by Neil Moran (moranneil(at)hotmail.com)
The year 2000 holds great promise for perennial flower lovers, thanks to the work of plant breeders around the world and the researchers at Penn State University who sort through the multitude of new offerings.
Since 1930, the folks in the horticulture department at Penn State have had the delightful and somewhat daunting task of evaluating the hundreds of new plant varieties that are introduced by seed companies each year. Penn State has traditionally only tested annual flowers and vegetable seed crops. However, since 1995 they've included the increasingly popular perennial varieties in their trials. Their work is done when they publish what they believe will be the perennial sweethearts of flower lovers everywhere. Best of all, many of their picks will end up in a garden center near you!
So hang on to your hat, and hoe. Here are some bold new perennials for the next millennium!
It looks like yarrow just got a face-lift, and a cussing out too! Silvery foliage sets Achillea 'anthea' apart from the old varieties of this perennial. Its compactness also makes it less invasive than its predecessors. It grew to 20 in. high in Penn State's trial garden and should do fine in yours, especially if you live in a zone 5 or above.
Leucanthemum x superbum
One of the more spectacular perennial bloomers in Penn State's trial gardens was a white daisy called 'snowcap.' According to Dr. Robert Berghage, assistant professor of horticulture at Penn State, it is the most uniform white daisy he's seen. The plants bloom simultaneously producing a show stopping effect. He said motorists passing the trial gardens often slow down to get a good glimpse of this hardy perennial.
The 'Golden Gain' cultivar will bloom from July into August. Its claim to fame is its deep yellow gold flowers floating above the foliage canopy. It will reach a height of 19 inches. A peak blooming time is from July to August.
Better known as purple coneflower, this plant is used to make some of the herbal medicines you've seen advertised on TV. Look for the 'magnus' cultivar which has been described by researchers as an attractive plant, but one who's color, form and habit isn't consistent. In Penn State's trials they witnessed the good, bad and ugly with this variety. Some plants that they started from seed performed well, producing good solid colors and an upright form. However, other seeds from the same batch had faded flower pedals and a drooping habit. The researchers at Penn gave this one an overall rating of 4.2 (5 being "excellent") during its peak blooming time in August.
I'm glad this one never came up in a spelling bee in elementary school! 'Annabel' produces a "profusion of pink flowers on abundant ground cover foliage in the spring." What I like about it is that it retains its foliage in the winter, providing a silver green color to those who admire the winter garden.
I have to admit I only recently discovered the pleasure of adding this plant to my flower boxes and garden beds. This year, ask for 'fan scarlet' which is a hybrid lobelia with red tinted foliage and scarlet flowers. They've had mixed results with this one at the trial gardens. However, given the appearance and popularity of lobelia in general, it's worth checking out.
For a good ground cover look no further than 'Dimity.' This seven-inch high perennial blooms pink in the summer, gradually changing to red-brown as it matures from June to August. During the winter months, if not completely covered by snow, you'll enjoy a "distinctive" copper brown foliage.
You might say that salvia is a perennial favorite. Very few serious perennial gardeners omit this one from their gardens. The 'May Night' cultivar sports abundant deep blue flower spikes from May to June. However, the seed heads are rather unsightly so it will need to be deadheaded. All of the new varieties above were tested in a zone 5 climate, thus winter hardiness may vary for your locale.
The varieties featured were all followed over a three-year period to ensure hardiness to Pennsylvania's temperate climate. These cultivars should start popping up at garden centers this spring as the results of the trials trickle down to growers across the country.