Top plant performers: Midwest Region

Top Plant Performers - Cover Story

Here are some top varieties trialed in the Midwest region of the U.S. this past year.

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October 22, 2018

BEST DROUGHT-TOLERANT ANNUAL

Celosia argentea ‘Asian Garden’ (Murakami Seed), Iowa State University

We did not get to test our trials for drought tolerance much, as central Iowa received significant rain this season. Celosia argentea ‘Asian Garden’ was planted in several locations and appeared as a welcome volunteer in others. Lack of rain or irrigation did not slow the growth or blooms on this recent All-America Selections winner — it was still happy when the zinnias around it were starting to droop.

Mangave Inkblot (Walters Gardens), Mast Young Plants

New to our garden this year was the hybridized annual Mangave Inkblot. This attractive succulent has a low, wide habit with large, attractive spotting from its Manfreda blood, and thick, wide leaves from its Agave blood. Dark-green leaves with blood-red spotting arch downward, perfect for framing decorative containers. Although striking white spines line the curled-up margins, these aren’t deadly like you would expect from Agave, but softer to the touch. More exposure to UV light will brighten the dark coloration and the spotting. Mangave is a relatively new phenomenon, as a cross between the genus Manfreda and Agave. These rare hybrids combine the best of both worlds: the better growth rate and the interesting patterns of Manfreda, and the habit and refinement of Agave.

Portulaca ColorBlast Double Magenta (Westflowers), Plantpeddler

If you are in need of a drought-tolerant annual, this portulaca will fill the bill. It will tolerate anything you want to throw at it — heat, drought, stress, all of it. It just keeps on flowering. Different from other Portulaca series, the flowers opened earlier in the day and stayed open until after dark. A great plant to handle the stress.

Gomphrena ‘Truffula Pink’ (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

A close second for overall performance, ‘Truffula Pink’ was a solution plant for trouble areas in the displays with constant color and effortless maintenance. Being in an area the hose couldn’t reach was no problem for this plant. It should be a consumer favorite.

MixMasters Peppery Perfection (Ball FloraPlant), The Gardens at Ball

We used this MixMasters combo in the ground for a design element. This mix of coleus withstood lack of irrigation during July and still looked fantastic. Peppery Perfection is a mix of Mint Mocha, Ruby Slipper and Special Effects coleus.

Vinca Tattoo series (PanAmerican Seed), Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants

This series never seemed to wilt, even on our hottest days. All of them were covered with flowers.

BEST DROUGHT-TOLERANT PERENNIAL

Sedum ‘Peace and Joy’ (Intrinsic Perennial Gardens), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

An adorable 1-foot-by-1-foot sedum. Pinky-magenta flowers cover most of the gray-green foliage with reddish edges.

Delosperma Delmara Yellow (Green Fuse Botanicals), Mast Young Plants

This variety continuously flowered all summer while keeping a very controlled and manageable habit. Its bright yellow blooms were an eye-catcher that could be seen from a distance away the entire time of our trials.

Perovskia ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

‘Denim ‘n Lace’ anchors a few of the beds on the margins. These brutal areas can sometimes hold water or be dry depending on the season. These extremes do not affect the performance of this plant. The strong branching keeps the plant from lodging during weather events for a full-season of garden presence.

Echinacea Sombrero Tres Amigos (Darwin Perennials), The Gardens at Ball

Our bed of Sombrero Echinacea always stands out, even when it’s dry. But this year’s introduction of Tres Amigos showed off three appealing colors on one plant, maturing from peachy-coral to rose and then burgundy.

Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ (Proven Winners), Walters Gardens

Nepeta ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ is a new, compact selection of catmint that blooms about two to three weeks earlier than standard Nepeta. Its rounded habit stays about half the height of ‘Cat’s Meow’ (only 12 to 14 inches) and it doesn’t fall open partway through the season like many catmints do. The indigo flowers are set off by dark stems and rosy purple calyxes, and flower from ground to tip along the stems.

