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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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About Plants That Win Awards

I am always amused to read about plants that win the Perennial of the Year Award. It is amusing because most of them are good old reliables that have been around for years. Of course, that is the whole point of the award; to encourage us to purchase plants that will validate our gardening efforts.  Another source of bemusement is the fact that some nurseries will take advantage of the newfound fame and will stock the award-winning plant only in the larger and costlier size. The height of effrontery is that some of these nurseries will also tag this plant with a price point that is higher than other plants of the same size.

Sometimes an award is well deserved. In 2008, Geranium Rozanne received the Perennial of the Year Award. For this one plant, I consider the award underwhelming because Rozanne is a triple-perennial: it does the work of three plants. At first glance, it is a colorful perennial, flowering in a very vivid shade of blue, unmatched anywhere in the garden except, perhaps, for some blue Delphiniums. Secondly, it behaves like a vine, because at maturity, its tendrils can be draped over low branches of rose bushes to create eye-catching color compositions. Again, at maturity, it is also a very effective and colorful ground cover.

One cannot heap the same praise upon this year’s selection, Baptisia australis. Are they kidding? I would never choose to place this plant in anyone’s garden with the expectation that it will behave like a flowering perennial. A mini shrub? Maybe.

The nicest thing one can say about Baptisia australis is that its foliage is sublime. The delicately shaped bluish-green leaves that cover this rounded shrub-like plant make a beautiful foil for pink, white, and yellow flowers. As well, the height of the plant is meritorious. It grows tall enough at the back of the flowerbed, to create a soft ethereal background, as effectively as any shrub.  However, one cannot praise it for the colors of its flowers; they lack saturation and consequently do not project from far. This is a weakness of many blue-flowering perennials. It does not help that blue is present in the shades of both the flower and the foliage, so that neither is able to enhance the other.

Baptisia australisAnother flaw is the temperamental nature of this plant when transplanted. It will go into trauma and will regress to a state of infancy, last observed when it was a seedling. It will remain in that state for the balance of the season and will only begin to recover, though not fully, by the next season. From the perspective of a garden designer, it is not good enough that this is a low-maintenance, drought resistant plant. Most clients demand that perennials add oomph to their gardens, something that Baptisia australis cannot do.

Baptisia Twight Prairie Blue Nevertheless, this is a very reliable plant and that is why it is this year’s winner. However, I am experimenting with its cousin, the cultivar Twilight Prairie Blues, in order to test the color saturation of its bi-colored flowers. I planted it last year but it did not bloom. Perhaps when it does, the reported color combination of a deep violet flower with a yellow keel petal will help this variety project more effectively. I have no expectation that it will be successfull in that regard because violet does not project well, either.

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Reader Comments (3)

Allan, I've got to disagree with you on this one. What's reliable and what isn't depends on gardening conditions. Although I agree that Geranium 'Rozanne' is a beautiful plant, I've never succeeded in getting one to come back a second year in my garden (although I grow many other Geranium varieties very successfully). On the other hand, I love my Baptisia australis. Yes, it takes it a while to get established, and yes, it needs a lot of room for its shrub-like proportions -- but I use it as an architectural plant and know I can count on it to come back year after year. The landscaping at my local natural food store combines Baptisia australis with another shrub-sized, long-lived, somewhat-difficult-to-get-established perennial -- peony. The composition of the pink peonies and the blue Baptisia is beautiful.

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean

Hi Allen,

Thanks for your comments on my blog. I am new to this and have been accessing many blogs. I agree with you, there are tons of beautiful photos and not much useable information. I am a teacher as I guess you are too. If there is not information I can use it is useless.

I have Rozanne also in zone 5 and have replaced one of them. I love it, and I hope it comes back next year. Let me know if you have any ideas for my blog. I do not want to be just a photographer!

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEileen

'Prairie Blues' took off for me in its third season in the ground. Tons of flowers, and it looked pretty much like your picture above. I went on to plant the lemon yellow cultivar whose name I forget, and we'll see how that does.

January 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

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