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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Now & Then

Plant Life
Quiet, the New Loud
In praise of the little plants so full of subtle charms
Hepatica 'Akane'
Hepatica 'Ryoku Un'
Hepatica 'Daishihou'
SMALL AND SUBTLE seems to be in vogue this spring, with enticing primroses on the market and collectors scrambling for hepaticas. Wasn't it only last season that cannas, bananas and dahlias in searing shades were the "it" plants? Have we suddenly emerged from the phase when any plant with variegation, spiny leaves or unnaturally large foliage was eagerly tracked down and proudly carried home?

Perhaps the mood that created a backlash against SUVs has hit the garden world, and we're all downsizing. Maybe our eyes just needed a corrective from the oh-so-obvious. I'd like to think that one of the main lessons the garden teaches us is to look closely and appreciate the diminutive. Whatever the reason, as declared by the title of the Kings of Convenience CD (sometimes I do listen to my kids' music), "Quiet is the New Loud."

Take hepaticas, for instance, which are low-growing perennials with star-like little flowers that resemble African violets — a surprising look growing in drifts beneath trees. They come into flower in February and reach their peak in early April. Native to Eastern U.S. deciduous woodlands, as well as Europe and Japan, hepaticas aren't difficult to grow in the shady and somewhat moist but well-drained conditions they prefer. They are long-lived, durable, reasonably slug-resistant and tolerant of some summer drought.

In truth, though, it isn't just their virtues that make hepaticas so suddenly sought-after; it's also the fact that they're a bit hard to get and still quite expensive because they grow so slowly. You should be able to find them this spring in catalogs featuring perennials and at some of the larger nurseries, or you can order hepaticas for literally hundreds of dollars apiece from Japan or England. The Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline is growing nearly 80 different kinds, trading with other botanical gardens and ordering from around the world with plans to develop a seed strain that will make hepaticas more available and affordable.

I've also been enchanted this spring by the sophistication and variation in the many primroses filling nursery tables. These little beauties are no longer quaint or dull. Some have flowers as round and smooth as a coin, while others are fringed, lacy or held aloft on spiky stems. Puget Garden Resources on Vashon Island is growing Barnhaven primroses from seed and selling these especially fragrant and beautifully colored flowers at area nurseries. Even though the Barnhaven seed now comes from England, these primroses were first developed in the 1930s by Florence Bellis at Oregon State University. Bellis selected for vigorous, hardy, floriferous and fragrant plants in clear color tones. Barnhaven primroses include candelabra hybrids in stunning shades of burnt orange, coral and flame red, as well as scented doubles in a range of colors. You can learn all about these primroses and order seed from the Web page at

While now is the moment for primroses and hepaticas, small and subtle will continue into the summer. Old-fashioned coral bells have been bred into dozens of new cultivars of heuchera, prized for their variously ruffled, veined and colored foliage that persists year-round. Heuchera 'Amber Waves' is goldish-brown with a hint of peach; H. 'Pewter Veil' has silver-green leaves with purple undertones and gray veining.

Every time I'm at the nursery I seem to discover a new kind of hebe. While some are certainly hardier than others, these little shrubs share the charm of finely textured evergreen foliage and stems loaded with little white, pink or purple flowers.

And what about ornamental oreganos, fine-foliaged fuchsias and hardy geraniums? "Sing softly to me," croon The Kings of Convenience. As we tire of the raucous, it is the quiet voices of these small, sophisticated plants that are winning our hearts.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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