The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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April 11, 2014

Unusually beautiful, unsung plants for spring

PHILADELPHIA. — If you’ve ever seen silvery-green mountain mint at the height of summer, you’ll understand why Pat Sutton practically swoons over it.

“Tops on my list,“ she says of this native perennial, which is loved by nectar-seeking butterflies, bees, wasps, and moths, but little known to gardeners.

Sutton, an exuberant wildlife gardener and native-plant champion from Cape May County, is the exception. And, as you can imagine, her list of unusual favorites is long.

Something to think about as you spend these snowy days thumbing through the 2014 catalogs touting all the “hot new plants.“ Seriously, how many coneflowers and heucheras does a person need?

Consider adding something different to your garden in spring - plants, like mountain mint, that are underappreciated or rarely seen but, with some effort, can be found and bought. As Joe Kiefer, co-owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, puts it: “Nobody who grows them underappreciates them, only the people who don’t grow them!“

Here are nine more suggestions from area gardeners, both professional and amateur:

Let’s start with Kiefer, who already has his eye on next winter with this one: Edgeworthia, a beautiful shrub with blue-green leaves that turn a bright, translucent yellow in fall, giving way in late February - on, picture this, bare branches - to clusters of delightfully fragrant yellow/creamy white flowers.

Thanks, Joe!

Ric Venzie, who gardens on two acres in Cherry Hill, recommends two native grasses and a jumbo tree.

Little bluestem is “that wonderful golden grass you see poking up through the snow in winter fields,“ Venzie says. Not much to look at when you buy it, but after two years in the ground, it’s a knockout, with subtle color and “symmetrical droop.“

(’The Blues’ variety is quite the hipster, with tinted blue leaves and purple highlights.)

Native pink muhly grass is another easy-care plain Jane that goes diva in late summer. Suddenly, its seed stalks are topped by a “stunning pink cloud over the plant.“ The plumes look cotton candy-ish, and they stay that way into November.

“This is particularly beautiful in the morning and evening hours when the sun passes through the plant at an angle,“ Venzie says.

And now the tree: Golden dawn redwood, ’Gold Rush’ variety, a fast-growing conifer with a pyramidal shape, whose “soft, fernlike foliage ranges from chartreuse to yellow, depending on the amount of sunlight,“ Venzie says.

Two caveats: ’Gold Rush’ literally wilts in extreme heat, so keep it watered, and this baby ain’t for the rowhouse set. It tops out at 100 feet.

From garden designer Sharee Solow of Elkins Park come these intriguing selections:

Clematis ’Mrs. Robert Brydon’ is a non-vining, shrub-type clematis that Solow swears is indestructible. “Forget about the confusing pruning regimens. Just cut as much or little as you like, leaving a couple feet of woody stems so it can resprout in the spring,“ she says.

(This “have at it“ pruning style warms the hearts of those of us who are completely flummoxed by the classification of clematis into Group 1, 2, or 3, each requiring a different type and time of pruning.)

And there’s more:

“Have some twine in your hand when it zooms out because you’ll want to keep tying the stiff stems to the porch, where it will set a million flowers in full view. Small, stamen-filled, light blue bells keep blooming for at least a month and the foliage stays perfectly lovely the whole time.“

Solow also likes miniature roses. Hers - pink and white, a foot high, variety names lost over time - survive even ice and snow in the 18-inch strip between sidewalk and road. “These are not ground-cover roses, which would get much too wide and stab pedestrians on their way to the train station, but true miniatures,“ she says.

We’re sold.

We also like ferns. The same is true, in spades, for Linda Eirhart, assistant director of horticulture at Winterthur in Wilmington, which has 60 acres of gardens. She recommends wood ferns or Dryopteris, including autumn fern, describing it in classic understatement: “It’s a great one for some added color,“ she says.

New fronds unfurl in striking shades of orange, red, copper, and pink, forming an arching vase shape that fills a 2-foot-square spot in the shade. Mass a few and you have yourself a spectacular, naturalistic ground cover.

Horticulturist Stephanie Cohen of Collegeville, known as “the perennial diva,“ offers up the charming helenium or sneezeweed, a dwarf native daisy so named because American Indians made a kind of snuff that caused sneezing. “The name alone can frighten beginning gardeners,“ Cohen says.

These orangey gold blooms last from midseason into fall and will not flop over. Imagine them with Venzie’s grasses!

And here’s a surprise: not a native redbud tree, but a redbud shrub from China - Cercis Chinensis - that grows only 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Yes, that’s considered a shrub, and it’s perfect for redbud-deprived rowhouse gardeners.

Like the tree, its branches are lined with lavender/pink flowers in spring.

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