December 23rd, 2012
Each autumn a ballot from the Perennial Plant Association lands in my mailbox, requesting my semi-learned input into selecting the best perennial of the year. The PPA, that worthy group, is composed of growers, retailers, landscape designers, educators and others professionally involved in the herbaceous perennial industry. Since I don’t possess a degree in horticulture and don’t run a large business, I feel honored to be included among them.
However, I don’t know all the plants in Christendom, and deem myself a bit inadequate to the task of choosing the very best one for a particular year. Criteria to be proclaimed the Perennial Plant of the Year include possessing a wide range of climate hardiness, simplicity of care, availability, multiple season interest, and ease of propagation. The winner needn’t be something with a long Latin pedigree, but rather one with beautiful yet pedestrian values we dirt gardeners appreciate.
So what was chosen for 2013? The envelope please!
Variegated Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’. (Full disclosure: …. I’ve never grown this pretty plant and thus it didn’t get my vote. But having now seen it I know I’ll squeeze it in somewhere come spring.)
In order to write intelligently about the winner I had to go searching, and when I found it tucked into a rocky nook in Lynn Hyson’s wooded Redding, CT property, I was entranced. The arching, olive-green, 3-4 inch leaves, borne on reddish stems, are narrowly edged in crisp white and from each leaf axil in spring dangle creamy white bell-like flowers. These possess a scent reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley, to whom Solomon’s seal is a kissing cousin. Leaves turn a golden yellow in autumn, and being an herbaceous perennial, die completely to the ground in winter.
This beauty grows 18-24 inches tall and non-aggressively spreads over a period of years to colonize a favored spot. Like its larger brethren, it requires full to partial shade and prefers moist soil. (but will grow well in drier spots) Hardy from zones 4 to 8, this North American native, like all perennials, should be watered well the first year to establish a deep root system. Subsequent to that care is relatively simple. Remove old foliage before the new emerges. For optimal results divide every 2-3 years in early spring; the thumb sized horizontal rhizomes lie just below ground and can be easily segregated. An annual scattering Plant-tone will suffice for fertilizer.
Variegated Solomon’s seal comports well with other shade-loving perennials, …asarum, small ferns such as Christmas and Lady fern, brunnera, toadlily, astilbe, carex, small azalea, hosta, and acorus. Diseases and pests are rare, but slugs may be problematic. If so, disperse organic slug bait such as Sluggo or Escar-Go.
As the 2013 Perennial Plant of the Year variegated Solomon’s seal will available in many local nurseries as well as by mail order. But for a special treat to view it in person, consider a mid-springtime jaunt to the Variegated Foliage Nursery in Eastford, CT. http://www.variegatedfoliage.com/nursery_info.htm. This unique horticultural hotbed, established 13 years ago by owner Stan Megos, specializes in all manner of variegated plants, from giant trees to tiny hostas. They carry not only the PPY winner, but two other types of variegated Solomon’s seal as well, ‘Double Stuff’ and one with streaked leaves. Call ahead (860-974–3951), as the nursery opens in Spring only on Mother Nature’s schedule, not the calendar’s.
For devoted gardeners the unveiling of the Perennial Plant of the Year is always a rush. Some choices are terrific, some not so much, but this year’s winner hits on all cylinders. It’s great in shade; it’s native, well-mannered, attractive to hummingbirds, and fragrant. For a wise choice in the shady perennial garden, you can’t go wrong with variegated Solomon’s seal.