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GARDENING : Awarding Perennial Favorites


Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, MVPs. From movies to professional sports, there's hardly an industry that doesn't pay tribute to its top performers. Shouldn't horticulture have the same chance?

If the local nursery trade did have an opportunity to hand out awards to its stars--perhaps they'd call them Bloomies--here's the plants that would walk off with the honors.

Best Performance in a Dramatic Role:

Digitalis purpurea 'Apricot' would be the nominee of Warren Gnas, color manager at Amling's Nursery in Newport Beach.

" 'Apricot' isn't a new flower," he says. "It was one of the favorites of Gertrude Jekyll" a 19th-Century garden designer and writer. But this stately beauty fell out of favor, says Gnas, because modern gardeners didn't know what to do with a six-foot-tall bloom. He says now that traditional mixed borders are back in style, however, there's room again for plants with presence.

Besides its superior height--nearly twice the size of 'Foxy,' the more commonly found foxglove--'Apricot' has several other virtues, according to Gnas. It has larger, prettier foliage than most Digitalis (" 'Foxy' tends to get a bit ratty," he says); it's a true perennial rather than a biennial like 'Foxy'; and its offspring are the same buff pink color as the parent plant (most foxgloves aren't so predictable).

Two other towering beauties Gnas likes are the Pacific Giant Delphiniums 'Elaine' and 'Camelliard,' both of which can reach seven feet in height. 'Elaine' sports bright raspberry pink blooms; 'Camelliard' lavender with white centers. Though these two are rather demanding performers requiring plenty of water and fertilizer, their fans aren't discouraged. "We can't keep them in stock," Gnas says.

Verbena bonariensis would be the choice of Mary Lou Heard at Heard's Country Gardens in Westminster.

"Easy, easy, easy--yet major dramatic," she says. With large flat clusters of vivid purple flowers at the top of three- to six-foot flower stalks, V. bonariensis adds effortless architectural interest to any garden, says Heard.

This goddess has feet of clay, though. Hide its low-growing, rather homely leaves with a silver foliaged plant, Heard suggests.

Best Supporting Plants:

Just as movies need actors to play supporting roles, a garden needs background plants as foils for its showier stars. Nurseries call these foundation plants.

Gnas at Amling's thinks all of the needle-leaved, drought-tolerant New Zealand Tea Trees commonly found in the trade ( Leptospermum scoparium ) make wonderful foundation plants. If he has to choose just one, though, it would be 'Winter Cheer,' a new cultivar with small, dark red flowers and red-tinted foliage.

" 'Winter Cheer' is very dense and has a nice vertical growth pattern--some Leptospermum are rather rangy," he says. "It's also a prolific bloomer."

One of the favorite foundation plants of Charles Crum at the Flowerdale Nursery in Santa Ana is Viburnum tinus 'Compactum.' This would be a great choice for anyone tiring of Rhapiolepsis, he says.

'Compactum' has a growth habit like Indian hawthorne and similar dark green, leathery, evergreen leaves, but it produces white flowers rather than pink, preceded by dark raspberry-colored buds and followed by dark blue berries.

Kevin Naughton at the Laguna Garden Nursery would choose Anisodontea hypomandarum , a mallow relative of South African origin which produces small pink flowers like mini-hibiscus nearly year-round.

"It's one of the best introductions in the nursery business in the last few years," he says. "It's drought-tolerant, tough, extremely versatile, and I don't think it ever quits blooming."

Best Short Subjects:

New homes are all house, no yard. The square footage of the average home has increased, while its yard has become Lilliputian. The nursery industry has risen to the challenge, however, by cultivating a whole range of dwarf plants that can be shoehorned into these dollhouse-sized gardens.

Two new cultivars in this category liked by Charles Crum at Flowerdale are a variegated boxleaf Euonymus, with dark, green leaves with white edges and Carissa 'Boxwood Beauty,' a dwarf natal plum.

Neither plant will exceed two feet in height, he says, and either one would be good choices for permanent interest in a perennial flower bed or as a low-growing, compact hedge. "You don't even need to own a pruning shears for these two," he says.

Another cute short subject is Nandina domestica 'Filamentosa,' a lace-leafed heavenly bamboo whose foliage turns scarlet in winter, giving it the appearance of a tiny maple tree.

"It's a neat little accent plant," says Gnas at Amling's. "It's sort of like instant bonsai. It would look nice in a pot, too, for that reason."

Favorite Shady Ladies:

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't give out Oscars in this category, but perhaps it should since the lady with the dark past is certainly a perennial part. Dappled damsels never go out of style in the garden, either.

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