Pacific Northwest 5

BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, USDA Zone 8

Great Plant Picks


Stachyurus praecox

This slow-growing, winter-blooming, decicidous shrub (to about 10 feet high and wide) bears vanilla-scented, lemon-yellow flowers that droop in long columns off glossy, mahogany-colored branches. The flowers are followed by dogwoodlike leaves and yellow-green fruits in late summer. In autumn, the tapered, toothed leaves turn shades of yellow and rosy red. Plant at the back of the border, where its multistemmed, vaselike shape has room to spread. Sources, page 76.

You’re reading it here first—the soft shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, is one of the 2004 Great Plant Pick winners. Each year’s choices are unveiled just before the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in early February, where they’re displayed to a public eager for all the help they can get navigating their way through the plethora of plants available to them.

Many of the 45 chosen plants have undergone evaluations in private or public gardens, and have had their merits rigorously dissected and thoroughly discussed by a committee of experts from botanical gardens, nurseries, and wholesalers, as well as garden designers. Half of the 2004 picks in the perennial category are ferns; P. setiferum made the list (despite the fact that it reminded one judge of parsley) because of its swirly fronds that suggest a whirlpool or tornado. My favorite stalwart fern, Dry-opteris erythrosora, is another winner this year, chosen for its unusual seasonal color, with fronds that turn from a rich salmon in the spring to rusty red in autumn.

Committee debates over plant choices for 2004 were particularly lively, because Carolyn Jones, the program’s new director, asked judges to limit themselves to just 10 picks in each category. (Jones, from Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia, was hired last spring as the new director/curator at the Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle. She also took over the helm of the Great Plant Picks program, which is funded by the Miller Botanical Garden Trust, from its founder, Richard Hartlage.) While it might be a stretch to say that Northwest gardens have been transformed by the program in just four years, gardeners are definitely paying attention, lured by full-color posters with photos of each plant (like Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, pictured) and the GPP logo prominently displayed on signs at regional nurseries. As a result, growers are scrambling to make winning plants widely available.

Imagine a drum roll, or the pause before the envelope is opened, as we reveal a few more of the hard-won 2004 plant picks. Maurice Horn of Joy Creek Nursery summed up the judges’ opinion of the blue-leaved sea kale, Crambe maritima, by saying “What’s not to like?” The variegated pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’), ideal for a woodland garden, was a winner in the tree category because of its disease resistance and graceful, tiered growth pattern. One of the few conifers that works as low hedge or groundcover, Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’ was selected for its mounding habit and handsome dark green foliage. Then there are several workhorse shrubs, a vivid red heather, and a flashy veined vine…the list goes on. For the complete listing of 2004 winners, visit the program’s Web site at All the winning plants from the last four years will be pictured and described, along with suggested combinations and cultural information, in the book Great Plant Picks for the Pacific Northwest: A Gardener’s Ultimate Resource (Fulcrum Books, forthcoming). H


  • Break your own winter dormancy by getting outdoors and strolling the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum, full of plants at their peak of bloom during the shortest days of the year. The fragrance of witch hazels will coax you to the garden a short walk from the visitors’ center. Located at 2300 Arboretum Drive East, in Seattle; 206–543–8800.

  • It’s time to start sweet pea seeds on a sunny windowsill so they’ll be ready to plant out in early March for bloom by June.

  • Plant a Mahonia ‘Arthur Menzies’, one of the earliest-blooming nectar plants, to feed the overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds with its sweet-smelling spikes of bright yellow flowers held above whorls of bold, toothed foliage.

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