• 2006 Dianthus Firewitch (“Feuerhexe”)
• 2005 Helleborus hybridus
• 2004 Athyrium niponicum “Pictum”
• 2003 Leucanthemum “Becky”
• 2002 Phlox paniculata “David”
• 2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster”
• 2000 Scabiosa columbaria “Butterfly Blue”
• 1999 Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii “Goldsturm”
• 1998 Echinacea purpurea “Magnus”
• 1997 Salvia “May Night”
This is how the magic is made: a committee of the Perennial Plant Association selects a short list. That list is then sent in the form of a ballot to its 1,800 members.
Criteria? The plant must be suitable for a wide range of climates; it must be low-maintenance; it must be pest- and disease-resistant; it must be readily available; it must grow in multiple seasons; and it must be easily propagated.
And within these criteria lies the problem, at least as far as I’m concerned. Most low-maintenance, readily available plants that grow and flower over a long season aren’t all that exciting. Note, for example, that only two of the plants listed above have a fragrance (well, a pleasant one anyway), and I’m willing to bet that the fragrance is weaker than most of the other cultivars within the genus.
I’m not the only one who wonders about these selections: in 2000, Boston Globe writer Steve Hatch quotes an anonymous garden critic saying on a listserv:
“I thought the main point of their selection was not that it was unusual, but that it was mostly hardy, easy to grow, floriferous, did well in most climates, not persnickety—an outstanding plant in those respects. From that standpoint I can understand most of their choices. Perhaps there should be a separate award for the ‘new, unusual, exciting’ discoveries?”
In other words, it’s highly unlikely that vistors to your garden will stop and say “Wow, what’s that?!” in stunned tones when they spot your stand of coneflowers.
So they’re boring—but reliable, and that’s something, right? Not so fast. Take Miss 2000, Scabiosa “Butterfly Blue.” In all but perfect conditions, this plant is extremely short-lived and not nearly as floriferous as advertised. Scabiosa has fostered outraged execrations on many a garden forum.
Most of the plants on this list do perform as advertised, however (though only two thrive in shade, which is a big problem for me). They are reliable, long-blooming, available, all that—stalwart backbones of many a perennial garden. But as I view this list, I know in my heart that—except for hellebores, which I adore—I won’t be buying or even craving any of them.
Of course, as I write this, all my delicate and unusual plants, not readily available, not easily grown everywhere, and certainly not low-maintenance, are bearing the brunt of a week-long minus-zero windchill. In the spring I’ll probably wish I’d planted all ten of those winners, in massive quantities.
Oh, almost forgot: here’s 2007’s winner: Nepeta “Walker’s Low. “
And I just forgot about it again.