Here comes the judge: Dr. A hits the road and issues a challenge


Here’s a brief travel report and a challenge from our itinerant guest ranter Allan Armitage.—Eliz.


I’ve been in California, viewing the pack trials up and down the West coast. This is the time where most of the world’s plant breeders show off their new herbaceous plants (mostly annuals, some perennials) for the growers and buyers to view. Breeders from America (Ball, Pan American), Europe (Benary, Syngenta, Dumen) and Japan (Sakata, Takii)—to name but a few—show off their wares. I’ll let you know if I see anything exciting.

I am often asked what my choices would be for the best plants that have come on the market for gardeners in the last while, and have presented a number of talks about recent “breakthrough” plants—in fact I’m making my own list of the greatest 10 plants (annuals and perennials) introduced over the last 10 years. (For example, it would likely include the Geranium ‘Rozanne.’)

DSC_0124 (Small)

However, perhaps you can help me compile a list that is more reflective of what real gardeners are growing than the one I have. If you would like to participate, pick 5 plants that you feel have been breakthroughs (i.e., plants that made the genus better due to subsequent selection, plants you would recommend to your friend who kills everything, or plants you absolutely must have, and if they die, you would replace them with the same plants). This must be done in the next few days to be compiled into a list I will call “The Garden Rant’s Greatest” and if there is some consensus, I will talk about the list when I am speaking in your neck of the woods. Remember, annuals and perennials only, and if a perennial, provide your USDA Zone. Five plants only—this should be interesting!

And here’s
a video from the Greenhouse Grower TV of Dr. A talking about the California Pack Trials and his impressions (screenshot at top).

Please leave your list of your 5 breakthrough plants for Dr. A in comments.Thanks!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. OK, I’ll bite, though I’ll cheat a bit. These are plants that have a boon to my mostly shade garden:
    1. new Helleborus hybrids, many found through Plant Delights, some from Dan Hinkley of Heronswood
    2. hakone grass, both variegated and “all gold”
    3. newer colocasia hybrids, such as Nancy’s Revenge, Lime-Aid, Black Magic
    4. newer lamium hybrids, particularly the gold/green ones
    5. nicotiana hybrids, particularly the Red Bedder

  2. What about the carbon footprint of annuals?

    Heating greenhouses to produce plugs for other growers to purchase & grow in their greenhouses to sell to mass merchants.

    How many 18-wheeler trucks are involved?

    Then you drive to the mass merchant in your car to purchase the annuals that have already been eco destructive. You buy potting soil at the mass merchant, more trucks & eco desctruction. Perhaps potting soil with fertilizer & systemic insecticides ‘conveniently’ included.

    Hmm. Kill fungi & beneficial insects. What about birds eating insects dying of the chemicals?

    If a landscape NEEDS annuals it’s a failure.

    How often have you been at a mass merchant and seen shelves upon shelves of dead annuals? No one watered.

    Why not promote self-seeding annuals?

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. I’m another person with both shade/sun. Hard to choose just 5:

    1 Begonia grandis, hardy begonia (zone 7b)

    2. heuchera villosa : “citronelle”, “caramel”, etc.

    3. Cinnamon fern–for the damp spots

    4. heliopsis helianthoides “summer sun” blooms and blooms

    5. salvia leucantha -mexican bush sage

  4. Zone 7 here.

    I concur completely with the choice of geranium “Rozanne” — a wonderful plant! Otherwise:

    Diamond Dust euphorbia — annual here, wonderful container plant on my patio.

    Any of the new hellebore hybrids

    Trycirtis — I have Sinonime but all of the newer ones are lovely.

  5. I’m in now-chilly zone 4, where spring is elusive. Here are The Five…

    1. Ligularia stenocephala “The Rocket”. I am flat-out crazy about this plant!
    2.Chelone – otherwise known as Turtlehead – lovely and dependable in a moist, part- shade spot
    3. Platycodon or Balloon Flower – stalks of beautiful blue flowers which emerge from a star-shaped ‘bud’
    4. Coleus – both the sun and shade varieties
    5. Zinnias – ‘cut and come again’

  6. Only five,let’s see
    1) Penstemon “Red Husker”,love the dark foliage,the red stems and the creamy,white flowers.

    2)Brunnera “Jack Frost”,pure silver veins on a green Background.

