A Few Plants That Rise to the Local Challenges

Catmint has blue flowers and fragrant foliage most of the summer.
Catmint has blue flowers and fragrant foliage most of the summer.
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, September 22, 2007

What do you want in a plant? Flowers, berries, foliage color in summer and fall? Perhaps resistance to deer and drought? Should it be evergreen and low maintenance?

No matter what your idea, chances are that a plant has been bred to meet those criteria. Here are a few I have found particularly suited to the challenges of the Washington area.


Encore azaleas are bred to repeat-bloom, once in spring and again in fall. We planted four of them in our garden nine years ago, two autumn amethyst and two autumn rouge. Planted under a large crape myrtle, they started out six to eight inches tall. One died, and none grew satisfyingly full. Each time they appeared to be getting ready to make a show, the deer browsed them. But they survived. Now two to four feet tall, they produce large light purple and deep pink blossoms. Ours blossom lightly in spring, and when we are least expecting it, they open again and hold their blooms for two to three weeks from August into September.

Robin Hill azaleas named Conversation Piece are also surviving the deer browsing on our property surprisingly well. They are being eaten like the others, but their flower buds are not totally lost. Their foliage was wilted for many weeks this summer, but leaf mulch and watering (only twice) helped save them.

These azaleas have been subject to record drought, heat, neglect and temperatures to their lowest tolerances below freezing. They do not need much pruning, just a stem here and there. For full plants, provide them with eastern sun; western protection; and moist, well-drained, acidic soil that is high in organic material and, most important, protection from deer.

Cavatine Pieris

Cavatine Pieris ( P. japonica"Cavatine") is one of a burgeoning group of plants that have been bred to grow to a medium height without need of shearing. They work well in front of low windows that are on the north or east side of a house in partial sun or shade. This evergreen, three feet high and wide, is cold-hardy, with long-lasting white early spring flowers, low mounded habit in youth, and a dwarf rhododendron look in maturity. It likes lightly moist, well-drained soil, rich in organic material.

Goshiki Osmanthus

Goshiki Osmanthus ( O. heterophyllus'Goshiki') has a striking marbled variegation. It performs well in sun and shade. In sun, specimens form a dense mass. In shade, the yellow- to cream-colored variegation is more pronounced. They will grow five to six feet tall in about 10 years; in shade, four to five feet, with a more open habit. Almost invisible flowers drench the air with fragrance in fall. It is tolerant of most soils and exposure but prefers moist, well-drained acid soil with some shade protection. It makes a good medium-size evergreen screening plant, creating a barrier hedge or growing into woodland groupings with other shrubs and perennials.

Dark Horse Weigela

Dark horse weigela ( W. florida"Dark Horse") is one of the toughest plants we've tested in recent years. A plant we adopted and traveled with from a conference in Salt Lake City, this weigela went by car from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, Albuquerque, St. Louis and back to Washington, receiving bottled water at times. It spent a season out of the ground, heeled in for winter and leafed out in the pot, and was planted the following year. It flowered this spring and went through a blistering and dry summer.

Dark horse weigela is now a member of the family. It's about eight inches tall and will grow into a compact three-foot-high and -wide deciduous shrub with bronze foliage and pinkish-red trumpet-shaped flowers. Plant in moist, well-drained soil in full sun in groupings of three to five for contrasting foliage color and late spring flowers.

Toad Lily

Toad lily ( Tricyrtis formosana) performs well in moist soil and light shade. The plant has an exotic appeal, with weird, spotted, long-lasting flowers that line the upright stems. The flower buds form in July and August and open to expose unique maroon blossoms with spotted markings on the petals in autumn, a time when flowers get noticed. Check the "warts" on the underside of the petals of this Asian native. It's impressive and not invasive in groupings at the edge of the woods. Most have flowers in purples, yellow, tricolor and white. The plant grows with arching or strict upright stems from six to 36 inches tall.

Rock Anise Hyssop

Rock anise hyssop ( Agastache rupestris) is a long-flowering perennial that grows easily from seed. The orange-red tubular flowers are a bird and butterfly attractor. The foliage is intoxicatingly fragrant and invites you to brush your fingers through it. It prefers full sun for flowering to persist for up to eight weeks through summer. Well-drained soil is crucial. Rock anise hyssop is very hardy, to Zone 5.

Blanket Flower

Blanket flower ( Gaillardia grandiflora"Fanfare") has been bred to have tubular flowers on its rays (flower petals). It is a member of the composite family, meaning that each flower you see is a composite of many smaller flowers. Examples are black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, chrysanthemum and Shasta daisy. The intricacy of the petals adds interest and color to an already colorful flower. Red to reddish-yellow and orange flowers will re-bloom throughout the growing season. Good drainage and full sun are essential for these plants.

Blanket flower is considered a perennial, but try it as a short-lived one, about four years. It will often "walk" into other areas of the garden by self-sowing. Spread the seed the finches don't eat throughout the growing season. Cut stems back as they brown.


Gaura ( G. lindheimeri"Whirling Butterflies") is native to Louisiana and Texas, but it can be grown where tough plants are necessary. The species grows three feet tall. The hybrid Whirling Butterflies is more compact and ornamental. It likes rich, well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. The white, rose-tinged flowers open on a scape similar, but on a smaller scale, to gladiolus. If you cut the scapes after they finish opening, this prairie flower will bloom from June to October.


Catmint ( Nepeta X faassenii) was bred to be an ornamental, fragrant ground cover, also coveted by our feline friends. I love its fragrant, minty foliage, and this season was so dry that catmint overtook many other plants. It does fine in dry conditions and has been flowering in our front bed for at least two to three months. This plant took off and was running over the bed and the path to the herb garden. That is how I discovered that it's the perfect plant to encroach on walkways: stepping on it and bruising it to release its minty fragrance. Its blue-gray leaves and blue flowers have returned dependably for several years.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, http://www.gardenlerner.com.

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