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Improved garden perennials

By: Garden Gate staff
Are new varieties of perennials always better than the old favorites? Here are 6 improved garden perennials that we think live up to the hype.

Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? Not gardeners! We value the perennial cultivars we’ve loved for years, but are always on the lookout for new ones, too. A different flower color, a more compact habit, better foliage and improved pest-resistance are often among the attributes we hope to find.

Check out these 10 low-maintenance perennials for your garden

New plants come on the market every year, proclaiming one or more of these qualities. You may have seen a few of these plants around and wondered if they really are different from what you’re growing in your garden now. To be honest, some live up to their publicity; some don’t. And no matter how good they are, odds are the old standards will never leave our gardens — they’re treasured friends we want to keep around. Here are 6 improved perennials that have qualities that make them stand out from the crowd. Let’s take a look at some of the choices you’ll find at the garden center or on the pages of your favorite catalog or website.

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Illumination series foxglove (Digitalis hybrid)

Most foxgloves just don’t bloom long enough. But the Illumination series, a hybrid that is sometimes given the botanical name Digiplexis, is changing that. It’s sterile, so it puts its energy into more flowers instead of producing seeds. Because of its exceptionally long bloom period, which can last three months or more, you can also grow this tender perennial in containers as you would a tropical.

Compared to most foxgloves, you’ll find unique flower colors, too. Look for bright red-orange, like ‘Flame’ in the photo above, as well as gold and apricot.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Vibrant shades of red, orange, apricot and gold from midsummer to fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 30 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

‘Happy Days’ perennial sunflower (Helianthus hybrid)

Many perennial sunflowers are lanky plants best suited to the back of the border. ‘Happy Days’ has sturdy stems that are an ideal height for the middle of the border, as well as for bouquets. And it’s showy enough to use in large containers.

Type Perennial Blooms Golden-yellow in midsummer to early fall Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 20 to 24 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Pink Cotton Candy’ betony (Stachys officinalis)

Until ‘Pink Cotton Candy’, most cultivars only had purple-pink flower spikes, a shade some folks find hard to coordinate with other colors. Just like the sugary confection, this cultivar is a clear light pink. For up to two months of flowers, keep it deadheaded to encourage more spikes. As the flowers finish, cut the stems down so the stub won’t show above the tidy mound of foliage. With very few problems that bother it, the foliage looks great right up until winter.

Type Perennial Blooms Light pink spikes in early to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 18 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Bonfire’ cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)

As it comes up, ‘Bonfire’ foliage is green. Then, unlike a plain cushion spurge, it quickly changes to a dusky red. Later, as the dense mound reaches its full size, each stem is tipped with the bright sulfur-yellow bracts you see here. By midsummer the foliage becomes a deep red, glowing against the green interior leaves. And in fall, the red leaves brighten up a bit before the plant goes down with a killing freeze.

Type Perennial Blooms Gold bracts and flowers in spring to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size 12 to 18 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Valentine’ old-fashioned bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis)

Instead of the medium pink flowers you find on common old-fashioned bleeding heart, these are a striking cherry-red. And rather than plain green, the stems are burgundy so they really stand out against the dusky gray-green foliage.

Type Perennial Blooms Cherry-red hearts in late spring Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 20 to 30 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 3 to 8

‘Fire Island’ hosta (Hosta hybrid)

Hostas are a mainstay of the shade garden, and deservedly so, but it would be nice to get more color from them. ‘Fire Island’ has gold to chartreuse leaves, which remain colorful all summer. Pull them back for a peek underneath and you’ll discover the stems are deep red.

Type Perennial Blooms 20-in.-tall lavender flowers in late summer Light Part to full shade Soil Well-drained Size 10 to 14 in. tall, 15 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 3 to 9

Illumination series foxglove (Digitalis hybrid)

Most foxgloves just don’t bloom long enough. But the Illumination series, a hybrid that is sometimes given the botanical name Digiplexis, is changing that. It’s sterile, so it puts its energy into more flowers instead of producing seeds. Because of its exceptionally long bloom period, which can last three months or more, you can also grow this tender perennial in containers as you would a tropical.

Compared to most foxgloves, you’ll find unique flower colors, too. Look for bright red-orange, like ‘Flame’ in the photo above, as well as gold and apricot.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Vibrant shades of red, orange, apricot and gold from midsummer to fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 30 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

‘Bonfire’ cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)

As it comes up, ‘Bonfire’ foliage is green. Then, unlike a plain cushion spurge, it quickly changes to a dusky red. Later, as the dense mound reaches its full size, each stem is tipped with the bright sulfur-yellow bracts you see here. By midsummer the foliage becomes a deep red, glowing against the green interior leaves. And in fall, the red leaves brighten up a bit before the plant goes down with a killing freeze.

Type Perennial Blooms Gold bracts and flowers in spring to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size 12 to 18 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Happy Days’ perennial sunflower (Helianthus hybrid)

Many perennial sunflowers are lanky plants best suited to the back of the border. ‘Happy Days’ has sturdy stems that are an ideal height for the middle of the border, as well as for bouquets. And it’s showy enough to use in large containers.

Type Perennial Blooms Golden-yellow in midsummer to early fall Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 20 to 24 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Valentine’ old-fashioned bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis)

Instead of the medium pink flowers you find on common old-fashioned bleeding heart, these are a striking cherry-red. And rather than plain green, the stems are burgundy so they really stand out against the dusky gray-green foliage.

Type Perennial Blooms Cherry-red hearts in late spring Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 20 to 30 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 3 to 8

‘Pink Cotton Candy’ betony (Stachys officinalis)

Until ‘Pink Cotton Candy’, most cultivars only had purple-pink flower spikes, a shade some folks find hard to coordinate with other colors. Just like the sugary confection, this cultivar is a clear light pink. For up to two months of flowers, keep it deadheaded to encourage more spikes. As the flowers finish, cut the stems down so the stub won’t show above the tidy mound of foliage. With very few problems that bother it, the foliage looks great right up until winter.

Type Perennial Blooms Light pink spikes in early to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 18 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Fire Island’ hosta (Hosta hybrid)

Hostas are a mainstay of the shade garden, and deservedly so, but it would be nice to get more color from them. ‘Fire Island’ has gold to chartreuse leaves, which remain colorful all summer. Pull them back for a peek underneath and you’ll discover the stems are deep red.

Type Perennial Blooms 20-in.-tall lavender flowers in late summer Light Part to full shade Soil Well-drained Size 10 to 14 in. tall, 15 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy USDA zones 3 to 9

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