    3)Rodgersia “esculifolia Big Mama”,georgeous structure.

    4)Echinacea “Big Sky Sunrise”,very pale yellow flower.

    5)Geranium “Biokovo”,faintly pink Flowers with darker pink tassels in center.
    I garden in zone 6 am lucky enough to have a little of everything:sun,shade,wet,dry.

  7. Epimediums (Lilac Fairy is absolutely prolific but Purple Prince and Dark Beauty look like they are going to be strong growers, too)
    Hakonechloa (variegated and all green)
    Brunnera Jack Frost
    Geranium (Macrorrhizum Ingwersen, Spessart; G. renardii; G. wlassovianum)

    Mostly dry shade here and these are all workhorses that always look good. Southern Wisconsin but urban: Zone 5.

  8. Echinacea Kim’s Knee High, Geranium Biokovo, Spiky plants, hardier Hebes than Amy, and Adonis Butterfly bushes.

  9. Zone 9/Sunset zone 14 here…

    Yes to ‘Rozanne’ , all Johnsons Blue have been sent to compost land.

    Salvia ‘May Night’ . I like this better than ‘East Freisland’, bigger blooms,very little down-time.

    Gaillardia…any and all, love all the new cultivars, I’d grow them all if I had the room.

    Sanvitalia-alhough this is classified as and annual it usually lasts at leat 3 years for me,dieing back to the ground in winter.Great edging and container ‘spiller’.

    Angelonia – the new hybrids of this plant are fantastic- they never ever look crummy.

    My 5 !

  10. Not as easy as I thought it might be!

    Heuchera…especially H villosa parentage. H villosa ‘Autumn Bride’~~ has a great green color with giant maple shaped leaves!

    Penstemons~~ smallii, calycosus, digitalis, etc….the list speaks for itself!

    Salvias… azurea, greggii, etc, again a perfect plant.

    Phlox pilosa spp. ~a practically perfect pink plant~ long bloom period (for 6 or more weeks) and perfumes the gardens on warm days.

    Amsonia hubrichtii Okay blue flowers, but soft needle like foliage with outstanding fall color!

    I garden in Zone 7, Middle Tennessee. Wet in winter and dry in summer clay soil.
    clay and limestone

  11. Gardening in Los Angeles, 9a, sunset23

    Hi five Tara – I totally agree with you …

    Salvia ‘Maynight’
    Pelargonium sidoides
    Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’
    Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’
    Agave ‘Blue Glow’

    I can’t stop – 2 runners up :

    Sedum ‘Angelina’
    Grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’

  12. I am replying to myself:

    I didn’t follow the rules about annuals and perennials because I find them unfair to those of us who live in hotter climates.

    and I had to add two more
    I am really bad at following rules. Sorry.

    But I love this and I can’t wait to read everyone’s lists!

  13. Zone 6b (if that’s the colder of a or b) –
    Geranium Max Frei – flowers forever and stays compact
    Christmas ferns – dry shade and green year round
    I also love my Turtlehead – just the species form, not a variety
    Solomon Seal – oh my gosh how graceful are they in shade
    Bloodroot – fabulous leaves and pretty flowers – my favorite native ephemeral

  14. Five plants….not easy since the most vigorous plants in my perennial borders are not cultivars. Here goes: Zone 5b

    Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ is vigorous and reliable

    Achillea ‘Moonshine’ is not new but reliable

    Dicentra s. ‘Gold Heart’ has fabulous foliage at all times starting with emergence from the soil

    Phlox p. ‘Franz Schubert’ has large heads which re-bloom

    Coreopsis v. ‘Moonbeam’, long bloom and drought tolerant

  15. Zone 8b here, North Florida, with hot, humid summers and a low this past winter of 18 degrees:
    Euphorbia continifolia — has not come back but well worth buying again. (And again.)
    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
    Fushia ‘Koralle’
    Popcorn lantana
    Porter weed — all colors!

