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The Dirt: Best of WNY, the plant edition

Hellebores: deer hate them, and they last forever in the border.

Asking me to come up with a “Twenty Best” list for the garden is as difficult as wanting a gourmand to name just ten favorite dishes. So many plants, so little time and space! Yet some truly superior options are rarely chosen by homeowners, landscapers, or even garden centers. For this reason, I am forcing myself to compile my own personal Top Twenty, from small annuals to large trees. Then I will go out to the garden and apologize to all the others.

The criteria
“Best” is surely subjective. I was primarily interested in plants that …
1. Boast at least one really awesome feature (bloom, bark, color, etc.) at some point in their growing cycle;
2. Provide dependable performance in WNY (in the right micro-climate);
3. Require little maintenance (and cause no big problems);
4. And are not very well known. I left out Hosta, for instance, because it’s the most popular perennial in America. Ditto the ubiquitous, deservedly popular Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ and its re-blooming, ultra-useful siblings.

A word about choosing native plants
Yes, we must use them whenever we can in every landscape, but I know that plant lovers and landscapers aren’t going to go native all the way. So I’m setting us a goal of, say, twenty-five percent native plants (and hoping you will cut back half the lawn). That’s a little step in the right ecological direction, and we can still indulge in the joy of rare, exotic plant collecting—as long as our prize specimens are non-invasive. Six out of twenty in the list below are native plants, marked (*N).


Amsonia Hubrechtii/Arkansas Blue Star (*N) is a PPA (Perennial Plant Association) winner for 2011 distinguished by light blue spring flowers and rich gold foliage in late summer.

Helleborus ‘Pink Frost’, and other hellebores from the Gold Collection. The first perennials to flower in late winter, hellebores last for decades, are not eaten by deer, and bloom in the shade. The Gold Collection has trademarked, vegetatively propagated varieties with huge, outward-facing flowers—works of art.

Rodgersia aesculifolia (Rodgersia) is my favorite perennial, although it’s only wonderful if you have a continuously damp space in some shade. Eight-inch leaves mimic horse chestnut foliage. Flowers—like giant astilbes—are large, soft pink panicles. The whole plant is 3 to 4 feet tall and wide.

Sedum spurium ‘John Creech’ forms a short, dense, richly textured mat of tiny, rounded, spring-green leaves, which are covered with pink flowers later. It blocks weeds and even discourages weed growth chemically (according to a Cornell study).

Vernonia noveboracensis/New York Ironweed (*N) is wonderful for pollinators and butterflies. The 8-foot tall species plant is tolerant of poorly drained clay soil. The 4-inch flower clusters are reddish purple. A 3-foot cultivar, ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a new threadleaf alternative. Let’s get these growing all over WNY.


Begonias are now available for windowboxes, containers, and both shady and sunny flower beds. Look for gorgeous new leaf patterns, and cultivars (including ‘Bonfire’ and ‘Dragon Wing’) that flower continuously.

Cascade Geraniums (Pelargonium) epitomize the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt.” Also called European Windowbox geraniums, they cascade, bloom continually, and never need deadheading.

Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ is well known by plant designers, but newer gardeners still don’t buy it because it’s not terribly impressive in the pot. But see this bit of sparkling white fluff up against other colors of foliage and flowers and you, too, will make it a staple.

Impatiens ‘Spellbound’ are trailing, heavy bloomers that overflow their pots. Provide at least six hours of sun—these are not the impatiens of old.

Scaevola (Fanflower) produces blue or white flowers all summer long, even if it’s hot and dry, as long as you water lots. Great in the ground or containers; try them and you’ll want them again.


Amelanchier/ Serviceberry, shadbush (*N) is well known but still underused. Every yard should have one of these 10-to-15-foot tall wonders—for the birds, the edible berries, the white spring flowers, the smooth grey bark, and the bright fall colors.

Sorbaria sorbifolia and its cultivar ‘Sem’ are my favorite shrubs for a hedge or plant cluster. They sucker and colonize (‘Sem’ less than the species), producing gorgeous ferny leaves (‘Sem’s opening up pink) and huge white panicle flowers that drive butterflies and pollinators wild. ‘Sem’ grows to 4 feet; the species, about 7 feet.

Hydrangea quercifolia (*N) ‘Alice’ and others feature giant oak-like leaves that turn wine-colored in fall, graceful white flowers, and exfoliating bark; they reach 4 to 7 feet. To own one is to love one.

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum (Doublefile Viburnum): So many viburnums are superior landscape plants, but this one takes first place for its horizontal branches and large white flowers (like snowdrifts) draped over them in spring; to 9 feet tall.
Small to medium yard trees (15 to 30 feet)
Acer griseum/Paperbark maple represent royalty among trees, with an elegant, oval, adult form, fall color, and gleaming, peeling, reddish-brown bark. Needs shelter from harsh winter winds; 20 to 30 feet.

Chionanthus virginicus (*N), C. retusus/American fringe tree, Chinese fringe tree: Both have adorable spring flowers that resemble white fringe draping off the branches, interesting bark. Variety of shapes; 15 to 25 feet.

Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese Stewartia) is simply a superior tree in every way—handsome branching pattern, oval shape, unusual bark (peeling, orange toned, sinuous), variable fall colors, and in spring a camellia-like flower; to 30 feet.


Large trees (30 to 100 feet)
Cercidiphyllum japonicum/Katsuratree is what Michael Dirr, the guru of woody ornamentals, has named the one tree he would choose if forced to pick. Katsuras offer four seasons of beauty thanks to heart-shaped leaves that transition from reddish purple to blue-green to apricot in fall; their branching is elegant, and their bark turns shaggy when mature; to 40 feet.

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’, a 2011 Gold Medal Plant Award winner (Pennsylvania Horticulture Society), is a distinguished, narrow cultivar of the American Sweetgum (*N). Elegant, hardy, and not messy; to 50 feet.

Pinus densiflora ‘Oculus-Draconis’ (Dragoneye Pine, Korean Pine) is unforgettable for its chartreuse and yellow horizontally striped needles. It’s quite rare and will be expensive—but extraordinary. 30 to 40 feet.

It’s painful to stop here. Apologies to you, RobiniaTwisty Baby,’ yellow-twiggedScarlet Curlswillow, Dawn Redwood and Golden Larch, Seven Sons tree, Summersweet Clethra, and perennials Filipendula and Thalictrum. You are all A-listers just waiting to be discovered.




Sally Cunnningham is an author, lecturer, and garden consultant (Lockwood’s Greenhouses) who can be seen on Channel 4 (WIVB-TV) on Sunday mornings. She is a committed plantophile and collector with a bias toward natives.

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