young children might bother the plants. (Cats seem to know better). 

Sea holly (Eryngium) – In our garden, this is a real bee-magnet. The easiest one to grow is E. planum, the flat sea holly, which selfseeds gently and produces vast sprays of brilliant blue, long-lasting florets that make excellent cut flowers. 

Widow’s Tears (Tradescantia) – Another durable, easy care plant, although there are several older types that tend to spread rather than grow in polite clumps. Flowers come in shades of purple, white and deep magenta, and recent cultivars also sport bright gold foliage.

Naturally, there are many, many more beloved plants in my garden; how many of these are in your plantings?

Notice no snow pictures were posted, out of respect for the winter-weary who are getting the Woodchuck Whallop storm.


  1. The only plant I have trouble with on your list is Tradescantia. I am not sure why it is not a good performer. It grows in a messy clump, so I moved it in fall to see if I have better luck this year. It bloomed fine, just a big lump of a mess. Certainly not like pictures of it I have seen. The first year, when it was a young plant it was nice, but the second year when I dug it, even the roots were matted in a mess.

  2. Great post! Winter seems endless and it's great to read about perennials. I've got a few of your favourites: Lady's Mantle, various Cranesbills, Coneflower, Campanulas, Masterwort, Astilbe and Pulmonaria. Love them all!

  3. Jodi, these are some lovely plants. Most like the Astrantia and Astilbe, are grown in my garden and very happy. Asclepias, Baptisia and Amsonia I have never grown and I don't think I have seen here. These are 3 plants that I would like to try. The Coneflowers and Tradescantia I grow, they survive but are really not thriving. Some plants just don't like our cool summers but these two should do well.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  4. That looks awesome in the new spring but havent seen them before, hope you tell us what flowers are those.

  5. Jodi, stunning flowers and we have the same taste in these beauties....ahhh thanks for the lovely thoughts of gardens and sun and spring!!

  6. Wonderful post, Jodi. These are also some of my very favourite perennials. I have 6 of them and another 6 I have tried unsuccessfully. May try some of those again some day.

  7. Thanks for your comments. I'll try to help with your comments/questions.

    Gardenwalkgardentalk: Try shearing your Tradescantia after it blooms; cut it back to about 1/2 its height, and it should regrow much more tidily.

    Sylvia, those three plants you haven't tried are all North American natives, so perhaps there just aren't as many available in England. They like good drainage but they tolerate my cool summer quite nicely.

  8. Love this post, and I love calling it the Woodchuck Wallop storm! haha! My little Tornado couldn't get it right and kept referring to it as "the Lizard is coming, Mama!"

    I've never tried baptisia or bluestar...maybe I'll add them to the list to try this year! Thanks for sharing!

  9. I am revisiting photos of tulips today as the Groundhog Day storm dumps on us. I loved seeing all the gorgeous perennials too. Watch out tomorrow, as this storm will be heading your way.

  10. Everything in my garden is encased in ice today as are the roads so this was a wonderful respite. I love your choices: A. hubrichtii has the most beautiful orange fall color; not sure which campanula that is but I think 'Sarastro' is the best; adore baptisia especially the one pictured, TPB; have to try astrantia on your recommendation.

  11. Lovely to see these blooms in the midst of this incredible storm Jodi! You have shared all my favorites and I must get Astrantia this year! I love your writing style and cannot wait to read your book! Take care!

  12. Great post and photos! I, like you want to concentrate on all the colors of spring and summer and fall when we're burried in snow! I can't wait for the perennials to pop! (afraid we may have a wait this year...haven't seen the grass since early December!)
    The amsonia is awesome in the fal with the bright golden-orange foliage as well! Great work and keep sharing!

  13. All wonderful perennials! I grow them all except for Lady's mantle; which will not grow here in our heat and humidity. Such a shame because in my mother's garden in Maine it is a wonderful awesome perennial. I agree with you on the astrantias. I read somewhere about them then was in our local big box and they had like all of their astrantias marked down to like .25 Cents. Do you know I bought them all??? They appeared to go dormant last summer but I am keeping fingers crossed they will come back. So glad you spotlighted them! I hope spring comes soon for you all in the north. It definitely seems to be a long winter this year. Cheers!

  14. Good morning Jodi. It was such a treat to look at some of your summer blooms this morning. I just adore your Astrania. Just a beautiful flower. The Euphorbia is just and eye catcher.It is amazing to think that all of this beauty is just waiting under all of the snow.

  15. Great post, and I pretty much agree with all your choices! As exciting as it is to look at all the new varieties, I do seem to almost always come back to the original...especially for things like Echinacea.

  16. Jodi, That is an impressive list of beauties~I'm with you~add new ones, but keep the oldies but, goodies forever. I am going to check out astrantia~That is a lovely flower~gail

  17. Perfect timing to post pictures of perennials. We are having our worst snow storm of the season today. What a delightful way to take my mind off the weather.

  18. I adore astilbe, have many varieties, but 'Colorflash Lime' and its brilliant gold foliage is new to me ... an now a must have! You know my love like yours for Echinacea and I so agree with your monkshood/delphinium comment - love this handsome plant. I could not live without Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla), delightful in many areas of my garden as well as the public gardens that I tend. Now, Tradescantia is one I have a love/hate relationship with, even the newer cultivars sporting chartreuse foliage that are now behaving as badly (intertwining with precious perennials, especially treasured daylilys) as their older relatives! I'm ruthless, ripping it out and yet it never wants to leave. I doomed to wrestle with it forever!

  19. I grew up with tradescantia in the garden and love it. Have been trying to get my hands on some for the last few years, but can't find it anywhere here :(

  20. I planted Astilbe the first time less than a month ago, it is already out of the ground and I fell for the beautiful foliage at first sight! You have some beauties in your gardens.

  21. My thoughts exactly, Jodi...we need to see color! I've been hatching a post in my mind :)
    Thank you for all these colorful lovelies!
    Astrantia, Amsonia and Monkshood are 3 I haven't grown but would love to. Well, I tried Astrantia and Monkshood (seeds shared by a friend) last year, but they didn't germinate. I'll try them again though.
    I dug out a giant, plant eating Tradescantia last year (for the second time) and stuck it in the veggie garden until I can find a suitable place for it. I'll try your tip of cutting it back after flowering.
    I have a small 'Sweet Kate', planted last fall and will be interested to see how she behaves. Love the combination of bloom and foliage color!
    We were lucky with the Woodchuck Storm :) Didn't get lambasted too badly at all. Hope you fared equally well. The middle states and some others sure got walloped! Oh yes, this winter is LONG! Hang in there friend.....the redwings will be here shortly :)

  22. We just moved here and already I'm spoiled. I was just complaining about winter when I realized that it's actually only really been winter for a month and half. Where I moved from, winter has been hitting heavy since October.


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