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Picking Favorites Perennials

If you have siblings it’s likely that at some point, you questioned which was the “favored one” by a parent. When the question was posed (usually not at the best time), the typical response was “I love all of you equally. I don’t have a favorite child.” And as a parent – more challenging, the parent of twins – I’ve responded the same. But the truth really is that as a parent of more than one child, I don’t have a favorite. Honestly – I love my children equally. I’m hopeful the same is/was true for my parents.

As a gardener? I’m grateful my plants aren’t able to pose that question because the answer wouldn’t be “I love all of you the same. I don’t have a favorite.” Come on all of you gardeners and flower lovers – you have favorites, admit it! Most of us have seasonal favorites, preferences for bouquets and scents, or lack thereof, often attract admirers (think lilacs and peonies). Those who love flowers and appreciate gardens have favorites.

As August’s dog days of summer inch towards a new season and many gardeners grow weary of required daily maintenance (I confess), if some of the members of my garden spoke to me and asked: “am I your favorite flower?” I would probably glare and say: “are you kidding me? At this point of the season, I don’t like most of you – you’re work. The deadheading, pruning, watering and maintenance are tedious, color is getting spare, formerly faithful perennials are AWOL and the enthusiasm for a growing, changing and exciting garden has waned.”

However, as challenging as a garden is at this point of the summer, I’ll admit to having a few favorites. So, with apologies to the rest of the garden, I hope you’ll understand when I say . . . here are a few of my late summer favorites:

Ligularia “Othello,” planted last summer (or was it the summer before?) stands beautifully in the “Woodland” section of my yard and I’ve always enjoyed the large leaves and deep burgundy colored stems. This year it decided to bloom – and what a show it has been (apologies, in advance, to professionals for my novice descriptors).

Ligularia “Othello”

One morning, while touring the garden (my summer ritual after the first cup of coffee), I noticed “Othello” was forming what looked like spurts of new leaf growth – to my eye, it looked like tidy packages, shaped like a closed rosebud, wrapped with leaves. When I managed to get down to plant level and look, here’s what I saw:

Ligularia Othello with Bud

After a few days, and resisting the urge to Google images of the plant while in bloom (it’s a “thing” with me – I love a new flower’s surprise), Othello (an easier name reference) started changing dramatically. Tiny hints of color started to emerge:


Slowly, as growth began in earnest, the leaf blobs opened to reveal orange-yellow colored tube-shaped blooms. Not yet flowers, it was clear something special was happening:


Tubes of flowers emerging from a package of leaves – intriguing! Soon the plant was covered with blooms – the burgundy stems rise high above the foliage and provide a stunning late summer display of color


Best of all, weeks later, the plant is still in bloom:


“Othello” is definitely a favorite – a great garden plant without flowers, fascinating to watch bloom and long lasting blossoms – how could it not be a favorite?

The Native Bed’s natural planting feels refreshing right now – this is an area where I’m less preoccupied with borders and definition than the other beds. Past the Green Bed’s verdant plants following the dry stream bed, I love the way the Native Bed has a completely different feel:

native-garden_1 native-garden_2

Maple tree branches, trimmed out of necessity, are now arranged on the ground with native plants growing around them, creating a natural feeling landscape. As the bed matures, I hope the use of natural materials combined with mixed native plantings creates a meadow-like area.

asclepias cardinal-lobelia

Planted with helenium, thalictrum, chelone, cardinal lobelia, amsonia, heuchera, asclepias, bluebells, phlox, fothergilla, pycnanthemum and more, the Native Bed welcomes nature’s visitors, adds a new aspect to my garden and blooms from early spring into late fall.

It’s hard to pick a favorite in the Native Bed as it’s new, there are many blooms I haven’t seen and I usually like to live with a plant for a few seasons before I fall in love. Yet it’s not hard to pick the helenium’s (‘Mariachi Fuego’) magnificent colors and constant blooms (not to mention the descriptive name) as a beautiful addition to the garden.


The cardinal lobelia’s height and striking color brings my eye directly to the Native Bed but in truth, it’s the subtler pycnanthemum, AKA mountain mint, that’s a favorite this summer.

One of the first plants to show its staying power regardless of conditions, the mountain mint, like ‘Othello,’ has been fun to watch for an extended time. The new growth is a lighter green than the base and they have a soft, refreshing look.

But it’s that subtle, concentric circled bloom on the top of each stem that really makes me appreciate this plant. What began as this:


Blossomed like this:


Although not an obvious or splashy style, I can’t help but respect this tenacious, understated, lovely addition to the garden.

The best part of having favorites in the garden is they don’t talk back, as they mature they won’t recount stories that exemplify all your parenting “mistakes” and you don’t have to worry about therapy expenses as they sort through the issues resulting from perceived issues resulting from NOT being the “favored” child.

With each season, I usually have a few favorites – and I don’t have to tip toe around the question if asked. For now, this late in the summer, I’m grateful for the pure enjoyment and display of these exceptional plants.

Written, obviously, by a Middle Child.

Posted By: Emily Stashower, Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Emily. It’s given me some wonderful ideas for when I get around to expanding my garden!

  2. Thank you! I’m not sure about your zone and which “favorites” will work but this mountain mint is definitely worth a try no matter what! A Native Bed is so much fun and the Swallowtail Parade is delightful. Would love to see YOUR favorites . . . .

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