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Entries in Perennial of the Year Award (2)


Brunnera Jack Frost; Does it Really Need a Perennial of the Year Award? 

Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.

Recently, the Perennial Plant Association selected Brunnera Jack Frost as Perennial of 2012. Many of my garden writing colleagues reported this news as the innocuous, recurring, marketing strategy that it is; except for one who was unhappy. This garden writer argued that such awards are responsible for taking exquisite, unusual, and beautiful perennials and turning them into common, over used ones. I disagree.

I believe that how a plant is used, that is, where it is placed and how it is combined with other plants, is more important than its exclusiveness. There are flowerbeds around the world that have been designed effectively with the most common perennials, and yet they capture our attention with their artistry.

For example, a wild Rudbeckia perennial self-seeded in one of my most successful flowerbeds. I used to dislike this plant; I was never a fan of its gold and black coloration, and it is seen in almost everyone's garden on the street.  Nevertheless, combined with the taupe-brown tone of the home’s façade, the yellow Rudbeckia’flowers looked amazing; they took my garden design to a level higher than I could ever have imagined possible.

I do not feel that my professionalism is compromised when an exquisite, rare, unusual plant earns award-winning status and becomes ubiquitous. I am unmoved when these gifted plants are used in every parking lot across the country. What I do care about is that they will be used. I, for one, will continue to design with them.

From a business perspective, it is effective marketing to designate one perennial as special. At the nursery or in a mail order catalogue, when a plant is flagged to be out of the ordinary, it draws consumers’ attention. That may determine which plants the customer will buy.

While this tactic may be of no value to seasoned, knowledgeable gardeners, I’ll bet it comes in handy for the less-than-omniscient gardener, overwhelmed by the vast number of plant options. Believe it or not, some are delighted to have choices made for them in the guise of an award winning perennial. It makes the selection of plants easier.

So thanks, but no thanks, for the Perennial of the Year awards. I don’t need them, neither do any of my colleagues. However, I know many gardeners who do. Anything that helps a homeowner create a more beautiful garden is an asset to our industry.

Photo by Walters Gardens, Inc.

With this year’s selection of Brunnera Jack Frost our secret is revealed. Now, EVERYONE will know about the sublimely beautiful shade plant that turned all my clients’ sunless gardens into sculptural collages. The texture of its foliage is a work of art and the white highlights on the green leaves capture daylight to make this plant glow in the shade.

Brunnera Jack Frost will illuminate a dark spot in the garden, from early spring until late fall. In spring, mature clumps of this no-care perennial will produce frothy bouquets of light-blue flowers to touch the hearts of all.

Oh! I forget to mention its elegance. Holy Cow, what elegance!  In every garden, no matter how messy or haphazard the flower composition, this plant exudes serenity and good taste.

If this perennial becomes over used, as it surely will by the end of the 2012 season, some designers will feel uncomfortable using it to create a flowerbed with an original, exclusive vision. That is exactly what lies at the heart of the disdain for the Perennial of the Year award. It may be good for retail business, but as designers, it’s not good for ours. Few, if any, should sympathize with us. Instead, rejoice that another great plant has been "found".


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.