Designers Favorite Plants

BY Jeff Minnich

Die-hard gardeners look for many attributes when choosing favorite plants:

  • Zone hardiness

  • Flower shape and color of blooms time of bloom and length of bloom time

  • Leaf texture evergreen or leaf-losing deciduous fall color

  • Growth rate and habit

  • Drought tolerance

  • Ornamental features like attractive bark

Wilmingtons top garden designers and smartest plant experts tell us about their favorite plants that work well in our unique climate.

“I look for plants that are easy to grow and aesthetically pleasing ” says Monica Twigg landscape designer and owner of Five Oaks Nursery. Twiggs current top favorites are the Drift Roses. This is a group of roses not a specific variety so there is no Latin name for the popular Knock Out group of roses now seen everywhere. They grow about two feet tall by three feet wide.

“Theyre very hardy and they bloom from early spring to Christmas some years ” Twigg says.

Drift Roses bloom in red coral pink white and peach.

“Another plant I like is Breeze Grass (Lomandra longifolia). Its evergreen hardy dwarf tolerates harsh conditions ” she says.

Breeze Grass grows about two-and-a-half feet high by three feet wide.

Twigg also prefers Purple Pixie Loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense “Purple Pixie”) for its unique growth habit 18 inches high by about three feet wide and its deep purple evergreen leaves.

“It needs to be watered and cared for to get it established of course ” she says.

And she loves Crapemyrtles for their long-bloom period.

Al Hight director of the New Hanover County Arboretum agrees with Twigg regarding the Crapemyrtle.

“Many of the Crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica and hybrids) have beautiful bark great for landscape lighting and fall color. They are long blooming ” Hight says. “As long as you give them good sun average soil and decent drainage they will perform beautifully for you.”

Hight has studied Crapemyrtles and has his favorite varieties: clear pink Osage for its bark and open arching growth habit; medium pink Sioux for its slender habit; dark pink Miami for its long-bloom period; red Tonto for its hardy flowers and its medium 10-foot height; and a fairly new variety white High Cotton developed in North Carolina for its tall upright height and decorative bark.

“I wish we could get people to choose Crapemyrtle varieties for the spot they are planting them so we dont have to prune them ” Hight says referring to the Crape Murder term coined by Southern Living senior garden editor Steve Bender.

Crapemyrtles do not need to be pruned in order to bloom; this is a very common misperception. They bloom on the new growth without pruning.

The Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) and the Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) are the two favorites of landscape designer and artistic director of Landscapes Unique Tracy McCullen.

“I love the Live Oak because its a tree that lives for many many generations ” McCullen says. “Hundreds of years from now people will still be benefiting from and enjoying the tons of Live Oaks that I plant each year. I just think thats incredible ” he says.

McCullen says he loves the way Weeping Willows “dance in the breeze and provide such a soft wispy texture to a garden. I also like that they retain some of their foliage until December and are then the first to bud out with new foliage in late February.”

David Erwin of North State Gardens loves Live Oaks as well.

“I have many favorite plants but if I had to choose one it would be the Southern Live Oak ” he says. “It is a very strong long-lived evergreen with a dramatically sculptural structure. Its magnificent branches often form arches which invite you to walk or drive under. Its acorns provide food for much wildlife. When I plant a Live Oak I feel like I am doing something good for the present as well as for generations to come.”

Erwin is a big fan of the spring-flowering Camellia (Camellia japonica) too.

“Its handsome form and broad dark leaves make it a plant I would use even if it did not bloom. Camellias have a great variety of beautiful blooms that come at a time when very few other plants are in bloom.”

Spring is a wonderful time to visit gardens and nurseries. “So often most people miss great plants because they dont visit in winter ” The Transplanted Garden owner Tom Ericson says.

He favors the exotics like Farfugium (Farfugium japonicum) also known as the Leopard Plant and especially likes the varieties Giganteum Aureomaculatum and Cristata.

“Farfugium is evergreen around here in the winter; it can tolerate drier shade than say a Hosta or Ligularia and it makes a great tropical statement. Its almost like having an evergreen Hosta ” Ericson says.

Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) is another of Ericsons favorites for its early long-lasting blooms.

“Flowering Quince works great with Camellias in sunny areas ” he says. “I love that fresh touch of green ” he says in varieties like Oyashima with its upright double-white flowers fringed in green and Chojuraku with its double-salmon blooms.

Tony Parker landscape designer and owner of Classic Landscapes has a very practical approach to choosing his favorite plants.

“I dont really have favorite plants as much as I have appropriates. Any plant that is thriving in tough site conditions is my favorite ” he says. “One plant I do like is Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) or false bamboo. This plant is a spreader so it needs some form of restraint.”

The spines provide strong vertical line quality and striking visual richness to a contemporary composition Parker says and the bonus is that Horsetail thrives in wet poorly drained soils always a challenge for landscapers.

The popular Wintergreen Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana “Wintergreen”) is a favorite of Wrightsville Beach Landscapings Michael and Karen Carter.

“We use this variety as a foundation plant and to accent gardens. We like it for its reliability hardiness and versatility ” Karen Carter says.

The Carters choose a range of plants for year-round landscape interest.

“Michael and I both agree these are some of our favorites ” Karen says Camellias both the spring-blooming (Camellia japonica) and fall-blooming (Camellia sasanqua).

“This plant gives you the best of both worlds. It has beautiful evergreen foliage and blooms in fall and winter and winter and spring ” she says.

The Carters are fond of Crapemyrtles as well particularly the white-flowering Natchez.

Like Hight Karen Carter says “It adds elegance with its unique growth habit and color variations on the trunk.”