By Cindy Gilberg
When asked what my favorite plant is, I pause, thinking “How can I possibly limit my favorites to just one? Or, in this case, five?” It reminds me of the saying “So much chocolate, too little time”. However, in honor of the beginning of The Gateway Gardener’s 5th year, I have narrowed it down to 5 favorites below. Four are perennials, each representing a different cultural environment, and I couldn’t resist adding a small tree to the list.
Blazingstars (Liatris spp.) – You can’t go wrong with Liatris for full sun gardens. Approximately six species are commonly found in Missouri, each with a slightly different bloom time and cultural requirement. Select a few different species and you can have these glorious flowers blooming from June through September. The species that adapt well to average garden soils are L. aspera, L. pychnostachya, L. scariosa and L. spicata. Blazingstar has multi-faceted appeal for wildlife. It is attractive to several pollinators – butterflies, bees and other small insects and its ripening seed is a desirable autumn food source for countless birds and small mammals. From a gardener’s point of view, the flowers are top of the list for use as cut flowers. The tall, lavender-purple spikes add a distinctive vertical element in the landscape, a welcome contrast to other mounded-form plants.
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) – A delightful small tree, fringe tree grows with a well-rounded habit to a height of about 15-20 feet. In May it becomes covered with panicles of fragrant white flowers, a breathtaking sight that makes it worthy of a special place in the garden. Male flower petals are longer than the female ones but it is the females that produce showy dark blue berries in fall that fast becomes a meal for many birds. Shop for them in April so you can see them in flower – pick out one of each. Fringe tree prefers somewhat moist, rich soils, though it is tolerant of average garden soils. Use it as a specimen tree or as part of a woodland border. It is most dramatic when planted against a darker background.
Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) – This clump-forming perennial for shade is a real show-stopper in June when its red trumpet flowers open to reveal bright yellow star-shaped throats. The flower color and shape makes Indian pink among the best of plants that attract hummingbirds. With a height of roughly two feet, it thrives in average to rich soils in light to full shade. It is an underused perennial for woodland shade gardens despite being readily available at some nurseries. Indian pink is well worth hunting down and adding en masse to your shade garden.
Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) – Large, buttery-yellow blooms grace this diminutive glade plant. Also known as Ozark sundrops, this Oenothera is found in rocky to average dry soils that are well-draining. It is among the most desirable choices for rock gardens and for use at the edges of sunny gardens. If you watch in the evening, you may catch a glimpse of night-flying sphinx moths pollinating the flowers. The species name refers to the large (macro) seed pods (carpa) that form, resembling oblong winged torpedoes. In the wild, these pods break loose and are rolled by the wind, spreading seed as they go.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – This milkweed is a prominent species for use in rain gardens and wet soils. A sun-loving perennial, it grows three-four feet and sports large clusters of pink to white flowers in July and August. The flowers are slightly fragrant and full of nectar that draws in a multitude of butterflies. Swamp milkweed also serves as the host plant for monarch butterflies – remember this when you see all those caterpillars and please refrain from harming them. They will soon be tomorrow’s butterflies.
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.