Conversations: Mary Ann Fink

A tireless champion of underappreciated plants

A lot of great but underappreciated plants just need someone to take an interest in them. Luckily, that is what MaryAnn Fink does for a living. Fink is the tireless and enthusiastic coordinator of Plants of Merit, a program designed to help gardeners in our region sort through the dizzying array of available plants to choose tough, beautiful specimens that will thrive in our challenging climate. “We want people to enjoy plants,” Fink says. “People need to know that gardening can be fun.”

The Plants of Merit program is a partnership between the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Powell Gardens near Kansas City, and the University of Missouri Extension. Every year, the program releases a carefully selected list of dozens of plants that not only tolerate but flourish in our extreme Midwestern weather, with its droughts, deluges, desiccating winter winds, and crazy temperature swings. Fifty-five plants, including annual and perennial flowers, trees, shrubs, and vines, are on the list for 2006, along with about five dozen more “emeritus” Plants of Merit. The list includes both native and non-native plants; where a plant comes from is less important than its performance in the Midwest.

Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is one of the stars of the program. Although beautiful, reliable, and easy to grow, it was overlooked by most gardeners in the past. Thanks to Plants of Merit, blue false indigo is now widely available and quite popular. Gardeners have also discovered bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii and A. tabernaemon-tana) through the program.

Fink’s own garden in St. Charles, Missouri, is thoroughly landscaped with Plants of Merit; by her count, she has 47 plants from the list in her backyard. She likes to experiment, trying new plants she discovers and comparing recent introductions with tried-and-true cultivars. If a plant dies, the stalwarts in her garden cover her mistakes. “An eclectic garden is a great garden,” she says, “but you need to have plants you can count on.”

Plants of Merit is based in Missouri, but the program’s coordinators are thinking beyond state lines and have added professional advisors from Kansas and Illinois. It is a measure of the program’s success, and an indication of what the future holds. “I don’t think this program is stoppable,” Fink says. “It has rippled out, like when you throw a rock in a lake.”–Writer Marty Ross gardens in Kansas City, Missouri.

Plants of Merit

The 2006 Plants of Merit are listed on the program’s Web site, gardeninghelp/merit/index.shtml. A pamphlet with photos is also available; call the Missouri Botanical Garden [314-577-9441] or send $2 and a s.a.s.e. (two first-class stamps] to: Kemper Center for Home Gardening, Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166. MaryAnn Fink gives talks year-round about Plants of Merit; for more information, call 314-577-9443.

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