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Originally published Sunday, April 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Plant Life

Showy, hardy new perennials promise to delight Northwest gardeners

New perennials offer drought tolerance, loads of bloom and plenty of texture for planting this year in Pacific Northwest gardens.

WHOLESALE GIANT Monrovia is debuting the Dan Hinkley collection this spring, starting with seven cool new plants ideal for our Northwest climate. Monrovia has a well-deserved reputation for introducing unusual plants, but because of the nursery's California location, some are borderline hardy and a bit of a risk here in the Northwest. But we can count on the Hinkley collection, which is being trialed in Oregon, because it's made up of plants Hinkley has himself been involved with breeding or collecting from the wilds in climates similar to our own. Three from the collection lead the list of perennials to look for this year: • The hummingbird magnet Fuchsia magellanica 'Windcliff Flurry' is named after Hinkley's own Kingston-area garden. This frost-hardy heavy bloomer is smothered in red and purple flowers from June through Thanksgiving.

• Mukdenia rosii 'Crimson Fans' is a textural ground cover that is much prettier than it sounds. Hinkley describes the foot-high clumper as "excellent for moist soils in full sun. The rounded, lobed leaves turn more intensely red as the summer progresses."

• And how about a frost-hardy flowering maple? Look for Abutilon x hybridum 'Cascade Dawn,' which is tall and branching, with narrow, dark-green leaves bedecked in orange and yellow lantern-shaped flowers.

• From Oregon breeder Log House Plants comes the world's first dwarf eryngium, with the same silvery blue mystique as its larger cousins. This tiny, spiny sea holly is drought-tolerant, and because Eryngium 'Blue Hobbit' grows only a foot tall and has long-lasting flowers, it looks great in containers, massed at the front of the border or cut for the vase. • Also petite, drought-tolerant and true-blue is a new dwarf catmint. You know how most catmints are gratifyingly long-blooming but topple over and sprawl partway through the summer? Nepeta 'Blue Dragon' from Terra Nova, another Oregon plant powerhouse, may be the answer to that dilemma. This compact perennial has short stems and large flowers, so is ideal for pairing with roses or lining pathways.

• For one more pint-size hit of blue, there's Agapanthus 'Baby Pete,' a dwarf lily-of-the-Nile that grows only 9 inches tall; mauve-blue flower heads top short, wide leaves.

• To lighten up all that cool blue, consider the paddle-shaped, evergreen leaves of the new Bergenia 'Lunar Glow.' The hype is that its creamy yellow foliage stays bright all through summer, then turns to rich burgundy as the weather cools. In springtime, the fat clumps of foliage are topped by the typical violet-pink flower spikes.

• We've had a deluge of coneflowers in recent years, and some are much stronger than others, so you might not want to over-invest. Still . . . How tempting is a vibrant golden Echinacea 'Mac 'n' Cheese' and a vigorous, large-flowered, bright red E. 'Tomato Soup' with looks as appealing as their names? Then there's the tropical orange E. 'Hot Papaya,' advertised as having stems strong enough to hold up fluffy double flowers.

• If you've lusted after the dark-leafed, honey-scented bugbanes, they have a new name — Actea (used to be Cimicifuga) — and there's a new type that's billed as more vigorous and persistent than the other ebony-toned ones. Actea simplex 'Black Negligee' has lacy purple-black foliage, and fragrant, white flower wands in autumn.

• If you have sun, wet soil and plenty of room, you might try the very beautiful new iris from South Africa called Dietes 'Katrina.' Its exotic-looking white flowers are marked in orange, and each flower blooms briefly but is quickly followed by many more over a long season. A portion of 'Katrina's' proceeds go to help restore wetlands in Louisiana.

• I've saved the best for last. Itoh peonies are hybrids between tree and perennial peonies, meaning they're small enough to fit easily into gardens, yet produce up to 50 glorious flowers in a single season. Paeonia 'Kopper Kettle' has the most seriously ruffled flowers on the planet; they just happen to be a luscious copper-orange streaked with yellow, and at 8 inches wide, nearly the size of a dinner plate. This peony is vigorous, disease- and deer-resistant, with stems so sturdy it doesn't need staking.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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