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Garden Designers Round Table – Underutilized Plants

by Rebecca Sweet

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This topic for this month’s Garden Designers Round Table discussion is ‘Underutilized Plants’, and is one that’s very important to me as a Garden Designer.   As a designer, I definitely have my list of ‘Faves’ that I like to plant whenever possible.  Why are they my favorites?  It’s usually a combination of reasons – they thrive in our area, have long bloom times, are deer resistant, they’re low maintenance or have gorgeous foliage.  In a nutshell, they’re tried and true and won’t disappoint.



Unfortunately, many of these plants are underutilized in garden design.  It may be because they’ve ‘fallen out of fashion’, replaced with the latest and greatest variegated non-stop-blooming variety.  But usually it’s because the growers have limited space in which to grow specific plants requested by retail nurseries and wholesalers.  In the Bay Area, for example, real estate is so outrageously expensive that the mere price of land is cost prohibitive to most growers and to make ends meet they simply have to grow the plants that will meet the latest fads.  Long gone are the days when a grower will set aside some land to grow their own list of favorites.  They simply can’t afford to take a chance that a nursery won’t buy their babies.

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Here are some my own personal favorites which I’ve successfully planted for years.  While some might be stocked in retail nurseries, some may not and the nurseries or wholesalers might have to special order them for you. Yes, they may require some seeking out – but don’t give up, they’re definitely worth the hunt!

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Oxalis ‘Sunset Velvet’.

Just say the word ‘Oxalis’ and most people go running!  This Oxalis, however, is nothing like it’s thuggish cousins.  It’s non-invasive and is the perfect container plant, providing year-round color in mild climates.  Not only are it’s tiny chartreuse leaves and red stems to die for, but it has the added bonus of a zillion little yellow flowers that bloom off and on throughout the year.  Should it become a little leggy, just cut it back and watch it bounce right back to it’s neat and compact form.  But don’t throw those cuttings away, as they easily re-root, giving you even more of these wonderful little plants.  Zones 4-8

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Cape Balsam (Bulbine frutescens)

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This Australian native is another workhorse in drought stricken California.  Not only does it withstand relentless heat without blinking, but it seems the poorer the soil, the happier it is!  It has beautiful green ‘tubes’ for foliage, which is a welcome change to the abundance of grey foliage that so many drought tolerant plants have.  As if that weren’t enough, for 6 months of the year it’s covered with hundreds of orange-yellow flowers on tall and airy stalks.  Snails leave it alone, it doesn’t spread aggressively, and it reliably returns each year.  It’s also one of  UCDavis Arboretum’s ‘All-Stars’ which only recommends those plants that can survive with minimal additional summer watering.  What’s not to love about this plant?

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Mirror Plant (Coprosma repens ‘Pink Splendor’)

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This evergreen workhorse never has a bad day. Snails don’t like it, it’s fairly drought tolerant, doesn’t get diseases and it can withstand temperatures into the mid-20s without showing any signs of distress at all!  In fact, when the temperatures dip that’s when the colors really stand out, turning brilliant shades of peach, orange and yellow.  It’s the PERFECT filler in a planting bed. It grows fairly slowly to 6 x 6, but responds really well to pruning should you want to keep it smaller.  Hardy to 20 degrees.

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Bog Sage (Salvia ugilinosa)

Poor Bog Sage.  It’s latin name sounds so close to ‘uglinosa’ (which I’ve heard people accidentally call it), and it’s common name ‘Bog’ is so misleading.  True, bog sage can happily live with it’s feet wet, but it can also happily live in a hot and dry environment, making it ideal for California. Beginning mid-Summer it sends up 6′ stalks of sky-blue flowers which beautifully compliment the abundance of yellow and gold Fall flowers (sunflowers, helianthus, goldenrod, rudbeckias) making it one of my ‘go-to’ perennials.  Hardy in Zones 6-10.


