Perennials Archives

Appreciating Hellebores, with David Culp


Just as we’re all going gaga over the (finally!) emerging spring bulbs, let’s pause to appreciate some flowers we’ve been enjoying for the last couple of months, those of the Hellebore family.  Hellebore breeder (and author) David Culp visited Behnkes during our recent Spring Open House and used these and more fabulous photos of his own Brandywine Hybrids to make the point that Hellebores more than earn their place in our hearts and gardens.

The Virtues of Hellebores

  • They’re long-lived.
  • They’re evergreen.
  • They seed around “with great abandon,” their seedlings eventually filling in a whole bed, even under the most difficult trees.
  • They’re easy.  “Put ’em in the ground and forget about them.”
  • Plant them in full shade, full sun, or anything in between.  Though if they’re not blooming, they might not be getting enough light – or you’ve planted them too deep.  David calls them “the ultimate shade plant.”  (DO avoid planting them in wet, boggy conditions, though.  They hate that.)
  • They’re critter-resistant.  Even deer don’t like them.
  • David brings them indoors as cut flowers, floating them in large bowls, where they look great for 10 days or so.
  • They bloom even through the snow!


About those “Blooms”

David explained that the Hellebore’s so-called flowers we’re enjoying in winter are really not flowers at all – they’re sepals, colorful parts that attract pollinators.  In fact, they’re getting more and more colorful these days, with breeders choosing sepals that are in colors like pink and purple, and less green.

About their Nodding Nature

Breeders are always working on developing Hellebores whose flowers face UP, so we can see them without bending down, but David has a different take on that.  They’re just “hiding their sexual parts from the cold.  They’re smart.”  David actually likes that slight nod.  You have to bend over and turn it up to see the inside, so the Hellebore is a participatory plant (love that term!)   You can avoid having to bend down to see the insides of their flowers by planting them on a hillside, or in a raised bed.


Just cut off their old leaves in January, a bit of housekeeping that isn’t required but lets the emerging flowers shine on their own.  They don’t need dividing, though they can be divided if you wish.  Just dig them up, wash the soil off, and separate into chunks that have both dark and white root, and at least two leaves.  Late summer or spring are the times to divide them.

Native-Plant Wannabees

That’s what David calls them, because they’re so well adapted.  They’re originally from Central Europe, mostly the Balkans, at higher elevations.

Brandywine Hybrids

They’re all from his very own garden, which is revealed in beautiful photos and inspiring text in his recent book The Layered Garden, which I raved about in this blog post.

Posted by Susan Harris.

How I’m Filling up my New Garden – the Perennial Report

When I reported on my new back garden in late July it looked woefully empty, as shown above.   Patio and walkway done, a few shrubs and trees planted, but otherwise bare.

In this September photo you can see some of the new plantings I’ve added, but they won’t really strut their stuff until next season and won’t really fill out for a season or two.  Patience is required!

Here are the new plants I’ve acquired somehow or other, all plants I expect great things from.  The color palette I’m going for here is purples, maroons, and greens.

Bought perennials

Amsonia hubrichtii- three.  Wish I had room for more because this may just be my favorite perennial.

Aster ‘Purple Dome’ – just one.  It’ll stay short, for the front of the garden.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’.  Just one, and I hope it spreads fast next year.

Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ was unknown to me but recommended by a designer friend.  VERY cool purple leaves – check it out.

Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet,’ sticking with the purple theme.

Hostas, which I couldn’t grow in my last, deer-infested garden: ‘City Lights,’ ‘Frances Williams,’ ‘Earth Angel,’ ‘Elegans,’ and huge divisions of plainer varieties from neighbors for fast fill-in in the first year or two.

Iris ‘Argentea Variegata’ for its light green and white foliage.

Penstemon ‘Husker Red’  for its deep red stems and leaves.

Persecaria polymorpha (Giant Fleece Flower) was also recommended by my designer friend – for something tall and dramatic.

Perennials from my old garden or giveaways from neighbors

Calamint ‘White Cloud.’  Great filler plant for the front of any border.

Euphorbia amygdaloides, Robb’s Spurge.  Evergreen even in the shade!  Also, fast-spreading.  Used it to great effect in my former woodland garden.

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ blooms too late for the seeds to germinate, so it’s not invasive.

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ are divisions from a neighbor.

Plus these fill-in plants

‘Tangerine Beauty’ Crossvine (Bignonia) for a vertical accent that’s evergreen and then sports reddish orange blooms in the summer.  Planted far enough away from the purple-maroon palette that it won’t clash – hopefully.

Hardy bananas will, I’m hoping, give me some instant screening next year where it’s needed the most.  Eventually the three Cryptomerias (Japanese cedars), six Blue Prince and Blue Maid Hollies, and three full-size Abelias will provide screening, but not by next year.

Patience is again helpful but when it’s in short supply, fast-growing hardy bulbs come in handy.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Fall Color for Shady Spots

I’ve reported on on my favorite plants for fall color in sunny spots and as promised, here are my faves for shade.


Coleus come in dozens of colors and patterns.  Mine are just now, in late October, losing their leaves.  They’ve looked big and bold and colorful all season, until let’s say m id-fall.


Begonia grandis.

Begonia Grandis blooms from September through fall.  The foliage is gorgeous all season.