BEST POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY ANNUAL

Salvia ‘Rockin’ Fuchsia’ (Proven Winners), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds were all fighting over these flowers. It is a great color addition to the garden, not blue (or blue-ish!) but an electric fuchsia with black calyces. Very upright, very uniform habit.

Asclepias curassavica ‘Apollo Orange’ (American Takii), Iowa State University

We had sensational results planting a pollinator-friendly display and including Asclepias curassavica ‘Apollo Orange’ Guests were amazed at the sheer number of butterflies (and caterpillars), bees and hummingbirds that visited these two varieties. They were also beautiful out of the garden in arrangements and drew lots of questions!

Bidens Beezar Fire Wheel (Kientzler), Plantpeddler

This bidens was the highest attractor of bees and pollen-loving insects in the entire trial gardens. We had all of our bidens in the same row in our gardens and Fire Wheel was the favorite of our bees.

BEST POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY NATIVE ANNUAL

Gomphocarpus physocarpus ‘Hairy Balls,’ Iowa State University

We had sensational results planting a pollinator-friendly display and including Gomphocarpus physocarpus ‘Hairy Balls’. Guests were amazed at the sheer number of butterflies (and caterpillars), bees and hummingbirds that visited this variety.

BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE: NATIVE ANNUAL

Salvia nutans (nodding sage), Iowa State University

An in-house trial of uncommonly used Salvias gave us some new favorites, including nodding sage (Salvia nutans). Great foliage and flowers, we will be leaving it in-ground this winter to test its hardiness. It was easy to germinate from seed and grew happily in the greenhouse. Bees and butterflies were all over it throughout the summer!

BEST POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY ANNUAL

Salvia ‘Rockin’ Fuchsia’ (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

The garden is always buzzing with pollinators, but there were more hummingbirds thanks to this bright beacon of color. Mass plantings provided tons of flowers with strong branching and vigor. Pollinators were supported all season by reliable flowering and self-cleaning clusters.

Salvia Farina Arctic Blue (Benary+), Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants

This Salvia not only had abundant bees on it all summer, but was also visited by hummingbirds and butterflies. It was a high-scoring performer for the summer, exhibiting abundant, uniquely colored flowers and a dense compact habit.

Salvia Big Blue (PanAmerican Seed), The Gardens at Ball

Throughout the whole summer you could see three to five different kinds of bees on one bed of Big Blue. This large-size landscape annual salvia attracted pollinators reliably from first bloom — and it’s still going strong!

BEST HEAT-TOLERANT ANNUAL

Gomphrena ‘Truffula Pink’ (Proven Winners), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

This is one of the few plants that just thrived in our unusually hot summer. It was always covered in hot-pink pom-pom flowers. Easily over 2 feet tall in the garden, it is a great ‘back of the garden’ plant. I don’t feel like I can talk about this plant’s awesomeness without pointing out the name, because who doesn’t love a good Dr. Seuss reference?

Canna generalis ‘South Pacific Orange’ (American Takii), Iowa State University

Canna generalis ‘South Pacific Orange’ was a strong performer that thrived in the mid-summer heat. Japanese beetles did dampen the effect occasionally, but a quick pruning session easily brought the plants back up to glory. Great color, very easy to grow from seed, tidy habit and a manageable height all make this Canna one of my new favorites!

Calliope Large Dark Red (Syngenta Flowers), Mast Young Plants

Calliope Large Dark Red is our choice for this honor! There are many good candidates for this award, but time and time again, we were drawn back to the Calliope series of geraniums and especially the variety where it all started — Large Dark Red. This variety continuously blooms, and its dark red color draws you in from quite a distance away.

Lantana Bandana Cherry Sunrise (Syngenta Flowers), Plantpeddler

The Bandana series from Syngenta Flowers was overall the best performer during our hot spell early in the season. We hit a few days of 100s with lows at night in the high 70s, Bandana Cherry Sunrise flowered the entire time. Loves the heat and stress.

