Ten Easy Perennials!
Written for the Davis Enterprise, June 26, 2003
Some of our favorite perennials!
Perennials bloom year after year at the same season each year. They don't bloom as long as annuals do, but they don't need to be replaced. Many increase, spreading into clumps or patches. Some are moderately invasive, such as the pink Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) which became popular 10 - 15 years ago, so it's wise to ask about how they spread.
Most are available when they are blooming, so checking in at different seasons can be a simple way to fill out your flower border.
"True" perennials are herbaceous (i.e., soft): they don't form a woody shrub. Many plants included with herbaceous perennials are actually small shrubs: lavender and rosemary are examples of sun-lovers that mix nicely in the perennial border. These look good year-around, while many perennials look ugly in the winter. So a mix is best, and adding annuals gives even greater impact.
Some groups have woody and herbaceous members: the six pages of Salvias in the new Sunset Western Garden Book include shrubs, perennials, annuals, and some they call "shrubby perennials."
An ideal perennial blooms for a long time with little care. Staking, grooming, dead-heading (a charming term for removal of dead flowers), and special feeding? Nah! I like those which spread slowly but steadily, so that you can allow your border to fill up with the best of them--splitting and dividing as you like, or just cutting the whole thing back once or twice a year and letting it go.
New varieties with grey, bronze, variegated, and purple leaves can provide texture and color. Ornamental grasses can be mixed in, taking care to avoid a busy or weedy look.
Here are ten foolproof perennials! Someone told me I should include pronunciation guides, but please be aware that there IS NO correct pronunciation of botanical names. We certainly don't pronounce Latin the way the Romans did, so these are just examples of how the names are commonly pronounced by people who sound like experts.
Alstroemeria (Al-strow-mare-ee-uh, or Astro Malaria, as one of my customers "spoonerizes" it).
Peruvian lilies are great cut flowers, easy to grow in sun or partial shade, which spread steadily but slowly.
They are mainly in warm shades of yellow, pink, and orange, with some nearly red, purple, lavender, and white available. They bloom here from roughly May to mid July, with the last blossoms still looking good in August.
There are several species involved in modern hybrids, so there is a lot of variation. For example, some have a summer dormancy while others are green all year. New dwarf types grow to 18"; cutting varieties may stretch to 4'.
Some of the showy colors you see at florist shops are not available from nurseries, as they are patented plants licensed to cut-flower growers, and it is not legal to propagate them.
Coreopsis (Kor-ee-op-sis). The old common name of "tickseed" has never been real popular with nurseries....
Yellow or orange daisies in great profusion, on plants which range from creeping to monstrous. All are easy and free-blooming in full sun.
I grew up with C. gigantea, a huge, Dr. Seuss plant which towered to ten feet in the canyons of La Jolla (appropriate, since Theodore Geisel was one of our most famous La Jollans).
At the other end of the spectrum is C. auriculata 'Nana', a 3" tall plant which creeps out to form small clumps, blooming spring through fall. In the middle are the varieties of C. grandiflora, which form 6 - 12" stems that are great for cutting.
These DO require dead-heading, but you can do it with shears or scissors every few weeks to keep them blooming--or let them go to seed and they will sprout rather freely (this is fancy-gardener-speak for "everywhere"--also watch out for the term "naturalizes").
Carnations, pinks, Sweet williams.
Easy flowers in shades of pink and red, and white, for full sun or light shade. The forms sold as annuals are actually short-lived perennials, meaning they will grow and bloom for 2 - 3 years, and they can bloom in every season.
Florist's carnations are tricky in the home garden because they are tall and floppy, but there are wonderful dwarf versions with spicy fragrance. There's a nice border right on the corner of L and 8th Streets. Sweet william is biennial: planted in fall, it blooms with the roses the following spring, and will happily reseed.
Green-leaved Dianthus are usually short-lived but bloom over a long season; grey-leaved types are usually long-lived and bloom for a few weeks each year.
Hemerocallis (Hem-ur-oh-kall-iss). Daylilies.
Clump-forming plants with grass-like foliage, for sun or light shade. Tolerant of somewhat wet soil or some drought.
The flowers are what you might call an open-and-shut case: open in morning, shut by evening. Did you know that there are over 34,000 varieties? The primary breeding improvements have been in color range (now true red, purple, and even nearly pure white), flower size, and much longer season of bloom. Dwarf varieties have become popular, with 'Stella d'Oro' becoming very popular due to its compact habit and nearly year-long bloom.
Phygelius capensis (fi-jee-lee-us kay-pen-sis or kuh-pen-sis).
Cape fuchsia should be in the garden of every hummingbird lover, except that it isn't common in the nursery trade. Worth looking for because of the bright pink or red tubular flowers nearly all year in sun or light shade. The species is tall and floppy; new hybrids are more compact. 'Moonraker', with pale yellow flowers, has become the most common variety--which is too bad, since the hummers mostly ignore it! Divides easily and roots readily from cuttings.
Solidago (Sole-i-dog-oh) is Goldenrod, native to the eastern U.S.
The bright yellow flowers span late summer and early fall, a period when not much else is blooming. Tough, slow spreaders which are tolerant of heat and poor soil, and now available in dwarf forms. Plant them with Asters and smaller ornamental grasses (Stipa tenuissima is a great, feathery-looking choice) for a miniature meadow.
A few unusual perennials are worth considering for shade borders, which can be more challenging due to the limited palette of shade-loving flowers.
Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon'
(Hoot-inn-ee-uh kor-dot-uh, or kor-date-uh) doesn't have a common name; it does have brightly colored leaves and pretty white flowers, and spreads steadily by underground stems. It looks like a colorful ivy ground cover, without the invasiveness of ivy.
Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'
(Hack-on-uh-klow-uh mack-ruh Or-ee-oh-luh--try it!). Japanese forest grass is a graceful, soft grass with yellow foliage which--unlike most grasses--prefers shade here. It will even grow in dense shade, and is not invasive.
(Trad-uh-skant-ee-uh) is Spiderwort, a close relative of the old 70's houseplant, Wandering Jew. Grassy-looking clumps sport showy blue, white, or pink flowers. After a big flush of bloom they flop over; whack them to the ground and they'll pop up and bloom again and again, growing fine in shade or sun.
(An odd note: the change in color of Tradescantia blossoms has been used by activists in Japan to monitor radiation leaks from nuclear power plants. Type "Tradescantia flowers and nuclear power plants" into a search engine and you'll get lots of info on this!)
However you pronounce them, plant perennials for ease of gardening and long-lived beauty!
Click here for more information about perennials.
See also Showy flowering perennials
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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