There are thousands of perennials to choose from. Every time you go to a garden center, there is some new variety, some undiscovered plant, that you simply must have for your garden! Sometimes these are tried and true options, the plants that everyone knows will grow well for, well, everyone. Echinacea, Hostas, Black-Eyed Susans, Daylilies and Astilbe are garden classics, trusted choices for any of our gardens. Those are the plants that people ask for by name- and for good reason.
Those are not the plants we are going to be talking about here.
Here, we are going to bring your attention to some unsung heroes of the Long Island garden. Some you may recognize. Some, we hope, will be new to you. These are plants that, for one reason or another, may be over looked. All of them are underappreciated, little-known or under-planted for one reason or another. Sometimes, we don’t really know why, while others have particular needs that may not be fulfilled in every garden. But we can promise you, at least one of the underappreciated beauties on the list below will have a place in your perennial garden, no matter how particular your growing needs. Dry shade? Got you covered. Moist shade? No problem. Hot, dry, parched location where nothing else seems to grow? We’ve got you there too. Take a moment to look more closely at some less common perennial options, and we promise you won’t be disappointed if you give them a shot.
All growing information below is relevant to our gardens in zones 6/7, where we live on Long Island. Gardeners looking over this information for zones farther north and south may wish to double check the species tolerance for extremes of hot summers or cold winters.
Common Names – Lady’s Mantle
Partial Shade. Deer and Rabbit Resistant.
Alchemilla is a slow spreading, clump forming ground cover, excellent for partial shade. It has soft, fuzzy green leaves that gather dew in the morning for an enchanting start to the day. It blooms from late spring to early summer with masses of dainty, yellow green, star shaped flowers. It tolerates poor soils, attracting butterflies along the way. At only 15″ tall, Alchemilla makes an excellent filler, softening a formal garden or rambling in a cottage landscape. Though the leaves are large, the ephemeral nature of Alchemilla’s beauty when wet makes it a wonderful backdrop for a fairy garden.
Common Names – False Indigo
Full Sun to Partial Shade. Deer Resistant. Drought Resistant. Native.
This distinctive, native perennial is a real show stopper when in bloom. Long spikes of sweet pea like flowers in indigo-blue rise up to two feet tall in mid to late spring. A native of the great plains, once established it thrives with little maintenance. They grow best in full sun, though tolerate light shade. If planted in partial shade, Baptisia may need to be staked.
Common Names – Forget-Me-Not, Heartleaf Brunnera, Siberian Bugloss
Partial Shade to Full Shade. Deer and Rabbit Resistant
This true perennial version of Forget-Me-Nots may be best known for their small, true blue, spring time flowers- but the handsome, heartshaped foliage the rest of the growing season is not to be overlooked. A mound forming perennial that seldom grows more than 18” tall, Brunneracome in several varieties, many of which have interesting, frosted or variegated foliage for full season interest in the shade garden. Look for varieties ‘Jack Frost’ or ‘Looking Glass’ for perfect, white frosted foliage to really punch up a shade area.
Common Names – Plumbago, Leadwort
Full Sun to Partial Shade. Deer resistant.
This lovely ground cover offers landscape interest in autumn. True blue flowers cover this perennial from late summer until mid-autumn. About the time the flowers are past their peak, Ceratostigma offers a second display of deep bronze-red foliage. It is a great addition to a butterfly garden, since it offers attractant blossoms at a time when few other plants are flowering. Ceratostigma tends to come up late in spring, so taking note or leaving a marker where it is planted will prevent accidental damage during spring clean up. Ceratostigma grows 8-10″ tall and 12-16″ wide.
Common Names – Corydalis
Partial Shade. Rabbit Resistant. Moisture Loving.
Corydalis is an uncommon perennial that is invaluable for the moist shade garden. Delicate, lacy foliage offers a soft bed for arching stems of blue, purple or yellow flowers. Fragrant, Corydalis blooms strongest in late spring, but will continue blooming lightly until autumn if kept moist. Corydalis prefers alkaline soil, so in areas of acidic soils (like here on Long Island) it is best to add some lime annually to the soil. Mulching in winter also improves its performance. Corydalis usually grow up to 24″ tall and 16″ wide.