Celosia Century Salmon Pink (Sakata), Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants

This Celosia exhibited exemplary heat tolerance throughout the summer. Plants were uniform, well-branched and never faltered in the heat of summer. It was also one of our top 50 scoring plants for 2018.

Salvia Skyscraper Dark Purple and Pink (Selecta One), The Gardens at Ball

Again, the weather in West Chicago remained humid and hot, but this new intro didn’t mind. Skyscraper kept its color and attractive habit all along our Skyframe garden border, as well as in large-size containers.

BEST POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY PERENNIAL

Agastache ‘Velvet Crush’ (Intrinsic Perennial Gardens), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

Rosy-colored seedheads hold more pinky flowers on this just over 3-foot-tall plants. This was a favorite of bumblebees and butterflies alike. I wish it was a little more upright in the garden, but give it a friend or two to “lean” on and your pollinators will thank you.

Buddleja Leah Blue (Green Fuse Botanicals), Mast Young Plants

Buddleja Leah Blue was outstanding all summer and of course we all know that Buddleja are excellent for attracting butterflies. Again, this variety looked good from July 1 all the way into fall!

Monarda ‘Pardon My Cerise’ (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

Butterflies appreciate the isolated planting of ‘Pardon My Cerise’ and can easily locate it with the electric flower color standing out in contrast to the green background. It can naturalize a formal area or provide something special when planted in a native border or meadow.

Agastache rugosa Little Adder (Darwin Perennials), The Gardens at Ball

Agastache is a member of the mint family, and it had good performance in The Gardens. It also attracted pollinators all season long, especially bees and butterflies who fed off its nectar.

Allium ‘Millenium’ (Mark McDonough), Walters Gardens

Allium ‘Millenium’ was the 2018 Perennial Plant of the Year, and for good reason! This amazing perennial Allium has a polished habit and shiny, dark-green foliage that remains attractive all season. Strong stems support prolific 2-inch rosy-purple spherical heads that bloom in mid to late-summer. This plant is also a butterfly magnet!

BEST HEAT-TOLERANT PERENNIAL

Salvia Blue by You (Darwin Perennials), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

This one looks great no matter the temperature, even when you fall a little behind deadheading (for best flowering, keep it clean). While the first-year plants are very floriferous, they are also extremely uniform. This is also a great pollinator plant for the bumblebees.

Gaillardia Lunar Gold Moon (Green Fuse Botanicals), Mast Young Plants

Many Gaillardia did well in our trials. This Gaillardia Lunar Gold Moon in week 37 or 38 still looked dynamite.

Miscanthus Bandwidth (North Carolina State University, introduced through Darwin Perennials), The Gardens at Ball

Bandwidth kept its dwarf habit and didn’t rust or fall apart in the summer heat and humidity. Banding stayed consistent and it required no maintenance to WOW guests to the perennial gardens.

Hibiscus SUMMERIFIC ‘Holy Grail’ (Proven Winners), Walters Gardens

Hibiscus ‘Holy Grail’ is the newest member of the SUMMERIFIC collection, part of the Proven Winners perennial assortment. This variety has very dark foliage, almost black, which sets off the huge, 8-9-inch, deep red flowers. The calyxes are a bright, limy green, which provides addition interest. ‘Holy Grail’ also has a superb habit, growing to about 4-4½ feet and maintaining a nice, rounded shape.

BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE: ANNUAL

Amazel Basil (Proven Winners), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

Never thought my favorite annual would be a basil! It doesn’t set flowers until mid-late September… even without cutting it. But why wouldn’t you want to harvest its very clean leafiness? It doesn’t get powdery mildew, even if the basil on either side of it are covered.

