It's the Plants, Darling

Perennial of the year? Whose year?

• 2006 Dianthus Firewitch (“Feuerhexe”)
• 2005 Helleborus hybridus
• 2004 Athyrium niponicum “Pictum”
• 2003 Leucanthemum “Becky”
• 2002 Phlox paniculata “David”
• 2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster”
• 2000 Scabiosa columbaria “Butterfly Blue”
• 1999 Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii “Goldsturm”
• 1998 Echinacea purpurea “Magnus”
• 1997 Salvia “May Night”

This is how the magic is made: a committee of the Perennial Plant Association selects a short list. That list is then sent in the form of a ballot to its 1,800 members.

Criteria? The plant must be suitable for a wide range of climates; it must be low-maintenance; it must be pest- and disease-resistant; it must be readily available; it must grow in multiple seasons; and it must be easily propagated.

And within these criteria lies the problem, at least as far as I’m concerned. Most low-maintenance, readily available plants that grow and flower over a long season aren’t all that exciting. Note, for example, that only two of the plants listed above have a fragrance (well, a pleasant one anyway), and I’m willing to bet that the fragrance is weaker than most of the other cultivars within the genus.

I’m not the only one who wonders about these selections: in 2000, Boston Globe writer Steve Hatch quotes an anonymous garden critic saying on a listserv:
“I thought the main point of their selection was not that it was unusual, but that it was mostly hardy, easy to grow, floriferous, did well in most climates, not persnickety—an outstanding plant in those respects. From that standpoint I can understand most of their choices. Perhaps there should be a separate award for the ‘new, unusual, exciting’ discoveries?”

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that vistors to your garden will stop and say “Wow, what’s that?!” in stunned tones when they spot your stand of coneflowers.

So they’re boring—but reliable, and that’s something, right? Not so fast. Take Miss 2000, Scabiosa “Butterfly Blue.” In all but perfect conditions, this plant is extremely short-lived and not nearly as floriferous as advertised. Scabiosa has fostered outraged execrations on many a garden forum.

Most of the plants on this list do perform as advertised, however (though only two thrive in shade, which is a big problem for me). They are reliable, long-blooming, available, all that—stalwart backbones of many a perennial garden. But as I view this list, I know in my heart that—except for hellebores, which I adore—I won’t be buying or even craving any of them.

Of course, as I write this, all my delicate and unusual plants, not readily available, not easily grown everywhere, and certainly not low-maintenance, are bearing the brunt of a week-long minus-zero windchill. In the spring I’ll probably wish I’d planted all ten of those winners, in massive quantities.

Oh, almost forgot: here’s 2007′s winner: Nepeta “Walker’s Low. “

And I just forgot about it again.

Posted by on February 7, 2007 at 4:35 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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14 Responses to “Perennial of the year? Whose year?”

  1. I have no problem with using ordinary plants in my garden, in fact I like quite a few of them. I started gardening in 1986 and my first garden was deemed a big success (first prize) by the local gardening club.

    However, although my garden was beautiful, several members of the gardening club thought it was a pity that I had mainly run of the mill plants. Huh? The best garden and still not good enough because the plants were *common*? I’m not grokking that, sorry. LOL

    If people want to fill their gardens with very special plants, well more power to them. If they want to fill them with the most ordinary plants you can possibly think of, also fine. If they want a bit of both, well no prob! The truest criteria is, IMO, that the gardener _likes_ the plant however special or common it might be.

    Just my 2 eurocents.

  2. firefly says:

    I have to agree with Yolanda, above — boring is in the eye of the beholder — and for me, if it’s a choice between ‘boring’ and ‘banging my head on the wall, coddling and/or constantly replacing interesting things that won’t grow,’ I’d probably think about redefining ‘boring’ in a big hurry. To paraphrase Allan Armitage, a garden is no place for unrequited love.

    Maybe the wow factor that won Yolanda’s ‘common plants’ the best garden prize is the gardener’s skill in combining plantings so the overall effect is beautiful.

  3. eliz says:

    Yes, when we choose plants for our own garden, beauty is indeed “in the eye of the beholder.”

    When the “perennial of the year” is chosen, that’s a bit different. I was referring to that selection process. I tend to think they err too much on the side of safety, but I understand their reasons.

  4. firefly says:

    Well, if the Association’s mission is to promote the use of perennials (just guessing on this, because I couldn’t find a mission statement at the Web site), I can see why they’d go with a ‘safe’ pick. It’s that lowest common denominator thing again. In that light, I certainly understand the objections raised.

    I tend to disregard awards, especially intra-field awards, but that’s because I’m a cynical old crank who has to weed through press releases every day. ;-)

  5. Ellis Hollow says:

    Some of the key criteria are more important to plant sellers than to gardeners. Easily propagated, for example.

    But the one that gets me is ‘widely adapted’. That means we can market it anywhere.

    All gardening is local. I don’t care much that a plant is widely adapted. I care that it’s adapted to niches within my garden.