Common Names: Barrenwort
Partial to Full Shade. Deer Resistant. Rabbit resistant. Drought Tolerant.
One of a short list of perennials that will tolerate dry shade, Epimedium is an un-sung hero of the shade garden, especially where competition with tree roots are strong. Grown as a ground cover, epimedium will spread slowly, without crowding out other plants. Evergreen foliage comes in green, chartreuse, as well as red or purple tinged. In spring, epimedium send up delicate flowers in yellow, white or pink above the foliage. Mulching in spring or fall is beneficial, and the older, tattered foliage can be cut away in the spring.
Common Names: Sweet Woodruff
Full to Partial Shade. Deer resistant.
Galium is a vigorously growing ground cover that grows well in moist, partial shade. Late spring will find masses of delicate, star shaped flowers held above the foliage. It is ideal for bulb gardens, beneath large shrubs or other naturalized style gardens, as galium is prone to spreading. Galium does best in slightly acidic soils.
Common Names: Wand Flower
Full Sun. Deer resistant. Attracts Butterflies. Drought Tolerant. Native.
This native North American wild flower is growing in popularity, but we can’t help but sing its praises. Especially tolerant of dry, hot locations, Gaura is a tough but delicate looking plant that won’t take over your garden. Forming a dark green, mounding base, Gaura will bloom in white or pink on tall, slender stalks, up to 3 feet tall. With sufficient sun and a good dose of slow release fertilizer in spring, Gaura can flower though the entire summer and in to early autumn. It will reflower the best if spent blossoms are removed periodically. Gaura is a delicate, airy plant that can be grown easily given good drainage and sun, and can even be kept as a potted perennial if desired.
Common Names: Sneezeweed. Helen’s Flower.
Full Sun. Attracts Butterflies. Native.
Few native perennials offer such rich late season colour as Helenium does. These 3 foot tall stands of blossoms come in red, yellow, gold, orange and copper. It is an excellent plant choice for cut flower arrangements, as the stems are stiff and the flowers long lasting. Helenium can be pinched back in mid-spring to encourage more compact plants.
Common Names: Lenten Rose. Hellebore.
Partial to Full Shade. Deer Resistant. Rabbit resistant.
Low maintenance, disease and pest free, this classic, evergreen perennial is sadly not often planted in American gardens. These are the first blossoms waiting for us in spring, starting as early as February, depending on the weather, and will go until things get hot, sometimes in to May. Varieties come in shades of pink, purple, white, yellow, red, green and even nearly black. Well behaved, mounding plants are neat in appearance with their dark, glossy leaves, even when not in bloom. Helleborus do best in neutral to slightly alkaline soils, and may respond well to a light, yearly dose of lime. Tattered foliage can be removed in spring, being careful of the flower buds if they have not yet opened. Mulch well for best results.
Heuchera and Heucherella
Common Names: Coral Bells.
Partial Shade. Attracts Butterflies and Hummingbirds. Native.
Wait, Coral bells are on this list? A lot of people grow Heuchera you say! But few people know just how versatile and forgiving these plants really are, and we consider them vastly underappreciated perennials. Many varieties of Heuchera that are available are native cultivars and hybrids. Heucherella are a hybrid of Heuchera and Tiarella, and can be treated the same as other Heuchera. These perennials have semi-evergreen foliage, largely dependent on the severity of the winter, in almost every colour but blue. Tiny white or pink flowers are attractive but inconspicuous, though butterflies and hummingbirds both appreciate them. Their low mounding, well behaved habit make them ideal for edging, container gardening, or when planted toward the front of a perennial bed. Though they prefer partial shade, Heuchera can be grown in full shade (with less intensity of colour in their leaves) or in full sun (provided they are heavily mulched and kept well watered). One of the most versatile foliage plants, they are an under valued hero in adding colour to the garden all season long.
