Top Performing Perennials

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Sedum 'Lemon Ball'

Athens is known as The Classic City of the South. Many of you have visited this lovely college town. The Classic City awards are based on garden performance over the entire season in the Gardens at The University of Georgia (UGA), where spring is glorious, and summers are hot, often dry and rather miserable.

Every year we discuss, we debate, and we fight over the best plants in the garden. Well, not really, because the best plants, like cream, seem to rise to the top. When I ask my team (Meg, BJ or the student workers) what plants they think have performed the best over the entire year, we tend to agree.

Choosing perennials is a little different than choosing annuals. Few perennials flower all season long, but we do not select one-week wonders; and if they are not flowering, the foliage should not detract from the plant. We try to choose mainstream bedding plants as well as a few off-the-wall plants that should be grown more. However, this year for the first time, we have included landscape roses in our bag of perennials. They seem to be neglected by everyone other than rose growers, so let’s get off the pot — they are perennial and they are being grown alongside other herbaceous perennials.

You will agree with some our choices and disagree with others. Regardless, get them on the shelf so the consumer can have a fair chance of success. These are presented in no particular order.

Rosa ‘First Impression’ (Greenheart Roses): I cannot tell you how impressed everyone is with this rose. We received it last year and knew nothing about it. The foliage is glossy green, absolutely bulletproof for disease, and it flowered and flowered and flowered. The vibrant yellow blossoms caught the eye of all who passed by and simply would not be ignored. Some people do not like the “quilling” of the flowers as they mature, but that’s like not liking an ice cream cone because it melts. It’s a great plant.

Rosa ‘SunRosa Red’ (Suntory): I was very pleased to see a rose program develop from one of best flower breeders. Suntory unveiled two colors (yellow and red) in this dwarf rose series at the California Spring Trials in April. I was taken with their retail-friendly size and wanted to evaluate leaf health and flower power in the very challenging heat and humidity of Athens. ‘SunRosa Red’ was glorious, and even though it was considerably smaller than all other roses we were grading, the plants more than held their own. And, here it is — on our most prestigious award list. Need I say more? This rose has healthy foliage, a short stature (12 to 15 inches tall) and flowers all season. It’s a real winner.

Helleborus ‘Pink Frost’ (Heuger Trading Co.): Without doubt, the breeding of hellebores has changed dramatically in the last five years. With dozens of flowers standing erect above the leaves, handsome foliage and heat and cold tolerance, the new breed of hellebores will make major inroads to the hellebore market that is already established in this country. We have trialed more than 50 new hellebores in the Trial Gardens, and ‘Pink Frost’ is outstanding. There are many others behind it, but I expect this cultivar to be important for many years to come.

Lavandula ‘Silver Anouk’ (Darwin Perennials): Lavender seems to fit in everywhere, as an herbal favorite and an outstanding companion plant in the landscape, to its use in perfumes and oils. We have trialed many fine lavenders at UGA, looking for one that will flower well and, more importantly, maintain its habit and clean foliage throughout the season. In hot, humid climates, that is not an easy find. ‘Silver Anouk’ does all those things brilliantly and provides the added bonus of silvery foliage, a characteristic that sets it apart on the retail shelf and the garden bed.

Echinacea Sombrero series (‘Hot Coral,’ ‘Solero’) (Darwin Perennials): A lot of press has been generated extolling the virtues of these plants. I have been one of the extollers and do so again, with pleasure. So many echinaceas are so much better now than even five years ago, and it is increasingly difficult to find any that stand out. These two do. Their compact habit, reasonably healthy foliage and ability to initiate vibrant flowers for a long period of time puts them on this list.

Sedum ‘Lemon Ball’: What a wonderful surprise this turned out to be. As a potted plant in the spring, these absolutely flew off our shelves during our plant sales. The chartreuse foliage and the vigorous habit simply attracted eyes and wallets — all plants were gone in an hour. In the garden, they simply grew bigger and produced a round, shimmering ball of leaves. Flowers formed but are definitely secondary. I am not sure of the breeder; we obtained plants from James Greenhouses in Bogart, Ga., and they are part of the Treadwell Program from Perennial Farm, Md.

Dianthus ‘Garden Spice Fuchsia’ (Fides Oro): Over the years, we have trialed more than 50 different dianthus, all touted as being better than the one before. Some were, most were not. The Garden Spice series has always been one of our highest-rated groups of plants, year in and year out. The silver-gray foliage and the handsome double flowers in many colors should be the number-one choice for growers, retailers and landscapers who include dianthus in their plant selection. ’Garden Spice Pink’ has earned this award before; ‘Garden Spice Fuchsia’ is just as good.

Hibiscus ‘Royal Gems’ (Fleming’s Flower Fields): The perennial hibiscus are slowly going through a transition, from large-flowered big plants to large-flowered compact forms. Big flowers are selling points, but while many of the hibiscus we have trialed are stunning, they simply are too big to ensure repeat sales. I believe there is a tsunami of more compact material in breeder pipelines, but right now, ‘Royal Gems’ is quite exceptional. The dark-green foliage enhances the beautiful rose-pink blooms, and while the flowers are indeed large, they appear even bigger because of the compact size of the plant. People stopped, asked about it and admired. Without doubt, all perennial hibiscus have problems — still a little too large, not sufficient breaking, insect problems — but heck, what would breeders do without problems to solve? ‘Royal Gems’ will soften the criticism of this fine plant; give it a try.

Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’ (Terra Nova): Having trialed way too many coralbells in the last 10 years, we were a wee bit leery of another onslaught, which we knew was just around the corner. However, we have been in love with ‘Caramel’ and a few others for a number of years, and then ‘Georgia Peach’ came along. We have evaluated this cultivar for nearly three years, and it has risen to the top of the heuchera basket. Everyone comments on it in the spring; it is reasonably handsome in the summer, and if temperatures don’t get too cold and there isn’t too much snow, it can look very good in winter. Regardless, in the pot, there is a shopper-stopper. Congratulations to Terra Nova.

Gaura ‘Belleza Dark Pink’ (Darwin Plants): Gauras are always a tough sale — plants often grow too leggy, don’t flower when needed and get lost in the landscape. There are some fine gauras; however, nothing eye-popping has come forward lately. We are pleased to sing the praises of ‘Belleza Dark Pink.’ We noticed how the plant kept flowering all season, with a gentle haircut to help it along. Plants are not dwarf, but nor are they out of control. The flower color is rich and foliage is healthy. If a new gaura is on your list, take a close look at this one.

Coreopsis ‘Solanna Golden Crown’ (Danziger): The common tickseed (C. grandiflora) is hard to get excited about. Not that growers don’t appreciate the rapid growth and first-year flowering, and not that gardeners and landscapers don’t appreciate the bright colors, but they usually disappoint by the end of the season, and are seldom “perennial.” We have looked at the Solanna series for a couple of years, and ‘Golden Crown’ has been impressive. It made this list because it’s early flowering, tough, has bright, big, double flowers and reasonable foliage. For a common tickseed, that is a feat to be proud of.  If it looks good next year (year three), I will shout its name to the heavens. GG

Allan Armitage was a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia for 30 years. He recently retired and remains an active consultant, author and lecturer.

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