Thursday, January 11, 2007

Old Plants Find New Popularity

“Old Plants Find New Popularity”

By Becke Davis

Not so long ago, you couldn’t give away goldenrod. It was considered weedy and sneeze-causing. The color was beautiful, adding warmth to the late summer landscape, but goldenrod was looked on with as much relish as poison ivy.

Things have changed. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) has been upgraded from a weed to a native wildflower by current attitudes, while new and improved cultivars have recently elevated this plant even higher to the status of a valuable ornamental perennial. Exonerated from its reputation as an allergy source (ragweed, which often grows nearby, was found to be the cause), with its weedlike tendencies tamed by science, hybrids and cultivars of goldenrod are now touted in prestigious gardening catalogues and publications.

With more than 100 species of goldenrod -- many native to the U.S. -- availability is not a problem. Neither is hardiness, since goldenrod can survive in both extreme cold and nearly tropical heat. It is important to remember that the recent popularity of Solidago is not due to the rediscovery of these natives but to breeders who have tamed and improved on the best features of this common genus.

Goldenrod is a sun-loving plant that is drought-resistant, adaptable as to soil but performs best if the soil is well drained. Do not crowd the plants, since they need good air circulation to help avoid fungal diseases. While the hybrids and cultivars are less aggressive than the native species, applying excessive fertilizer can reawaken the latent aggression of even the improved forms of goldenrod.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden recommends the heavy-flowering, compact species Solidago roanensis (Roan Mountain goldenrod), S. sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ (heart-leaf goldenrod) and the 3-foot tall S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’ (rough-stemmed goldenrod). The Chicago Botanic Garden evaluated the genus, and gave the following goldenrods their top rating: the compact Solidago ‘Baby Sun’ and ‘Goldkind’ (Golden Baby), S. flexicaulis ‘Variegata’ (a form of zig-zag goldenrod), the towering S. rigida, S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’ and the very low-growing S. sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’.
‘Crown of Rays’ is another popular cultivar, although some say it is less hardy and more prone to powdery mildew. Other goldenrods being touted in the media include S. ohioensis, S. ‘Cloth of Gold’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Laurin’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Wichita Mountains’ and ‘Lemore’. The latter is a cultivar of a cross between the genus Solidago and the genus Aster (X Solidaster luteus).

Phlox, particularly summer or garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) is another plant that many people used to avoid because it was plagued with mildew problems. There are many new, supposedly mildew-resistant cultivars, although not all of these cultivars are as mildew-resistant as initially thought. Still, phlox, in its many forms, is being used more and more, and some of the older cultivars have been resurrected -- the fantastic flowers seem to outweigh the drawbacks of powdery mildew.

Nearly all of the sixty or so species of phlox are native to North America, ranging from low-growing mats of flowers, to tall sun-loving forms, to woodland phlox for shady sites. With prolific, colorful flowers - many of them fragrant -- garden phlox is a staple of “grandma’s garden” plantings as well as gardens designed to attract butterflies and moths.

Phlox is being touted in the media and in elite mail order catalogues, in species, hybrid and cultivar forms including the hybrid phlox ‘Chattahoochee’, Phlox arendsii ‘Baby Face’, Phlox carolina ‘Magnificence’ and ‘Reine du Jour’, Phlox divaricata ‘Clouds of Perfume’, ‘Dirigo Ice’, ‘Fuller’s White’, ‘London Grove’ and ‘Louisiana Blue’, Phlox maculata ‘Alpha’, ‘Flower Power’, ‘Miss Lingard’ ‘Natascha’, ‘Omega’ and ‘Rosalinde’ (‘Miss Lingard’ and ‘Rosalinde’ are sometimes listed as P. carolina), Phlox paniculata ‘Becky Towe’ (PP#12908), ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Blue Paradise’, ‘Bright Eyes’, ‘David’ (Perennial Plant Association’s 2002 Perennial Plant of the Year), ‘David’s Lavender’, ‘Delta Snow’, ‘Dodo Hanbury Forbes’, ‘Eva Cullem’, ‘Fairest One’, ‘Fancy Feelings’, ‘Fliedertraum’, ‘Franz Schubert’, ‘Fujiyama’, ‘Juliet’, ‘Katherine’, ‘Laura’, ‘Mardi Gras’, ‘Miss Jill’, ‘Miss Karen’, ‘Natural Feelings’, ‘Nicky’, ‘Nora Leigh’, ‘Pinafore Pink’, ‘Prime Minister’, ‘Prospero’, ‘Red Eyes’, ‘Red Indian’, ‘Red Riding Hood’, ‘Robert Poore’, ‘Rose Goliath’, ‘Shorty White’, ‘Starfire’, ‘Tracy’s Treasure’ (PPAF) and ‘World Peace’, Phlox pilosa, Phlox pulchra ‘Morris Berd’, Phlox stolonifera ‘Blue Ridge’, ‘Bruce’s White’, ‘Homefires’, ‘Pink Ridge’, ‘Sherwood Purple’ and ‘Variegata’, Phlox subulata ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Apple Blossom’, ‘Arctic Deep Pink’, ‘Candy Stripe’, ‘Coral Eye’, ‘Fort Hill’, ‘Keryl’, ‘Maiden’s Blush’, ‘Nettleton’s Variation’, ‘Oakington Blue’, ‘Pink Ridge’, ‘Scarlet Flame’, ‘Schneewittchen’ and ‘Snowflake’.

In trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden, phlox ‘Chattahoochee’ and ‘Spring Delight’ were among the top rated, while ‘Katherine’ outperformed the better-known ‘David’ in mildew resistance.

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are old-fashioned biennials that lost favor for a time, but are now popular choices for cottage gardens and “grandma’s gardens.” Since the plants are not long-lived, adding new plants or seeds each summer until the young plants are established will ensure constant color. Full sun is a requirement for healthy plants, and they will perform best in soil that is rich in organic matter. New, improved cultivars have not eliminated rust and other disease problems but the classic single flowers and double flowers that look as delicate as tissue paper keep them on the “must have” list for many gardeners. Hollyhocks are tall plants that are well suited for the back of the border.

‘Appleblossom’, ‘Chater’s Double’, ‘Peaches and Dreams’, ‘Powderpuffs Mixed’ and ‘Summer Carnival’ are popular double-flowering forms, ‘Majorette Mixed’ and ‘Parkrondell’ feature semi-double flowers while ‘Queenie Purple’ is a dense, compact form. The nearly black ‘Nigra’ is one of the most talked about single-flowering forms; others include ‘Happy Lights’, ‘Indian Spring’, ‘Country Garden Mix’, ‘Old Barnyard Mix’, ‘Summer Memories Mix’ and ‘Watchman Strain’.

These are just a few examples of plants that were once written off for one reason or another, and that are now attracting a lot of attention. Coleus has benefited from the introduction of new cultivars that hold up to sun exposure better than older cultivars, new cultivars of sage and artemisia are better suited for modern gardens than older forms, even roses are rating a new look as tough re-blooming shrub roses become easier to find. Even if some plants have been less than desirable in the past, it is worth keeping an open mind when new, improved varieties come on the market -- in some cases the hype is well-deserved.


Originally published in the Landscape Contractor magazine

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Herbaceous Perennial Plants by Allan M. Armitage, 1989, Varsity Press, Inc., Athens, GA

Armitage’s Garden Perennials by Allan M. Armitage, 2000, Timber Press, Portland, OR

“Solidago,” Michigan State University Extension Service publication, 11/12/99,

“Goldenrod for the Garden,” All the Dirt, University of Illinois Extension Macoupin County,

“Goldenrod sparkles in the landscape,” by Lee Randhava, Chicago Botanic Garden Plant Information,

“Goldenrods - Three Cultivars to Set Your Autumn Garden Ablaze,” by Stephanie Cohen, Brooklyn Botanic Garden,

“Phlox: A Butterfly and Moth Magnet,” by Claire Hagen Dole, Summer 2000,

“Alcea rosea - Hollyhock,” Michigan State University publication, 11/12/99,

“Hollyhock Guide,” by Justin Hancock, Country Living Gardener

“Top Rates Plants - Artemisia” and “Top Rated Plants - Solidago,” Chicago Botanic Garden,

“Garden-Worthy Artemisias,” by Richard G. Hawke, Plant Evaluation Notes, Chicago Botanic Garden, Issue 19, 2003

“Artemisia,” by Sherry Rindels, Horticulture Home Pest News, Department of Horticulture, Iowa State University, August 1994

Plant catalogues: White Flower Farm, Park Seed, Wayside Gardens, Song Sparrow Flower Farm, Bluestone Perennials, etc.