by Enrico Villamaino

Horticultural advocacy group AmericanHort recently hosted “Top Performers From Perennial Variety Trials,” the latest production in the organization’s “Grower Insider Series.” The program was administered by Paul Westervelt, chief of container operations at Saunders Brothers Nursery in Piney River, VA. An award-winning grower, Westervelt has experience in cultivating over 800 varieties of perennial plants. He said he wanted to assist participants in determining the best perennials to incorporate into their 2021 growing season.

“Most of what I’m saying here today is based on my own first-hand experiences with these perennials over the years,” said Westervelt. “It’s important to keep in mind that when I’m talking about these plants, I’m mainly talking about how they fare in my region. I’m in central Virginia. This is orchard country, and we have a pretty heavy soil here. What works here, in Zone 7, might not do quite as well in a different zone.”

Westervelt’s presentation laid out the strengths and weaknesses of a number of perennial varieties that planters should consider.

Brunnera macrophylla, the “Jack of Diamonds,” was singled out by Westervelt as “a dynamite performer. It’s a very hardy, good plant.” This shade perennial is often described as a giant version of the classic “Jack Frost.” The nine- to 10-inch leaves are bigger and overlap at the base. Overall, the foliage is circular from a distance. The leaves have a silver tint with a vivid dark green veining pattern. From mid to late spring, baby blue blossoms are held in clusters above the foliage. He noted that Jack of Diamonds is prized for its shade tolerance and winsome blooms, making for excellent groundcover.

Westervelt pointed out that Nepeta “Cat’s Pajamas” won the National Plant of the Year competition’s National Perennial of the Year Award for 2021. A smaller scale version of “Cat’s Meow,” Cat’s Pajamas only averages half of that plant’s height. It also blooms about two to three weeks earlier than Cat’s Meow. “It blooms first in the summer. And it blooms for ages. You get a lot of time out of this one,” he noted. He recommended using this shorter stature plant near the front of a garden’s border. While the small, aromatic leaves tend to keep deer and rabbits away, when their stems are broken, they release an aroma into the air that has a propensity to attract cats, hence its other common name, “Catmint.”

“Bright Light (Hosta) really impressed me when it survived the very heavy rains we had here in 2018,” admitted Westervelt. Its coarse leaves have a golden hue with blue-green borders. A very resilient perennial, Bright Light has proven to be singularly resistant to slugs. “It can start to bloom as early as March. The cold doesn’t hamper this one nearly as much as a lot of the others.”

For those who like a little unpredictability, Westervelt touted the “Fiesta Orange” variety of Echinacea. With bright orange flowers that attract hummingbirds, Fiesta Orange can offer growers a bonus bloom. “Sometimes you’ll get just a single bloom, other times if you get that first bloom in late spring, you might still get another in late summer. It’s somewhat random.” He said this variety is not the best choice for a grower who’s counting on consistency.

Not all of Westervelt’s comments were high praise. “Coreopsis … I universally hate them! They tend to fall apart, and they’re more prone to die in the winter. I admit that it might be due to the heavy soil in my area. You might have more luck with them somewhere else.” He did say that if a grower is set on planting Coreopsis, “‘Riding Hood’ is the best variety. It really fills out the pot. I should also say that the ‘Sienna’ Coreopsis’s color changes throughout its bloom is great for my ADD! At various times, the flowerings can be orange, peach and pink.”

Some perennials he found frustrating more than anything else. “‘Yellow Touch’ (Gaillardia aristata) is the perennial I love to hate. It has beautiful orange, red and yellow daisy-like flowers, and it can grow anywhere from Zone 3 to Zone 9. But they don’t last long, and they’re extremely hard to grow in the center of a pot – somewhat unruly.”

Re-emphasizing the importance of the right plants for the right place, Westervelt called attention to two final examples. “‘Red Ombre’ (Echinacea) has gotten rave reviews, but it honestly didn’t do very well for me. I hear it’s done better elsewhere. When it grows well, it grows especially uniformly, so if you’re located in the right zone, all your plants will be ready to sell at the same time.”

On the other hand, he said, “Primavera” is a great choice for those who love lavender, but it’s only hardy when grown in Zone 7. “Otherwise, you might want to go with the ‘Sensational’ lavender. It’s more tolerant of a wider range of temperatures and makes for some of the best-looking cut lavenders.”

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