Cover Story:  Grand Prize Second Place Third Place Plant Life Taste


And the winners are . . .
Fifteen plants in three categories were inaugural selections in the Great Plant Picks program. Fact sheets on the plants are available on the Web at or by calling the program office at 206-363-4803.


Great Plant Picks
Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' (Black mondo grass)
Richard Hawke
Nepeta 'Walker's Low' (Catmint)

Jim Ledger
Helenium 'Moerheim Beauty' (Sneezeweed)
Great Plant Picks
Helleborus foetidus (Stinking hellebore)

Trees and Conifers

Rhoda Maurer
Acer griseum (Paperbark maple)
Alan Dodson
Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' (Fernleaf fullmoon maple)

Great Plant Picks
Pinus parviflora glauca (Japanese white pine)
Alan Dodson
Crataegus x lavalleei (Lavalle hawthorn)

Great Plant Picks
Cornus kousa var. chinensis 'Milky Way' (Kousa dogwood)

Shrubs and Vines

Marietta O'Byrne
Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight' (Japanese hydrangea vine)

Briggs Nursery, Inc.
Corylopsis pauciflora (Buttercup winter hazel)

Briggs Nursery, Inc.
Fothergilla gardenii (Dwarf fothergilla, all forms)

Briggs Nursery, Inc.
Rhododendron 'Ken Janek'

Kris R. Bachtell / The Morton Arboretum
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snow Queen' (Oakleaf hydrangea)

Great Plant Picks
Growers and experts find common ground in choosing the best plants for Northwest gardens

NO TASK IS MORE challenging than determining which plants deserve space in a garden. A great number of tempting plants beckon, space is all too limited, and mistakes can be troublesome, dull and expensive.

Great Plant Picks is the name of a new program designed to identify, evaluate and select the very best plants for our unique climate. Funded by the Miller Botanical Garden Trust, the program wants to make it easy for anyone to choose the finest plants available for his or her garden. The Royal Horticultural Society has authored such a guide for British gardeners for nearly 200 years, and now we have the beginnings of our own Northwest version.

The program is the brainchild of Richard Hartlage, director of the Miller Botanical Garden, whose first step was to invite a select group of 30 horticulturists to participate in choosing the plants. Nursery owners, growers and experts from botanical gardens in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia (all from west of the Cascades) nominated plants in three categories: trees and conifers, shrubs and vines, and perennials. (Later the program will evaluate bulbs, but will avoid annuals and vegetables, which Hartlage describes as "just too intensive.")

To be nominated a plant must be hardy in USDA zones 7 and 8 (that's us), long-lived, reasonably disease- and pest-resistant, have a long season (and preferably multiple seasons) of interest, be available in nurseries, and refrain from spreading about too aggressively. My favorite criteria is the one that says plants must be "vigorous and easy to grow by a gardener of average means and experience." This means we can trust Great Plant Picks to avoid the fussy, delicate and expensive plants that require coddling or specialized knowledge to grow well.

Compiling the preliminary lists was the easy part; in October all the horticulturists gathered in Seattle to narrow the roster down to three to five plants in each category. What happened next was spirited discussion, then a surprising degree of consensus on the best plants.

I was fortunate enough to sit in on the group discussing perennials, and quickly learned that each plant on the list had its champions and its detractors. Here was a group of grownups whiling away the day hotly debating plants in often-impenetrable language. Every hard freeze of the last 40 years was recounted, as were the wettest winters and driest summers; plants were judged by their performance in every vagary of climate. For the first couple of hours, the group couldn't help but add even more favorites to the list, and I began to despair of them ever getting to the point of cutting it down to a reasonable length.

Plants were referred to as old friends, as in a Persica described as "beastly, but in a nice way." (It didn't make the final list).

We knew the Canadians were there when the question was posed, "Don't your Panicums look tatty?"

Heucheras were tossed off the list due to root-weevil problems, and Hosta ŚCan Can' because of a tendency toward woodiness, while Hosta ŚSum and Substance' nearly made the list for its slug resistance.

Many plants were rejected because they needed further trials (these folks were nothing if not exacting).

Helleborus foetidus was a winner, despite one comment along the way: "I love it, but do other people like green flowers that stink?"

Some people argued for flowers that age gracefully, while another said, "I like dead flower heads. It's cool - the huge wheel of life on one plant."

My favorite comment was about a grass described "as looking like a (name your suburb) diva . . . to me it's completely uninteresting."

A hardy geranium was eliminated because "I grew her rich one time and she did a big donut," meaning that when grown in fertile soil this particular plant splays out, leaving a circle in the middle.

If only we all had the experience and energy to consider the habits and looks of every single plant so well and thoroughly before its roots ever touch the soil of our own gardens. Of course, now we don't need to - these horticulturists are doing it for us.

After an exciting rush of opinion, speculation and evaluation, the group was able, with ease and amiability, to cut the list to 15 superb plants for Northwest gardens. While these aren't common, run-of-the-mill plants, each is readily available and a proven, solid performer. The list will grow over the years to include hundreds of new and old plants that are best adapted for our gardens.

The experts will now travel about and evaluate collections of plants in botanical gardens and nurseries in a quest to add more choice plants to the list. They'll look at bloom time, disease resistance, fall color and other attributes of witch hazels, Japanese maples, ornamental cherries and crabapples. And in the meantime, we have a starting place for plant selection, one that we can rely on with confidence, knowing that each plant has gone through trial by fire to earn its place on the list.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is

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