Fragrant Falls Begonia (Beekenkamp), Mast Young Plants

Our No. 1 favorite plant in the trial this summer was the begonia series Fragrant Falls. This begonia series features a semi-upright/semi-trailing habit with extremely fragrant blooms, which is nearly unheard of in begonias. The scent can be most closely described as a rose-bloom scent. The series maintains a great shape, allowing growers to ship them before they start to trail too much, making them both grower-friendly and excellent for the consumer. We would highly recommend that people put these in hanging baskets in an area they walk by frequently so as to be able to enjoy their fragrance. One issue of concern with this variety is that we hear the URC availability in 2019 is limited, so book early!

Begonia Hiemalis Vermillion (Beekenkamp), Plantpeddler

This begonia did extremely well with the many changes in the weather this summer. It withstood the very cool, wet weeks we experienced in later June, and the extreme heat in July. Once this begonia started to flower, it never fell out of flower. The red color was vivid all season.

Supertunia Vista Paradise (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

Like all Vistas, Paradise offers versatility with great container and landscape performance. It filled areas evenly, when planted en masse it conformed to bed curves, and played nicely with other elements in large hanging baskets.

Dahlia City Lights
Sunflower Sunfinity

Dahlia City Lights Purple (Selecta One) and Sunflower Sunfinity (Syngenta Flowers), Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants

Dahlia City Lights Purple was our top overall annual performer. The plants flowered profusely all summer and was a stand-out variety with its dark foliage and contrasting flower heads, held well above its foliage. Sunflower Sunfinity was our top annual visitor pick. We had this in our rows and they really stood out. They were eye-catching from across the gardens.

Salvia Skyscraper Dark Purple and Pink Breeder (Selecta One), The Gardens at Ball

This salvia thrives in numerous conditions, and its sturdy stems held up all season long in The Gardens. Skyscraper’s colorful calyx and pedicel made the large-size flowers look fresh even in the heat of the season.

BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE: PERENNIAL

Coreopsis Super Star (Darwin Perennials), Boerner Botanical Gardens (Wisconsin)

Huge flowers on a very symmetrical plant. Lemony-yellow with a dark red band and golden center flower that blooms into October. I cannot wait to see how this plant overwinters, as that is the ultimate test for a Coreopsis in our climate.

Sorghastrum nutans ‘Indian Steel’ (Jelitto Perennial Seeds), Iowa State University

Our perennial trials through All-America Selections provide a first look at some great new plants. The shining star of this season has been Sorghastrum nutans. ‘Indian Steel’ is the comparison cultivar and the entry has been excellent as well. The entry is in year two of a three-year trial, so I hope to see this one introduced in the near future. Great habit, little flop, great for late-season arrangements.

Leucanthemum Lucille Grace (Danziger), Mast Young Plants

This seemed to be the year of the Leucanthemum in our trial and although there were many good candidates the one we choose for this award is the variety Lucille Grace from Danziger. This variety looked outstanding already in week 29 and was still looking impressive in week 37. It has a nice large flower size on a very manageable habit.

Leucanthemum Daisy May (Proven Winners), PW Four Star Greenhouse

We like to use Daisy May to frame-in and connect pockets of annuals to give them structure. It is a must-have to anchor any mixed border or low-maintenance bed. Consumer success is guaranteed with this dependable bloomer.

Coreopsis Electric Sunshine (Darwin Perennials), Raker-Roberta’s Young Plants

This had a nice habit throughout the summer with lots of long-lasting flowers. This scored very high with us as well as our visitors.

Salvia nemorosa Rose Marvel (Darwin Perennials), The Gardens at Ball

This plant’s large-size flowers stood out in our perennial beds. Its long flowering time also withstood the season’s extremes.

Anemone FALL IN LOVE ‘Sweetly’ (Proven Winners), Walters Gardens

This brand-new Japanese Anemone has been a stunner in both our garden and greenhouse trials this summer. It has a super prolific display of rose-pink, semi-double flowers starting in late summer to early fall, which are held at a proportionate height above the dark green foliage and continue flowering until a hard frost. FALL IN LOVE ‘Sweetly’ is hardy in zones 5 to 8 and is part of the Proven Winners perennial lineup.

Photos and descriptions courtesy of respective trials gardens