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A-List Perennials

A-List Perennials

By Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

With Terra Nova Nurseries’ vast catalog of plant introductions, which currently stands at 1,020 varieties, there is a special group of “A-List” perennials with remarkable foliage that begin with the letter “A.” This is not your average group of five plants; these varieties have received praise from trial garden officials across the country, and one plant even received the “Plant of the Year” award from the Perennial Plant Association. Though it is needless to say, these plants are standouts. 

It took a trip to Tasmania for Terra Nova to connect with Rosevears Nursery about a new variegated Acanthus mollis. The Terra Nova team was blown away by the vivid white-splashed, variegated leaves and meter-high flower stalks of white and pink. The plant was brought back to the United States, and Terra Nova’s lab put the plant into tissue culture. However, the breeding team wanted more color, vigor and hardiness. Thus, the sturdy Acanthus ‘Summer Beauty’ was crossed into our Acanthus ‘Tasmanian Angel’, and Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ was born.  

Each plant in the A-list has a story, and sometimes they have a cheerleader; Tony Avent, a horticulturist and plantsman, frequently posts about the attributes of Ajuga ‘Blueberry Muffin’, with its very dense habit and deep blue flowers that form a “blueberry topping atop the muffin of foliage.” Come, let’s learn more about Terra Nova’s A-list perennials! 

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Acanthus ‘Whitewater’

There are times in the garden when fireworks occur, so to speak, and this acanthus is quite the show. This vigorous, variegated acanthus has striking, bold leaves with deeply-cut white splashing and margins. It forms a large clump, with 4’ tall showy flower stalks of pink and cream in summer. As previously mentioned, this was bred with Acanthus 'Summer Beauty' for vigor, more hardiness, and heat and humidity tolerance. It is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10, and it may grow to a 3’ diameter. It is possible USDA Zone 7 growers may see dormancy in winter, but Zone 8 and above will enjoy some evergreen foliage. Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ flowers in late summer and tolerates shade, preferring semi-shade.

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Actaea ‘Black Negligee’

This actaea was given its name when we received a note of feedback that too many of our plants were named after food! So, we unapologetically named it after something completely unrelated. Terra Nova’s customers report that Actaea 'Black Negligee' has much more vigor than other, similar dark-colored varieties, with its waves of lacy black foliage cloaking the lovely dark stems. In the peak of high summer, beautiful purple-tinted, white flowers project 2' upward and carry an exotic perfume of grape and jasmine. While it can take shade, it prefers full sun with lots of water in most states for the darkest foliage. It has proven hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, preferring full sun or partial shade.

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Agastache ‘Morello’

This plant has amazingly huge, dense inflorescences of deep burgundy-rose that bloom from spring through fall! Showy, dark dusty-green foliage with purple backs (in cool temperatures) extends the beauty. Agastache 'Morello' has a strongly upright habit that forms multiple crowns, and it is loved by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It should be on every environmental designer’s short list as the perfect pollinator plant that provides nectar and pollen from May to October. This plant has taken home high praise from trial gardens across the United States. Hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, preferring full sun.

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Ajuga ‘Blueberry Muffin’ 

It’s quite rare when a groundcover reaches star status, but Ajuga ‘Blueberry Muffin’ is an exception. Gardeners will find that Ajuga ‘Blueberry Muffin’ is an extremely vigorous, small-leaved groundcover with thick, dark leaves and blueberry-blue flowers on eight-inch spikes. Weeds don't stand a chance against this dense habit. A much faster and stronger grower than Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip', this beauty is commonly featured in Plant Delight’s catalogue as a “goer” for the south. Leaves are thicker and more weather resistant where it thrives in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9. This plant is happy in all exposures and can provide an evergreen base for low containers.

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Aralia ‘Sun King’

With leaves that are as big and bold as the sun, this beautiful gold form of aralia makes an outstanding accent in full shade or partial shade. Aralia ‘Sun King’ was discovered in a rooftop garden center over a Japanese department store by plantsman Barry Yinger. Since then, it has quickly climbed in popularity to recently becoming the Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year in 2020. Fast growing and deciduous to 4’ in height and width, Aralia ‘Sun King’ forms small clusters of white, satellite-like flowers in August to September that are followed by purple berries. This plant, which is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9, performs well in containers or in the landscape. It is fast to fill a pot and best in partial shade.

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Dan Heims is a published author of two books and lectures around the world. In 2003 he won the Reginald Cory Memorial Cup from the Royal Horticultural Society. He was awarded the Award of Merit by the Perennial Plant Association in 2019, and the Luther Burbank Award by the American Horticultural Society in 2020.

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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