It's the Plants, Darling, Real Gardens

Robinson Crusoe’s Ten Favorite Perennials


It’s the dead of winter, and you might be wishing you were stranded—with amenities—on a desert island with Robinson Crusoe.

But Robinson Crusoe is not on a desert island. He is stuck in Kentucky. Crusoe is not afraid of cannibals or mutineers, but he is tired of scraping ice off the car windshield.

You may dream of fresh beach towels and fruity tropical drinks, but when Crusoe stares out the window, he sees only ashen skies.

Crusoe worries about Donald Trump’s presidency, also, but he is resolute. He vows to be a good citizen and make his garden great again, but these are difficult times.

Snowdrop, crocus and witch hazel blooms are weeks away. Crusoe is growing moody.

He remembers the advice of his father during the atomic bomb scare in the very early 60s. Crusoe’s elementary school teacher polled the class every Monday morning, asking how much progress each family had made on its bomb shelter. Eventually, everyone had a retreat from certain Russian annihilation, except, of course, for Crusoe.

Crusoe was sure he would be the only one in his 4th grade class who would be blown to smithereens. He pleaded with his wise father who said, “Son, if they drop the A-bomb on us, we’re going to the basement with a bottle of Bourbon.”

Crusoe went to the liquor store early this New Year and bought an entire case of Bourbon.

Crusoe has led an adventurous garden life and wants to try a few new perennials this year (the new catalogs are piling up), but he backtracks.

He realizes there are perennials in his garden he would never be without. He has grown these in Kentucky for many years, and he plans to plant more this year. These perennials may not work on your island, but they are survivors in Zone 6B, where the winters can dip to -5F (-20C), and occasionally colder, and the summers are hot and humid.

Crusoe harbors no illusion that Donald Trump will ever set foot in a garden, but he feels good sharing his “pick hit” list with…well, with you. Gardeners are a generous lot.

Crusoe highly recommends the following ten perennials, listed in seasonal importance, with one fern tacked on at the end.



Rohdea japonica Thick, leathery evergreen foliage and hidden red winter berries for semi-shade to full shade. Tough as nails and slow as sin. Redemption? The blessed sacred lily clumps will endure one eternal winter after another.



Mary Vaananen photo

Mary Vaananen photo

Aquilegia canadensis ‘Pink Lanterns’ — My favorite columbine species for sun and semi-shade comes with a pink twist in early May. Seeds around and every seedling is a joy.




Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ — I wouldn’t mind an acre of this shade-loving, variegated Solomon’s seal. Too bad. My city lot is only 1/3 acre. The leafy stems seal are useful for cut arrangements, too.




Iris tectorum — I’m reminded of Frank Bell of Lexington, NC, each May when my Japanese roof iris comes into bloom. He dug up a piece for me years ago. It’s still going strong. Thanks, Frank!




Pensetemon x mexicali ‘Sunburst Ruby’ — A surprisingly durable, beardtongue hybrid with U.S. and Mexican parentage. Birther issues? The border wall can’t stop it.




Eupatorium purpureum (Eutrochium purpureum)– No one would touch the native Joe-Pye weed 40 years ago. Weed what? Magnificent is what. Swallowtail butterflies love it.




Hymenocallis caroliniana — This uncommon Kentucky native is a dazzling surprise each August in evenly moist soil. I was given a packet of seeds 10 years ago. It took four year to bring the spider lily to bloom. Small price to pay.




Hemerocallis ‘Autumn Prince’ — Just when you’ve had your summer fill of hundreds of blowsy, multi-colored, frilly cultivars, ‘Autumn Prince’—simple, tall and graceful—comes along to save the daylily kingdom. A regal old-timer.




Aster oblongifolius (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ — This, October-blooming sun-loving, aromatic aster received the 2016 Garden Club of America’s Plant of the Year. Extremely drought resistant. Good pick, GCA.




Athyrium x ‘Ghost’ — The silver-gray fronds of the Japanese painted fern are spectacular. Don’t believe me? Plant a dozen in moist shade, and see for yourself.


The list goes on. Crusoe can’t ignore other favorites from his Kentucky desert island: Crocus tommasinianus, hellebores, Iberis sempervirens ‘Alexander’s White’, Veronica umbrosa ‘Georgia Blue’, pulsatillas, Asarum canadense, epimediums, Phlox x ‘Minnie Pearl’, Cynanchum ascyrifolium, Geranium x ‘Biokovo’, baptisias, Echincaea pallida ‘Hula Dancer’, Kniphofia hirsuta ‘Fire Dance’, Kalimeris pinnatifida ‘Hortensis’, Spigelia marilandica, Phlox paniculata ‘Speed Limit 45’, Allium x ‘Millenium’, Euphorbia corollata, Hosta clausa, Aster tataricus ‘Jin Dai’,  Amsonia hubrichtii, Diarrhena americana and Athyrium x australis.

Crusoe wishes you a Happy New Year, with or without Bourbon.

Let your garden be a source of joy in 2017.

Posted by on January 9, 2017 at 8:10 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Real Gardens.
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7 responses to “Robinson Crusoe’s Ten Favorite Perennials”

  1. Chris Maciel says:

    What joy to see your plants in your great photos…And your selections are great, the only one I’m not familiar with is the Spider lily but the flowers look gorgeous.
    And I love the daylily…will have to search for that by name.

    Thanks for a mid-winter treat.

  2. Marty Simione says:

    Allen ,you ,I and other kin folk who speak in terms of joy,eternal,surprise,butterflies etc.will always need a garden to serve as a daily dose of wonder.even in winter there is magic in a garden

  3. Allen, thank you so much. I know these plants, but not some of the varieties you introduce here.

    Have tried to grow Joe Pye weed for years. The area where I planted it in my garden is too shady, I think. Yours looks fabulous.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Jennifer Brennan says:

    Allen (Crusoe),
    Thank you for sharing ALL these plants. After another 0 to 7 degree day, it gives me hope up here in Chicago.
    You are always inspirational. And so is bourbon!

  5. I love the Sunburst Ruby photo. I will definitely look to see if I can grow that. My shade garden is full of the Japanese painted fern. I just cannot get enough of that. Great ideas for spring.

  6. anne says:

    Thanks for the visual reminder of warmer times to come Allen! I feel your pain–along with my back, after shoveling some of the 14 inches of white stuff we just got (on top of the 2 feet already there). The silver lining to all that digging? I’m in great shape for digging dirt in the spring!

  7. Carolyn Wylie says:

    Dear Allen Bush,
    Please write a book! Or at least compile one out of things you have already written. I’ve been hoping for a book ever since the end of the Holbrook catalogs, and it’s surely time by now. (If you won’t do that, at least rant oftener.) This is the best rant yet!