By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener
Last week, my colleague Emma Murphy wrote about her 5 favourite perennials (Day lilies, Blanket Flower, Coneflower/Echinacea, Asters and Rudbeckia/Black-Eyed Susans). Those are definitely cool plants, and are generally well-behaved and easy to maintain.
In this article, I’d like to introduce you to five unusual plants that I’ve grown to love and will pick up new varieties whenever I see them.
1. Epimedium also known as Barrenwort
Think “light and airy”. These plants are delicate, light-shade loving plants that make excellent companions to hosta due to their very different but complimentary leaf structure. Their flowers are tiny but extremely detailed. They look great all summer.
2. Eremurus also known as Fox Tail Lily
Tall and dramatic. Guaranteed to prompt “Wooooooow! What are those” responses. These plants grow in full sun, in well-drained soil and will not tolerate anything soggy. It’s not a plant you’ll likely see blooming in a garden centre but if you watch for it, many places do carry it. It’s a hardy bulb that does not need to be lifted and will multiply year after year to form a stunning clump. I have orange and yellow varieties, and am on the lookout for white.
3. Athyrium known as Lady Ferns
Ferns are perfect for the shade garden. Lacy fronds soften the texture of other go-to shade classics like Hosta, Astilbe and Tiarella. Ferns like a light to medium shade setting with loamy soil with lots of leaf mold. A few of my favourites are Dre’s Dagger, Japanese Painted. A relative is the Maidenhair fern which is delicate and striking.
4. Sempervivum also known as Hens & Chicks
These plants give and give and give. They look great all year round. They come in hundreds of colours. They’re easy to propagate (pull off a chick and replant). The only thing that I don’t like about this plant is their flower stalk — which I generally remove and it doesn’t seem to harm the plant at all. They will fill in tightly together, leaving zero room for weeds. Mix a bunch of colours together and see what happens!
5. Hellebore also known as Lenten Rose
These are stunning in the early spring, right around Lent which is where their name comes from. Unfortunately, many garden centres don’t stock them or may not stock them in future because they bloom before most people show up at the garden centres looking for plants. I like them because their leaves are often patterned, but they’re always thick & leathery — and they look great right through the summer. They’re a definite must for a serious gardener.
I know I said 5 unusual favourites. But as a gardener, there’s never a finite number of any kind of plant, right? I always have “n+1” favourites.
6. Saxifrage also known as Rockfoil
Whenever I come across these at a garden centre, it’s an easy decision. Into the cart! They are well-behaved, unique and have interesting patterning in their leaves. Their flowers are mostly inconspicuous — I grow them for their foliage. Many spread into mats that are geometrically-intricate. I have yet to come across one of these that have disappointed me.
My favourite places to get unique perennials? Garden Plus, Peterborough. Anna’s Perennials, Omemee. Lost Horizons, Acton. Griffins Greenhouse, Lakefield. Take some time when you go. Browse. Ask questions. ALWAYS google before you buy because the plant tag won’t tell you everything. Watch out for the words “aggressive”, “self-seeding”, and “vigorous”. Always check the climate zone. Peterborough is Canadian zone 5b. Add one zone to anything American or that you expect might be American. Experiment and enjoy the results.