Lungwort (Pulmonaria)

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This is one of my very favorite perennials to plant for late Winter interest. When I see Pulmonaria blooming, I know Spring is just a few weeks away!  Depending on the variety, it’s leaves can be either be variegated with silver or solid green. The blooms come in different colors – from profuse clusters of little blue tubular flowers, pink, or a combination of the two colors.  And Pulmonaria will happily re-seed if they’re happy, but never to the point of being invasive.  Hardy to zone 3

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Silverberry (Elaeagnus ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’)

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One of my favorite tricks to brighten up a shady bed is with evergreen Elaeagnus.  It’s common name is ‘Silverberry’, but I have no idea why as I’ve never seen a single berry on it!  It’s new growth, however, has a beautiful silvery sheen to it before it turns it’s sunny shade of gold.  This plant is one of my ‘miracle workers’ as it’s happy in both shady or sunny beds, snail proof and drought tolerant. It wants to slowly grow to 8×8, but can easily be controlled with a little selective pruning.  Zones 7-11

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And last, but not least, is my very favorite carex of all.

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Carex ‘Rekohu Sunrise’

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It’s stunning every day of the year with it’s  2′ long, thin curlique blades (resembling a girl’s long pony-tails).

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And in the summer, it has the most lovely brown seed-heads.  Growing to a tidy 2 x 3, and non-spreading this is a must-have grass in every garden.  Zones 8-11

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I hope this has given you a new list of plants to seek out at a nursery near you!  Please visit my fellow bloggers for their own list of favorite underutilized plants….

{ 21 comments }

Scott August 7, 2010 at 7:15 am

Thanks for sharing a great selection of your favorites, Rebecca! The Bog Sage is beautiful, and looks hardy for us. I will look to use it in the future. The variegations on the Silverberry and Mirror Plant, are wonderful. Alas, they will have to be container plants here, but worth a try!

Anonymous August 1, 2010 at 6:23 am

We are in zone 9. Would any of these plants do well here? If so, where would I be able to buy some of these? I am searching online and coming up empty.

Thanks

Rebecca August 1, 2010 at 10:50 pm

I think most would do well in Zone 9 as I’m in Northern California, zone 8b (I’ve indicated on some of my choices their zone ranges). I rarely buy my plants online, not that I have anything against it but because we have so many well-stocked nurseries here. Most nurseries will ‘special order’ any of these plants for you – sometimes requiring payment up front. None that I can think of are too difficult to find – let me know if you don’t have any luck!

Daffodil Planter July 30, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Agreeing with Rebecca and Ivette (germi) on Eleagnus–we have E. Fruitlandii here in 7b. The deer don’t eat it and it grows (and flops around until we whack it back) as a reliable part of a shrub border.

Germi July 28, 2010 at 5:57 pm

HELLO BRAIN TWIN!!! OK – who else uses Elaeagnus ‘Gilt Edge’ wherever she can? ME! Some clients balk – one guy went so far as to call it a clown, but I proudly stand behind it as a GREAT shrub!
I also love E. pungens ‘Fruitlandii’ – Yay! I love it when we are on the same page!
You are brilliant.
HUGS!
XOXOIvette

Christina Salwitz July 28, 2010 at 11:13 am

You rocked the plant choices Rebecca! The pansies- you KNOW I love those. And the Oxalis, it’s all over my garden here right now. I get it every year.
The Agapanthus sells like crazy in my nursery, it’s a marginally hardy one here. Currently I’m enthralled with the GIANT white ones- WHOA!
But the kicker was the Carex. I just discovered it a couple weeks ago when I posted a pic of it to get ID’d after seeing it in front of a restaurant. It’s so beachy and casual, yet it could look SO elegant in certain uses as well. I need to go find out who’s carrying that one!
Great job once again!