Japanese Anemone in mid-October.

Japanese Anemones look great here at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden with petunias.

Hakonechloa Grass.

Hakonechloa Grass doesn’t bloom, but its gold foliage looks great all season and the dried foliage looks lovely in the winter, too.  Behind it is a shrub that’s colorful in the fall and winter, too – the  Acuba.

‘Ice Dance’ Carex.

Carex is the name of a large genus of grass-like plants (technically called sedges, not grasses) and many are evergreen, like the ‘Ice Dance’ variety above.  It’s been a primary groundcover in my shade garden for decades now.  It brightens up even the darkest spot.


Oakleaf Hydrangea at Brookside Gardens.

The glorious Oakleaf Hydrangea  is one of my all-time favorite shrubs and it’s famous for its four-season interest.  The photo above demonstrates its fall glory and coming up next, with no leaves in sight, is its lovely exfoliating bark.

Encore Azaleas

Encore Azalea is a repeat-blooming shrub was highly recommended to me just yesterday by a Prince George’s Master Gardener.  She told me that hers are blooming like crazy even now, in late October.

Posted by Susan Harris.  Photo credits:  Encore Azaleas.  All others by Susan Harris.

Fall Color in the Smithsonian Gardens

Another installment in what’s turning out to be a series of articles about fall color in the garden, this one the result of my trip to the Mall over the weekend.  So what better place to start admiring the gardens of the Smithsonian than their Butterfly Habitat Garden?  It’s along 9th Street between Constitution and the Mall, and since it was created in 1995 it’s become awesome.

Horticulturist James Gagliardi has been in charge of this garden since June of 2011.

James here tells me he’s entertaining a whole lot more questions from passersby than he did in his last job at River Farm in Alexandria.  In fact, sometimes Smithsonian gardeners have to hunker down and look as busy as possible when the public passes by, just to get through their through list of chores.

I love the combination of well established perennials and colorful, dramatic annuals, like the red Canna and the Lantana that’s still blooming like crazy (in pink and orange) in mid-October.

James shows me another cool annual – the Gomphocarpus.  Its common name is Hairy Balls.  Seriously.

Above, a favorite perennial of mine – Amsonia hubrichtii, which will turn bright orange any day now.  It sports tiny blue flowers in early summer, and is a tough native in our region.

Of course a butterfly habitat garden is going to have lots of asters, and they’re going to look great in October.

Next door, the cafe at the Sculpture Garden (the one with the skating rink) has these gorgeous Mandevilla vines growing along its facade.

Along Constitution Avenue I spotted this fabulous garden in front of the Museum of American Natural History.   Great mix of sweet potato vines and coleus, with others I didn’t recognize.

UPDATE:  In a comment, the Smithsonian’s supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavelier tells us “these plantings also include Amaranthus and Cuphea as well as many other annuals and tropicals. The cycad is Zamia furfuraceae.”  Thanks!

Here’s another view of the American History gardens, with a close-up of the bizarre-looking cycad.  In the front are two sweet potato vines, and the taller purple plant is Persian Shield.

Finally, I always stop in at the Ripley Garden when I’m anywhere near it because it’s usually gorgeous, and always interesting. In the front is probably the annual Penta.

I DO know the purple plant here is an elephant ear. The red flowers in front? I don’t know.

In front, a Variegated Tapioca Plant. Behind it, an annual hibiscus.

You’ve probably noticed the Variegated Tapioca Plants at the front entrance to our Beltsville store.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

How to grow mums that come back every year

Ever heard of Dendranthemas?  Me, neither.  They used to be one of the types of Chrysanthemums but that genus was split in 1961 and now we have this new term for them.  Other terms include “perennial chrysanthemums” and “garden mums,” as opposed to what are sometimes called “florist mums.”

I became interested in this new name and the plants behind them after discovering them in the Behnkes Perennial Department the other day.  From the photos on the signs, they resemble daisies and indeed daisies used to be in the same genus before the “splitters” of  the hort nomenclature world got hold of them and declared them something else.  (They like to keep us on our toes.)  Other dendranthemas have double flowers and that look exactly like the mums we’re used to seeing this time of year.

All of these tough perennials are deer-resistant, great for cutting, and bloom from early fall until frost on 3′ tall bushes.  The plant can be made shorter and bushier by cutting them back half-way or even sheared to the ground (advice varies) in early summer – before July 4.  They can also be kept at their best – and shared with friends – by dividing them every three years or so.

They’re on sale – 1/2 off – and there’s a nice choice:

– Clara Curtis, a favorite of horticulturist Carol Allen, has single blooms in a salmony pink.

– Cambodian Queen has single pink blooms, sh own below left.

– Brandywine Sunset has single peach-colored blooms.

– Mei-kyo has double lavender blooms.

– Venus has single pale pink blooms.

– Yellow Sheffield has single yellow with pink overtone.

About those “Florist Mums”
But how about the common mums we see everywhere in the fall, the ones that are so often tossed, grown only as annuals?  I asked Carol Allen about them and she swears that they come back every year for her, so come to find out, they’re perennial, too.  In subsequent years they won’t be quite as short and full as they are when you buy them because they were carefully raised to look that way, but if you cut them back once or even twice before that July 4 date, they’ll do very well in your perennial garden.

Just a few of the color choices available right now.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

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