Cover Story Plant Life Taste

Indispensables, the series
The Indispensables (Aug. 13, 2000)
More Indispensables (July 8, 2001)
Indispensables, continued (May 26, 2002)


Indispensables Revisited
This is the second in an occasional series of columns that ask prominent gardeners to choose their essential plants.

COULD YOU pare a list of your favorite plants down to a mere 10? Linda Cochran, whose tropicalesque garden on Bainbridge Island is one of the most photographed in the Northwest, sighs as she says "I have so many others that I love." But she quickly listed 10 plants she would unhesitatingly use if starting over in a new garden (the only criteria being that each is widely available in nurseries or by mail order).

Cochran surprisingly named only one of the 10 plants chosen by Steve Antonow for his list of indispensables, discussed in an earlier column. I would have expected far more overlap from two gardeners noted for making gardens with visual flash, as well as for their high standards of plant performance.

"My goal is to put the plants in the ground and then leave them there," explains Cochran of her sturdy choices. She named nonfussy plants that grow happily in a wide variety of conditions. Her choices are notable for their flamboyant appearance, as well as for what she left out - no vines, roses or groundcovers.

"I used to think windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) were a cliché," says Cochran, "but I've come to like them." She surrounds them with plants such as phygelius, which offer a pleasing contrast to the pleated texture of palm fronds. Topping out at 15 to 20 feet, these palms are dependably hardy, provide evergreen winter interest, and aren't fussy about soil or exposure.

Cochran features bananas (Musa basjoo) in her garden, where they grow 15 feet tall with five or six trunks sprouting broad, upright leaves. Cannas used to be her choice to create this tropical effect, but she has come to appreciate that bananas have a much longer season. They sprout leaves in March that last until the first killing frost. In late autumn she simply mulches with leaves around the base, and even after the harshest winters the bananas grow back lustily from the few feet of stem that survived the cold.

Honey bush (Melianthus major) is the lone plant Cochran chose in common with Antonow. Like her first two picks, it is grown not for flower but for its foliage, in this case a broad splay of toothed, silvery green that smells strongly of peanut butter. Japanese angelica (Aralia elata 'Aureomarginata') sports the yellow variegation that Cochran most admires. It is an elegant, spreading woodland tree or shrub (to 20 feet), which she underplants with blue hosta.

Not all Cochran's choices are such large plants. She favors the winter-blooming Hellebore x sternii Blackthorn Strain for its red stems, dark leaves, plus its deer and drought-tolerance. The palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis 'Oehme') is desirable for golden foliage that looks especially good massed around purple-leafed bananas or cannas.

Lest you think Cochran is enamored only with foliage, two searingly colored summer flowers made her list. The hot-pink blossom of Dahlia 'Fascination' is shown off by its dark foliage. It stays short enough to go without staking and blooms in June, far earlier than most dahlias. Cochran plants masses of Verbena 'Homestead Purple,' a low-growing annual that is deer resistant, needs little water and blooms all summer long.

Like many sophisticated gardeners, Cochran is a euphorbia fancier, and her No. 1 choice is Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii 'John Tomlinson,' selected for its waxy blue foliage and large flower head. Cochran has found Cortaderia richardii to be the finest of all the pampas grasses, with evergreen foliage, a habit that is tidy and refined, plus graceful white plumes for height and accent. Pragmatic in all her choices, Cochran explains that you can leave this pampas grass alone, never cutting it back, and it will still have a year-round presence. That's the kind of description sure to appeal to busy gardeners looking for dramatic effect.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is

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