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How to choose all-star plants: Making sense of the options

by Timber Press on January 10, 2013

in Design, Gardening

Foxglove grows its first year, blooms and sets seed the second, and may not return after that. Gas plant, however, is long-lived and its foliage gives it presence year-round. You might also try easy, elegant, and drought tolerant mullein.

The following is excerpted from Andrew Keys’ Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants.

It’s an all-too-frequent story: many gardeners throw in the towel when it comes time to shop. You either give up because of the mind-boggling selection, or you forget everything you’ve learned and go off on a plant-buying frenzy that just feels wrong the following day. Shopping is supposed to be the fun part—the answers lie in the options.


When you set foot in a nursery, will it be like stepping into a romantic comedy or an ill-advised trip down the basement stairs on a dark, stormy night? The difference between the two lies in plant names. No, not the everyday common names we use, like sugar maple and aster, but the botanical names of those plants, including genus, species, and possibly cultivar. Many new gardeners dread the point at which they have to walk into a nursery and ask for a plant by its botanical name. Guess what? It’s time to learn to let go of your inhibitions about botanical names. The reason is that botanical names will be a powerful tool in identify­ing your plant when you go to buy it.

Common names will only get you so far, because common names equal confusion. Different kinds of plants will often have the same common name, and dif­ferent people may use different common names for the same plant. For example, if you ask someone at a nurs­ery or do a web search for geranium, you’re likely to find dozens of different kinds of plants that might not be right for you. If, however, you head into the plant world to shop for a geranium by the name of Geranium mac­rorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’, that is what you’ll get. Ask and ye shall receive!

Dwarf rhododendron bloom but once a year, in spring, before settling in as garden wallpaper. But you can enjoy the flowers of mountain laurel through the beginning of summer and its cinnamon-colored bark all year long. Swamp honeysuckle, with its gingerbread-scented flowers and its colorful foliage in fall, is another good alternative.

What does all that botanical naming mean anyway? And how do you pronounce it? And what if you say it wrong? Here’s the thing: you don’t need to speak the language to use it to shop for plants. You need only be aware of a plant’s botanical name. It’s as simple as running a web search for that name, or writing it down so you can show it to someone at the nursery when you get there.

If you find you need to sound the name out to explain what you’re after, you’re in good company: nine times out of ten, the person helping you at the nursery will be muddling through botanical name pronunciation too, but they’ll have abandoned any concerns that they’re saying it wrong long ago. You’ll give a college try at Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, they’ll do the same, you’ll both chuckle, and then you’ll find what you’re looking for. That said, it’s a good idea to have a very basic knowl­edge of what plant names mean, so let’s do a little decoding. Here’s what you really need to know:

The first word in a plant’s name—Symphyotrichum, in our example—is the name of its genus. A genus is a group of plants that are similar. Think of a genus as a close-knit family. For a handful of all-stars in this book, I’ll recom­mend a whole genus of plants, because so many family members are great that it’s nearly impossible to go wrong.

More often, I’ll recommend a specific family member within that genus. That’s a species. A plant’s species name is the second word in its botanical names. Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, for example, refers to a specific plant (novae-angliae) within the genus Symphyotrichum.

What, then, are all those words, a lot of which seem to be everyday words in English, which show up in single quotes after a plant’s botanical name? Those are the last piece of the plant name puzzle, the name of a specific cultivar of that plant. Even within a species, there can be plants that show all kinds of different characteris­tics—variegated leaves, yellow flowers instead of red, or a skinnier shape, for example. Often, when these plants are discovered, plant breeders cultivate them to play up those characteristics. When that happens, a cultivar is born, and it’s given a name. Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’ is an aster cultivar that’s cultivated for its purple flower and neat, mounded shape.

Not too hard, right? Now let’s talk about your shop­ping experience. After all, if you want to find that all-star garden plant, you might need a little help.


Hands down, nurseries will be your go-to source for plant knowledge. Nursery personnel work among plants day in and day out. At the very least, they’ve been trained in plant basics—at most, they’re professional horticulturists with a treasure trove of information to share.

More than that, the average nursery customer is usually interested in the popular problem plant that you want to be rid of, and guess what? Knowledgeable nursery folk would rather be rid of the troublemakers, too. They’re usu­ally thrilled to discover an interested customer who wants to dig a bit deeper. If you’re really curious to learn more about plants, look for that nursery horticulturist whose eyes light up when they get that. Odds are that person is someone from whom you can learn.

If you don’t find your plant at your local nursery, don’t be shy about asking if they can order it. Often it’s no trouble, especially when it comes to trees and shrubs. Often it won’t cost more to order a plant than if you’d found it there in the first place, and it’ll usually be bigger than if you get it mail order.

Big box stores have become popular places to shop for plants, and they come with advantages and disadvantages. For customers who are confident in their ability to find what they’re looking for, big box stores offer many garden mainstays and often at a lower price. The less assured shopper, however, should be wary. While the big boxes may be a decent source for the basics, too often their personnel are less knowledgeable. Because of that, they won’t have the same expertise as nursery workers, they can’t help you with questions, and their plants may suffer as a result.

Mail-order plants have a reputation for being small, and they may require a bit more patience while they fill out, but you’ll be surprised at the number of gallon-sized plants readily available to be shipped. If a plant grows slowly, try to buy it in person first, but if it’s a fast-grow­ing plant, smaller mail-order plants can sometimes be a cheaper alternative.

Three web sites will aid in your search: the University of Minnesota’s Plant Information Online provides links both to mail-order sources for plants and more information on them. PlantFiles from Dave’s Garden and Plant Lust also include links to mail-order plant sellers, as well as information on thousands of plants of all kinds. A neighbor of PlantFiles, Garden Watchdog allows users to rate those vendors, so you can read up on the company you’re buying from.


Andrew Keys is a writer, designer, consultant, and lifelong gardener. The host and producer of Fine Gardening‘s Garden Confidential podcast, his writing has appeared in Fine Gardening and other magazines, as well as on his blog, Garden Smackdown.


“It’s nice to have this as a source book for choosing plants for my garden when I’m tired of pandering to something I already have or I’m ready for a change. Andrew’s book can be a help towards gardening smarter, not harder!” —Kylee Baumle, Horticulture

“The key to Keys is the way he nudges us out of our box, and gets us thinking. … This is ‘teach a man to fish’ stuff that will hold its value, no matter which new plant alternatives come along.” —Toronto Gardens blog

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