Rebecca July 28, 2010 at 11:51 am

Thanks Christina! I knew you’d like some of those (especially the pansies). That Carex is a MUST-HAVE for sure. I bought the original up at Lake Tahoe years ago (go figure!).

lostlandscape (James) July 27, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Nice selections! I love the golden oxalis and how you’ve planted it. I’ve only started to get into a few of the more unusual (and not weedy or invasive) versions recently. Bulbine however is an old friend, though one that isn’t as full of life as I usually see it other people’s gardens–like yours. It’s still worth the effort for me.

Robert Webber July 27, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I am loving the Carex – it has real attitude!
Lovely selection – the subtle choices of a plantswoman. Thanks for the post.
Best Wishes
Robert

Laura Schaub/InterLeafings July 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Nice! I took a photo of that Cape Balsam at the Ruth Bancroft Garden and wished I’d noted its name. An Coprosma, I grow Evening Glow, and find that it’s really important to train it a bit when it’s young, as it tends to throw out big glossy plumes that people just don’t want to cut back! And the Carex…yes, oh yes…

Andrew July 27, 2010 at 11:02 am

Good call on Elaeagnus! I’ve toyed with the idea of trying it here… I’ve heard and read mixed things about whether it’d be hardy, but I bet with the right siting it could work. Lots of the deciduous types are hardy here, although some are a bit too happy (E. umbellata especially).

jocelyn/the art garden July 27, 2010 at 10:53 am

Always frustrating to see your beautiful plants that are zone wise just out of my reach! )Pulmonaria are the exception (Denver zone 5) IF they have shade and plenty of moisture.) Lovely write up, thanks!

carolyn July 27, 2010 at 10:47 am

BTW, I’m on this month’s list so please add my name to yours. Thanks.

carolyn July 27, 2010 at 10:46 am

I’m definitely California dreaming after seeing all those gorgeous plants which we can’t have here, with the exception of the carex and lungwort. Those are two of my faves. Great post.

Debbie @ GardenofPossibilities July 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

What a fun list of underutilized plants. Pulmonaria is a favorite of mine too. Here in CT (zone 6), I use it in the shade with brunnera, hosta and astilbe. The leaves look fresh all season long and the flowers are like icing on the cake in my book.

Curbstone Valley Farm July 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

I admit I have none of these plants, but I’m very taken with the bog sage. A beautiful blue, and a late summer bloomer, what more could you ask for? I don’t think it’s ugly in the least.

Rebecca July 27, 2010 at 10:29 am

I agree – I love Bog Sage! You must give it a try – one little plant will reward you for years to come (though watch out – it grows quite large!)

michelle Derviss July 27, 2010 at 9:01 am

Nice group of plant recommendations.
The only plant on your list that I rarely use is Pulmonaria.
I have never had very much luck with it here in dry arid California.
What kind of conditions have you noticed that this plants does well in ?
If I can dial in the right conditions I’d love to give it a try again instead of repeating my tired old mantra; ” been there , killed that “.

Rebecca July 27, 2010 at 10:28 am

Thanks Michelle – my pulmonaria has done really, really well in bright shade with moderate water. I just leave it alone, where it gets a little water 3 x per week in the summer and it re-seeds! If we have a really hot spell, the leaves will wilt and start to frizzle up…I just remove them and in about 3 weeks it’s covered with a fresh batch. Since we’re closer to the coast I wonder if it’s just a few degrees cooler here? Though, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t do well in your garden too?! The most prolific re-seeder is the one w/mixed blue and pink flowers – maybe give that another try? Best of luck with it!

Genevieve July 27, 2010 at 8:04 am

Ohhh! My favorite of this list is that gorgeous Rekohu Sunrise Carex. I planted the terrible, wretched, Ice Dance Carex a few years back and have been ripping it out ever since, so seeing a lovely variegated Carex which ISN’T a spreader just rocks my socks. Love those seedheads, too.

Rebecca July 27, 2010 at 10:26 am

Thanks, Gen! I had no idea Ice Dance was such a thug! You must try Rekohu – you’ll absolutely love it. It’s truly one of my favorite plants of all time! (for the time being, at least!)

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