    I choose these because I garden for several people, and these are plants I tend to use in all my gardens.
    I agree with the ‘unsustainability’ of using bedding annuals in large masses, but these beauties sustain Soul…

  16. Yeah. What I just said…

    Zone 8b here, North Florida, with hot, humid summers and a low this past winter of 18 degrees:
    Euphorbia continifolia — has not come back but well worth buying again. (And again.)
    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
    Fushia ‘Koralle’
    Popcorn lantana
    Porter weed — all colors!

    I choose these because I garden for several people, and these are plants I tend to introduce whenever I can.
    I agree with the ‘unsustainability’ of using bedding annuals in large masses, but these beauties sustain Soul…

  17. I’m in zone 6b and I wouldn’t be without:
    (sorry, I don’t know the latin names)

    -Mexican Bush Sage
    -Verbena Bon..sp? (the tall airy verbena)
    -all Coneflowers
    -Rose Campion

  18. I garden in super-sandy soil in Zone 5. Since a lot of perennials are unhappy with the conditions here, I tend to look for tough, old-fashioned varieties and pay little attention to cultivars.

    But I must express my love for

    Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, which thrives in the ghetto of my garden–the shadiest, driest spot.

    And echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ because it is tough and still very tall and impressive.

    My other great find of recent years is not a cultivar, but a great perennial nobody in my part of the world seems to grow–telekia speciosa.

  19. In my part sun zone 7b garden I routinely change out colorful bloomers, treating them as flashy specimen plants. I don’t pay much attention to what their name is and I don’t even try to figure out the difference between this years cultivar and last years. I also don’t really care if they are completely hardy since I start fresh each year with certain flower beds. I care about being true to color (if you name it Blue it needs to be blue) and if I’m going to be paying premium price I want it to live up to its hype. There are a few plants that really live up to the hype that I have to mention – Knock Out Roses (hate the original color but they never stop blooming and require no care whatsoever around here); Gaillardia aristata ‘Fanfare’ (blooms its head off and looks as good in person as she does in pictures); Endless Summer Hydrangea (blooms endlessly all summer long for me).

    The stars of my garden are:
    Variegated Solomon’s Seal – Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’
    Variegated Broad Leaf Sedge – Carex siderostica ‘Variegata’
    Japanese Painted Fern – Athyrium nipponicum
    Brugmansia Charles Grimaldi
    Japanese Fiber Banana – Musa basjoo

    The Understudies currently are:
    Trandescantia ‘Baby Bunny Bellies’
    Colocasia affinis ‘Jenningsii’

    For flower power I can’t go wrong with any Salvia, Cuphea, Guara, Daylily, Rudbeckia, Hosta or Crinum.

  20. I was sure the ones on my list would be on other lists as well, but with one exception obviously not so. These five seem so fundamental.
    Chrysanthemum ‘Becky’
    Hemerocallis ‘Stella de Oro’
    Alstroemeria ‘Sweet Laura’
    Salvia ‘May Night’
    Dicentra ‘King of Hearts’

  21. Hmm, I suppose that most heirloom varieties of things are right out then if the plants must be new in the past 10 years eh? I definitely have plants that would fit the rest of the bill, just not so much with the newness.

  22. Five recently introduced annuals/plants I wouldn’t want to be without. USDA Z3

    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
    Chrysocephalum – either yellow or orange
    Millet – Jester
    Cleome – Sparkler
    Bracteantha – Dreamtime

  23. I thoughtfully surveyed the diverse habitats in my small, quarter-acre Zone 7B/8A garden, searching for plants introduced in the past 10 years or so that I would not be without. Sun, shade, perennial, annual. Here goes:

    Phlox ‘Robert Poore’
    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
    Asarum splendens ‘Quicksilver’
    Liriope ‘Pee Dee Ingot’
    Clematis integrifolia ‘Arabella’

    I’d be happy to elaborate on why I wouldn’t be without these plant, but I think you know them as well as I do. Dr. A., this is great idea.

