As any gardener will tell you, there are lots of good plants out there but there are few truly great plants. This got me to thinking what makes a plant a great plant?
Bob Solberg, hybridizer extraordinaire of hostas and owner of Green Hill Hostas in Franklinton, wrote an article on great hostas — and his assessment applies to plants in general:
1. A great plant has to grow well for practically everyone. Just because a plant is new on the market doesn’t mean it will be a great plant and it hasn’t necessarily gone through the years of testing before being introduced. Four or five years ago, hybridizers rushed new echinaceas to the market, overhyping them as the best thing since E. “Kim’s Knee” only to see them quickly fizzle out. Simply put, many hybridizers go for the flash instead of perseverance and longevity.
2. The plant has to have an eye-catching quality: A great plant has to have appeal. Camellia x vernalis ‘Yule Tide’ is fabulous because its red blooms appear in December, just in time for the holidays.
3. A great plant has to be able to survive. Hybridizers like to introduce white centers in hosta leaves, but many of these hostas don’t have enough chloroplasts to sustain them so they simply melt away. Renowned horticulturalist Michael Dirr discovered a brilliant yellow lantana in Chapel Hill—and promptly named it “Chapel Hill.” Widely advertised to survive in Zone 7, I have yet to meet anyone in that zone that has had success with it as a perennial. It might be a great plant for Zone 8, but it’s not for Zone 7.
4. A great plant is easily identifiable. In other words, the plant has something that makes it stand out. Lantana “Miss Huff” is a great lantana for Zone 7 because it survives in this zone, doesn’t seed recklessly and has blooms that change color as they progress. Solberg’s hosta “Guacamole” is well named — once you see it you will always be able to recognize it.
5. Obviously a great plant has a great color. It’s hard to gather fame with a “blah” color. Looking at some of the classic hybrid tea roses in established gardens, you’re sure to see “Queen Elizabeth,” “Mister Lincoln” or “Tiffany.” The color doesn’t have to last throughout the growing season. Muhlenbergia capillaris is, I would submit, a great ornamental grass that has a nondescript appearance until September when its pink (or white) halo enshrouds the plant.
Great plants are the classics of the gardening world — and it’s always fun to speculate which of the current introductions will be around 20 years from now. Here are some of my nominations:
1. Phlox paniculata “John Fanick” is a lovely, tough phlox that blooms for six weeks beginning in July. Not only do butterflies love it, it also perfumes the summer air.
2. Hostas “Ambrosia,” a sport of “Guacamole” and “Curly Fries” perform beautifully in full light. The agave-like “Curly Fries” has a unique shape for a hosta while “Ambrosia” will settle well in any garden.
3. Euphorbia “Diamond Frost” — yes, an annual can be a great plant. Use it in sunny areas to plug up holes in the perennial border. By August you will thank me.
4. Rosa “Belinda’s Dream” — this shrub was the first to earn the Earth-Kind designation and is truly disease resistant. It has gorgeous flowers and a pleasing shrub form. Please note: “Disease resistant” does not refer to rose rosette disease, alas.
5. Hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle” — this hydrangea makes a fabulous statement and because it blooms on new wood, you can prune it late in the summer if you wish.
While you are planting your garden, consider the classic plants. Consider what plants you’d nominate for the “great” category — and let us know your picks. Try to find the next great plant. Not only is this a fun exercise but also it will make you appreciate your plants more.