By Peg Keenleyside
May is a marvelous month in the garden. Much is in bloom, the pollinators are busy zooming around between tree blossoms and flowers, the scent of the garden is in the air and we’re enjoying an al fresco dinner or two on the deck.
Inspired by the imminent arrival of summer, I’ve been making visits to the Eden that is Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver (Oak Street and 37th Avenue), to get a refresher on the perennials that give the summer garden the “wow” effect.
As you walk in the garden, these plants are standouts for their foliage characteristics, height or color and come back year after year for you. Perennials will also grow in area and size year after year.
Call them the must-haves of out-of-the-ordinary perennials; this is a list of my favorites:
Ligularia: This perennial is all about its fantastic dinner plate-sized purple and dark green leaves. Though it does put up a very cool orange-yellow pom-pom of a flower on a tall stalk in late summer, most of the season it’s all about the foliage shape and color.
Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium): Growing to 5 or 6 feet tall, with deep pink umbrella blooms in late summer, Joe Pye weed is a stunner at the back of the border or up against the house.
Give the planting hole plenty of compost and bone meal and watch it establish into an eye-catching column of foliage and bloom over just a couple of summers. Cut it back to the ground in late fall or early spring.
Heuchera: This family of low-growing perennials has a huge variety of colors to choose from, and that’s just one of its charms. The other is its beautiful scalloped leaf shape that makes it the perfect front of the border or container choice. My favorite heuchera is the copper, burgundy and yellow ochre tones of “Coral Bells.” Get the lowdown on all varieties of this must-have at heucheras.com.
Papyrus, or King Tut grass (Cyperus Papyrus): Growing cool green tufted heads on stiff stalks 3–6 feet high, this grass is like a giant upside-down exclamation mark in your garden and will have the summer guest paparazzi riveted. Plant some cascading sweet potato vines around the edges of the pot for even more visual drama.
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Tiny scented lavender-blue flowers bloom on tall grey-green stalks for several months in the summer, making Russian sage a standout. Its other plus is that it loves a hot, dry habitat, so it’s a great perennial plant for alongside driveways and walkways. Don’t just get one – massed together in twos and threes they are a fabulous sight.
Elephant ears (Colocasia): Like Ligularia, the elephant ears plant is all about its foliage – huge leaves that fountain around smallish upright stems. Color choices range from bright green to dark purple. A perfect container plant choice, it will spark up a deck in a heartbeat.
Peonies (Paeonia Lactiflora): Possibly the perfect perennial-come-shrub for the “wow” factor of blooms that can leave you weak in the knees for their gorgeousness. With its big, lush multi-layered flowers it deserves a starring role out in the garden where you are going to see it from your kitchen window or deck.
Peonies come in a staggering array of colors, and my own favorite is the burgundy pink color range. For those who are big on foliage plants, consider going with an all-white flower choice.
Sea holly (Eryngium): Looking a whole lot like thistles, that unwanted weed tyrant, sea holly grows beautiful tall, spiky, purple-blue flowers atop tall blue green stems. These plants start of from a sort of ho-hum clump of spiny leaves in spring, but will come back each year to give you a very cool post-modern looking plant. The flowers are also great in bouquets.
Some of these perennials, such as the heucheras, can be found at local big box garden centers, but others will take a trip to a more specialized nursery and perhaps even a call ahead to see if they are carrying what you’re looking for.
Because plants you bring into the Point from Canada have to go through a phyto-sanitary inspection, look for a nursery that will provide that service.
Sunnyside Nursery in Tsawwassen and Phoenix Perennials in Richmond are two that do. Phoenix Perennials also has a very good online plant encyclopedia. Find them online at phoenixperennials.com.