    Paula Refi

  24. Annuals:
    Wave petunias
    Pennisetum ‘rubrum’ – great for containers
    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ – there is no other plant that look anything like it.

    Perennials (zone 5)
    Powdery mildew resistant plants like Phlox ‘David’ and…
    Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’

  25. In no particular order from my Zone 5 garden:
    Corydalis ‘Blackberry Wine’ – it doesn’t go dormant in the summer and often keeps blooming throughout the summer
    Heuchera ‘Raspberry Ice’ – not the flashiest or newest, but a garden stalwart, blooming repeatedly throughout the summer and always looking attractive
    Tricyrtis ‘Tojen’ – huge, sturdy, tolerates dry shade, blooms it’s head off.
    Phlox pilosa ‘Eco Happy Traveler’ – semi-evergreen to evergreen, loads of blooms, often reblooms, foliage turns burgundy in the fall
    Anemone x hybrida ‘Andrea Atkinson’ – in dry shade a tough, free-bloomer; with lots of moisture, a huge, running monster, but hard to beat for clean, large white flowers that bloom from August through October. Never needs staking.

  26. Here in Minneapolis (zone 4/5):

    Impatiens Yellow Fusion — goes all summer long under elms and birches.

    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ — same

    Hellebore ‘Ivory Prince’ — rock hardy here with gorgeous buds by the middle of March

    Phlox Paniculata ‘Blue Paradise’ — spectacular color and 6-8 weeks of blooms

    Cimicifuga/Actaea ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ — darkest foliage

  27. Delphiniums
    Geraniums – real geraniums, not pelargoniums

    Tall, short, different textures and colors. If I only had these five, I could be pretty happy, I think.

  28. I had to think long and hard to find a list of 5 new cultivars but here it is:
    Dianthus ‘firewitch’
    Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’
    Sedum ‘Black Jack’
    Penstemon ‘Husker Red’
    and the new Hellebororus
    Since I just moved to a new garden these plants are all on my list to put into my new garden

  29. Here in 9b, I am replacing my favorites that Hurricane Ike took away:
    Butterfly Weed
    Nicotiana (so easy from seed)
    Carex grasses

  30. Because of you I also have a Telekia for the past two years.Also have not seen one in anyone elses Garden.What a stunner.My favorite part:when the finches and chickadees come in the fall to eat every last seed.Thank you for the introduction. 😉

  31. I’ve been trying to think of my favorite new introduction. I’ll go with:
    Hydrangea Endless Summer, which really does bloom for several months for me in zone 6;
    Weigela My Monet, lovely, and nice for small gardens;
    Daylily Stella De Oro;
    Athyrium nipponicum Ursula’s Red;
    Any of the flashy new Heucheras, Caramel, Frosted Violet, Citronelle, etc. They add so much color even without the flowers.

  32. Gardening in Northern Virginia, here is my list:

    Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
    Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’
    Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ annual
    Panicum ‘Dewey Blue’ or ‘Northwind’
    Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ /foliage is good without flowers

    Whew, that was hard. I totally agree with Geranium ‘Rozanne’

  33. I garden on the cold end of Zone 5.

    1 – Heuchera Caramel (there’s other good villosa types, but I haven’t seen anthing as good yet)

    2 – Peony Bartzella (intersectional hybrid – the best freaking peony I’ve ever seen – now that its several years into tissue culture, it’s becoming much more available)

    3 – Allium Summer Beauty – (tanguticum?? senescens?? – great grower, doesn’t reseed)

    4 – Euphorbia Diamond Frost

    5 – Brunnera Jack Frost

  34. Zone 5/ Eastern Kansas.
    Phlox panniculata – the white one
    Clematis – Jackmani
    Helichrysum italianca – Curry (fragrance)
    Impatiens – all colors/ huge window boxes stuffed with the beauties
    Salvia – pineapple fragrant leaves

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