  6. Although seeing exotic flowers from other climates does induce in me that “Wow, that’s cool” reaction in me, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without our common flowers either. My favorite flowers of all time are probably also the most common ones where I live. They are the “Lily of the Valley” and the “Black-eyed Susan”. Whenever I see fields of Black-eyed Susans — or even just small patches of them in front of people’s homes or small businesses, they still bring an ear-to-ear smile to my face. It’s as if I’m always seeing them for the very first time. Perhaps my reaction ‘stems’ from sentimentality, as they always remind me of the carefree days of early childhood when the cheery faces of the Black-eyed Susans were right at eye-level as I walked among them. Lilies of the Valley remind me of my (again, carefree) pre-teen years going on hikes through the local woods with my friends.

  7. Graham Rice says:

    I think there are other, less obvious criteria at work here – after all, members of the PPA are nurserypeople, landscape contractors and so on. Amateur gardeners are not allowed to join as full voting members. These professionals are not going to vote for plants which are difficult to propagate, or difficult to grow or manage in their professional circumstances.

    And of course the idea is, basically, to sell plants. A peony or a trillium is never going to get the award, however beautiful, until tissue culture makes these plants widely available at a good price.

    The 2008 Perennial Plant of the Year, by the way, is a great plant: Geranium ‘Rozanne’.

  8. eliz says:

    Well, yes. After the plant is chosen, I can count on seeing flat after flat of it in the local nurseries.

    I must say I agree about Rozanne. I ordered it this year. These plants do very well; I love their flowers and foliage almost equally.

    Heronswood used to have zillions of geranium cultivars.

  9. The PPA was formed by the nursery industry to sell perennials. That is not a bad thing. They choose perennials that, as noted above, are going to give good performance to beginning gardeners.

    What the PPA designation “Perennial of the Year” also does is let nurseries prepare in advance for extra volume of whatever the perennial is each year. Now that they have a decent amount of years under their belt, XYZ Nursery in Des Moines, IA, can tell just how many pots of Geranium ‘Rozanne’ to have on hand in spring and during the season. And will know to order it in the first place.

    It’s all marketing. It’s all designed so that there is one perennial each year that is going to sell scads better than others, or, at the very least, sell a helluva lot better than it would on its own merit. Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. But the entire reason behind the award is to increase profits. Profit, lest we forget, is good.

    My only objection is the years they snub us true gardeners in Zone 4, although they’re usually pretty inclusive.

  10. Barry Glick says:

    For more about Hellebores, the 2005 PPA Plant of the Year:

    http://www.sunfarm.com

  11. John Friel says:

    Hi folks. I’m a long-time Perennial Plant Association member, and more recently a member of the Board of Directors. A couple of notes re the above rants:
    – Elizabeth, you skipped a crucial stage in “how the magic is made:” A committee does indeed select a short list and send it as a ballot to the members. But that short list comes from a longer list nominated BY the members.
    – firefly, for our Mission Statement, click on “About Us” and you’ll find the following: “A professional trade association dedicated to improving the perennial plant industry by providing education to enhance the production, promotion and utilization of perennial plants.”
    – Elizabeth, you make an excellent point about Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’. It’s not as reliably hardy nor as trouble-free as originally believed. But it performs very well in many areas. Seven years after it was Plant of the Year, it’s still a big seller industry-wide. No promotion lasts that long if the plant doesn’t work.
    – It’s not really all about promotion. Yes, the PPA is an industry association, and most of our members need to keep the bottom line in mind. But we’re not all mega-growers, or even plant sellers. We also count as members many educators, students, garden writers, photographers, plant breeders, designers, and representatives of public gardens and arboreta.
    – Do you want an exciting new plant, or a proven reliable plant? Choose one. Introducing new plants is wonderful, invigorating, profitable and essential. But promoting a hot cultivar that hasn’t been tested thoroughly, and/or can’t be found at retail anywhere, is a great way to disappoint gardeners and damage credibility.
    Thanks for the loan of the soapbox. Love this site.

  12. TKinBaltimore says:

    I really have to comment about the dig on catmint (Nepeta) at the end of the article. Talk about a plant that gives me an ear-to-ear grin every time I see it! Perhaps not terribly memorable, but oh so PERENNIALLY satisfying.

    Otherwise I’m pleased with this article and the comments that followed.

  13. Parsons Wayneright says:

    Your holier than thou posts scare me! I cannot believe the vile hatred you four horn worms have toward any one with any authority in the horticulture industry. You even question the intentions of community gardens and CSAs. So how much do you contribute to society other than being feminine Rush Limbiughs of the garden world.
    I suggest professional counseling for all of you to rid yourselves of the anger you have toward men. I actually question how much you enjoy gardening if you hate tose of us in the industry so much. Oh thats right I forgot you are the ones who are right and it is the rest of us who need counseling. Sorry this is the emperors new clothes isn’t it!
    PW

  14. *cough cough cough* Project much? *cough cough*

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