Hidden Gems:  Underused Perennials and Shrubs

One of our readers asked us to recommend some plants that were less commonly used, so I thought about my time in retail garden centers and the great plants that really needed a push to leave the bench. It wasn't a lack of showy flowers, or a wimpy constitution that made them invisible--they just didn't have the name recognition that prompts confidence.

Folks seem a little afraid of something "new." If they haven't seen it planted all over the neighborhood, they tend to be unsure as to how well it will do for them.  

Here in Maryland, our sunny gardens seem full of black-eyed Susans (well, it IS our state flower), May Night salvias, purple coneflowers, Knockout roses, hydrangeas, Miscanthus (maiden grass), and dwarf fountain grass.  The usual culprits for foundation plantings are azaleas, Manhattan euonymous, and Japanese hollies.  And there's nothing wrong with any of those--by and large, they're sturdy and relatively low-maintenance. 

But now and again, isn't it nice to be just a little different?  If you're going to put in the time and effort, it's worth making a unique space that sets you just a bit apart.  So be not afraid, and use these recommendations as you see fit:

 Adenophora 'Gaudi Violet'

 or Ladybells, if you prefer. This is a recent   breeding improvement on a plant I had and   loved years ago at a different home. Very   long-blooming flower spikes are elegant in   the garden.  18" x 18" for zones 4 to     probably 7, full to part sun. Since they are   related to campanulas, they generally don't   like heat, so afternoon shade is perfect if   you have hot summers. It's not floppy like   some of the tall campanulas tend to be.   Attracts hummingbirds.

 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com


 Abelia 'Kaleidoscope' 

 My favorite abelia--orangey-pink, yellow   and  green variegated foliage and prolific   white flowers in summer. About 2' x 2',  to   zone 6, and generally evergreen to zone   7. Abelias are a lovely alternative to   azaleas, and can take the sun where most   azaleas should not be sited. There's an   array of sizes and foliage colors--one to suit   almost every purpose.  They take pruning   very well. The flowers also attract   butterflies and hummingbirds!

 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com



 Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' and   'Tasmanian Tiger'

 What's not to love? Fascinating flowers,     fantastic foliage, heat & drought tolerance,   deer resistance, and usually evergreen. The   tiny red flowers are housed by colorful   modified bracts, a characteristic trait of the   genus, which includes the poinsettia.  About   1-2' x 1-2';  zone 5. Lots of varieties with   varying foliage colors, sizes, and culture.

 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com


 Hypericum 'Fiesta'

 Ok, so I guess you've noticed a trend here.   Rightfully so. One or two variegated plants   can brighten up a ho-hum all-green   landscape! This evergreen beauty is best   grown as a spreading ground cover, and     sports yellow blooms in summer. 8" x 24";   zone 5, full sun. Part sun is fine, but will be   a bit less colorful. Try this around a boring   arborvitae privacy screen, and go from dull   to dazzling! 

 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com


  Mahonia 'Soft Caress'

  This mahonia replaces the usual stiff holly-   like evergreen leaves with soft, graceful   foliage reminiscent of ferns or palm fronds.   Fragrant yellow flower spikes light up the   early winter landscape, followed by   beautiful blue berries. Part sun to shade.   
3-4' x 3-4', zones  7-9.  Nice alternative to     azaleas or aucuba in shaded foundation   plantings; adds texture to shady gardens.   Partner with variegated or gold hosta,   brunnera, hellebore, heuchera. In pots,   containers, combine with syngonium  and     impatiens, or tuberous begonias & trailing   coleus.    Photo Courtesy ItSaul Plants, Inc.                                      



 Physocarpus 'Lady in Red'

 Deciduous native shrub with bright coral-   red  spring foliage maturing to burgundy,   pink spring flower clusters followed by red   berries, and exfoliating bark. This variety is   more compact and tidy than others. 4-5' x   4'-5 ft, zones 2-8, full to part sun. In hotter   zones it may benefit from some afternoon   shade in summer. Physocarpus (Ninebark)   is good for stabilizing banks; withstands   harsh conditions.  Berries attract foraging   birds. 

 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com



 Physostegia 'Miss Manners'

 This striking native beauty is also called   "obedient plant," referring to how the     flowers hold their place when moved on the   stem. Unlike the species, this variety   displays a well-behaved clumping habit.   White snapdragon-like flowers bloom from   June to Sept.  24-36" x 24-36", zones 3-9.   Full  to part sun. Prefers moist, well-drained   soil--perfect for rain gardens and deer-     resistant plantings.   There is also a pink 
 flowering variety, 'Pink Manners.' 
  Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
 Stokesia 'Honeysong Purple'

 Big, fat flowers bloom for weeks on end,   and dead-heading extends that period.   Withstands a wide range of conditions, but   well-drained soil in winter is essential. In   addition to blue and purple, you may   occasionally find pink, pale yellow, or white   varieties. Clumping foliage 12" x 18" with   flowers blooming in and above to 24", up to   zone 5.   Photo courtesy Ball Horticulture




 Photo courtesy Plant Haven International, www.planthaven.com                                         
Styrax 'Fragrant Fountains', or Japanese snowbell, is a lesser-known   species of small   ornamental tree,   usually ranging from 15-25', depending on variety. The fragrant white flowers bloom in spring, and fall color is a lovely gold. With new varieties showing off chocolate or variegated foliage, pink flowers, and columnar or weeping habits, one is sure to fill that special spot in your landscape. Full to part sun, zones 5-8. A nice substitute for flowering dogwood, cherry, or crepe myrtle. "Fragrant Fountains" is a fast-growing weeper with an estimated mature size of 8' wide x 12" high. Try this instead of those weeping cherries! 


 Verbena 'Little One'

  Verbena bonariensis is one of the longest   blooming butterfly garden plants, but   its   tall stature and prolifically self-seeding   habit preclude its use in many gardens.   "Little One" is a sterile (non-seeding)   compact variety with the same season long   explosion of flowers. At 18-24 inches high &   wide, this one is easy to place in your   sunny, well-drained garden. Zones 7-11,   grow as annual in colder zones. 

Photo courtesy Planthaven International, www.planthaven.com