Common Names: Ligularia
Partial Shade. Deer resistant. Attracts Butterflies.
Moisture lovers, Ligularia will add some real drama to your landscaping. Showy yellow flowers are sent up in spikes of colour in mid to late summer, with some varieties reaching almost 5 feet tall! Wide leaves spread out in a much shorter cluster to balance the tall flowers. Smaller, and even purple leafed varieties are available, but the tallest really add a wow factor, especially when planted en masse. These plants are not tolerant of dry periods, and require consistent moisture to thrive. They would do well near a pond or bog garden setting with less supplemental watering.
Common Name: Beardtongue
Full Sun. Attracts Hummingbirds. Drought Tolerant. Native.
Another excellent native perennial choice, Penstemon are easy to grow and are largely pest and disease free. Strong, upright stems bear a multitude of flowers in mid summer in shades of white, pink, red and purple. One variety, ‘Husker’s Red’ even has maroon foliage to go along with its white flowers.
Common Names: Jacob’s Ladder.
Shade to Partial Shade. Deer resistant.
Forming neat, ferny clumps of foliage, Polemonium is a unique addition to the shade garden. Available in wonderful variegated varieties (our favorite is ‘Stairway to Heaven’), Polemonium flowers in pale blue and lavender in mid spring. These fragrant blossoms are small, but delicate and lovely.
Common Names: Solomon’s Seal.
Shade to Partial Shade.
This classic shade perennial has fallen out of favor when put up against newer, showier choices. But we think it still has a place in any garden. 18 inch tall stalks of graceful foliage rise from the soil in the spring. Variegated varieties are available and particularly lovely. In mid spring small, fragrant white bell flowers bloom for a few weeks. The foliage remains clean and strong through the summer, mostly unaffected by insects and disease, before turning a lovely shade of yellow in autumn. Though a new plant can be slow to establish itself (give it a good layer of mulch to help it along), once established polygonatum are long lived and very low maintenance.
Common Names: Lungwort
Shade to Partial Shade. Deer Resistant. Rabbit resistant. Attracts Hummingbirds.
This under-planted perennial is such a stunner for a shady spot that we don’t understand why it is so uncommon in the garden. Well behaved mounds of silver spotted foliage are attractive all season. But spring offers blooms in brilliant blue, though some varieties also come in pink, purple and white. They prefer moist, rich soil in a protected location, and their leaves will scorch if planted in afternoon sun. Offer a dose of lime every few years, as pulmonaria do best in slightly alkaline soils.
Common Names: Blue Eyed Grass
Full Sun to Partial Shade.
These adorable, grass like plants are too cute to pass by without notice! When not in flower, Sisyrinchium behaves like a miniature grass. But late spring and early summer brings masses of blue-purple flowers with yellow eyes that make any day a little brighter. Sisyrinchium is a perfect plant for accents in borders along pathways, in rock and alpine gardens or to grow in containers.
Common Names: Foamflower.
Full Shade to Partial Shade. Deer resistant. Native.
Growing in popularity, Tiarella are a charming addition to the shade garden. This native foliage plant offers rich green leaves with dark veins running through them, offering a dramatic look and texture. Usually white flowers bloom strongest in late spring to early summer, but will continue to sporadically brighten up the shade through the season.
Common Names: Japanese Toad Lily
Full Shade to Partial Shade.
Because it flowers at an uncommon time, Tricyrtis is frequently overlooked by gardeners. But we think that’s exactly the reason to plant it. These beauties bloom in autumn, with masses of small, orchid like flowers with a light fragrance. Arching stems with alternating glossy leaves bear the flowers just over a foot high, perfect for the front of a border when a more delicate option will be noticed. Most varieties flower in light purple, white or pink, with some offering golden variegated foliage when not in bloom. Tricyrtis is easy to grow, pest and disease free, when placed in a shaded position and not allowed to dry out. Mulch to help it preserve moisture and it will thank you for it.