What Makes a Great Plant?

Crinum Super Ellen prospers in Kit’s garden. Photo: Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

As any gardener will tell you, there are lots of good plants out there but few truly great plants. This got me thinking: What makes a plant great?
Bob Solberg, hybridizer extraordinaire of hostas and owner of Green Hill Hostas in Franklinton, wrote an article on great hostas — and his assessment applies to plants in general:
1. A great plant has to grow well for practically everyone. Just because a plant is new on the market doesn’t mean it will be a great plant. New plants haven’t necessarily gone through the years of testing before being introduced. Four or five years ago, hybridizers rushed new echinaceas to the market, overhyping them as the best thing since E. Kim’s Knee, only to see them quickly fizzle out. Simply put, many hybridizers go for the flash instead of perseverance and longevity.
2. The plant has to have an eye-catching quality. A great plant has to have appeal. Camellia x vernalis Yuletide is fabulous because its red blooms appear in December, just in time for the holidays.
3. A great plant has to be able to survive. Hybridizers like to introduce white centers in hosta leaves, but many of these hostas don’t have enough chloroplasts to sustain them, so they simply melt away. Renowned horticulturist Michael Dirr discovered a brilliant yellow lantana in Chapel Hill — and promptly named it Chapel Hill. Though it was widely advertised to survive in Zone 7, I have yet to meet anyone in that zone who has had success with it as a perennial. It might be a great plant for Zone 8 but not for Zone 7a.
4. A great plant is easily identifiable. The plant has something that makes it stand out. Lantana Miss Huff is a great lantana for Zone 7 because it survives in this zone, doesn’t seed recklessly and has blooms that change color as they progress. Bob Solberg’s hosta, Guacamole, is well named — once you see it, you will always be able to recognize it. The crinum Super Ellen is distinctive for both its size and the amount of its blooms.
5. Obviously, a great plant has a great color. It’s hard to gather fame with a blah color. Looking at some of the classic hybrid tea roses in established gardens, you’re sure to see Queen Elizabeth, Mister Lincoln or Tiffany. The color doesn’t have to last throughout the growing season. Muhlenbergia capillaris is, I would submit, a great ornamental grass that has a nondescript appearance until September when its pink (or white) halo enshrouds the plant.
Great plants are the classics of the gardening world — and it’s always fun to speculate which of the current introductions will be around 20 years from now. Here are some of my nominations:

  1. Phlox paniculata John Fanick was on my original list as it blooms for six weeks beginning in July and attracts butterflies while perfuming the air. However, it is susceptible to powdery mildew, so I would now go with Phlox paniculata Jeana instead. It has all of the attractive qualities minus the powdery mildew predisposition.
  2. Hostas Ambrosia, a sport (a leaf bud that grows differently from the rest of the clump) of Guacamole, and Curly Fries perform beautifully in full light. The agave-like Curly Fries has a unique shape for a hosta, while Ambrosia will settle well in any garden.
  3. Euphorbia Diamond Frost — yes, an annual can be a great plant. Use it in sunny areas to plug up holes in the perennial border. By August, you will thank me.
  4. Rose Belinda’s Dream was the first to earn the Earth-Kind designation and is truly disease resistant, except for rose rosette disease, alas. It has gorgeous flowers and a pleasing shrub form.
  5. Spigelia marilandica, a native plant, bears lovely red blooms with a yellow center. Not only does it have a relatively long bloom period, it also is a terrific accent plant that can fit in anywhere provided there’s sun. 

While you are planting your garden, consider the classic plants. What plants you’d nominate for the “Great” category? Let us know your picks. Try to find the next great plant. Not only is this a fun exercise but it will make you appreciate your plants more. 

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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