Which plants got the honors this year?
Every year, plant associations earmark their plants of the year. Let’s look at the perennial plant of the year and the herb of the year.
Since 1990, the Perennial Plant Association has designated a garden stalwart as Plant of the Year. Unlike the All-America Selection winners, the PPA winner often has been around for years.
While that might not make sense when there are so many new introductions to promote, it is a pretty good system. Instead of potential flash-in-the-pan plants, you get a plant that has proven itself over the years to make it through droughts, floods, cold, heat, and just about any potential disease or insect problem.
Polygonatum odoratum “Variegatum,” which rolls off the tongue as well as any song lyricist could muster, is this year’s winner. Most of us know the plant as Variegated Solomon’s Seal.
(Botanically, the variety should really be pluriflorum Variegatum, but we are starting to split DNA hairs here, and anyway, it doesn’t flow.)
Variegated Solomon’s Seal is similar to regular Solomon’s Seal except for the white stripe along the edges of each leaflet. What you grow is a plant with lots of rhizomes as the plant matures with long arching leaves growing about 18 to 24 inches long. Each of the leaves has probably 12 to 15 leaflets attached.
White bell-shaped flowers will appear in the spring on the leaves’ underside. If pollinated, black berries will develop by September. Most people miss the flowers when they bloom; they don’t smell and they tend to be hidden by leaves.
Variegated Solomon’s Seal is a companion plant to hostas and ferns. It prefers shaded conditions, though it will tolerate some morning sun. The more sun, without getting too much, the more white you’ll find on the leaves.
Deer won’t eat the plants. Slugs don’t like them. Rabbits might nest in them, but they aren’t eating them. Japanese beetles leave them alone. In other words, it’s pretty pest-free.
While plants can tolerate drought, they will eventually turn brown along the white edges, with a resulting curling under of the margins.
In normal years the plants turn a butter-yellow during the winter with the leaves finally bleaching white. Snow will flatten the leaves, which are easily removed in the spring if you want a more manicured look.
Variegated Solomon’s Seal has the advantage of making a fairly round clump of plants in several years, provided the soil is loose and you fertilize the plants late in the fall or early in the spring before new growth starts and give the plant water during hot dry spells.
Besides the solid green or variegated forms, there is a harder to find gold-edged type as well as a miniature form that barely gets 4 inches high. Solomon’s Seal is readily found at most garden centers, nurseries and spring plant sales as everyone starts dividing their clump.
Herb of the year
The International Herb Association has declared 2013 as the year of the elder, going with the obvious slogan of “Respect Your Elder.”
Technically, the elder is “Sambucus,” a woody shrub that includes the common elderberry. Stems are essentially hollow, though a white pith might be present initially. Cut the stems, let them dry, and make yourself flutes and pipes.
The most powerful wand in the Harry Potter series was made of Sambucus and called the “Elder Wand.” Going back about 40 years, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had the French king in “The Holy Grail” say King Arthur’s father “smelt of elderberries,” though elderberries smell something like blueberries, which mean they don’t smell much at all. And what would the world of Cary Grant be without his two aunts serving elderberry wine in “Arsenic and Old Lace?”
You can use elderberries in jams, jellies, pies, cakes, flavored water and of course, wine and brandy. Berries are high in vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium. Flowers are also used for culinary purposes.
Medicinally, elderberry has had lots of uses: anti-viral, anti-bacterial, combating the flu and reducing allergies. American Indians had many uses, generally creating a tea from the bark.
However, much of the information is testimonial in nature as opposed to scientific. That doesn’t mean it will or will not work; there is just no guarantee. Always consult a medical professional before relying on folk remedies.
The wild elderberry is a fairly large, rambling plant that doesn’t fit into most of our landscapes.
The green plant may reach 8 feet high before producing the white flowers followed by the purplish-black berries. It’s more of an alley or behind-the-garage plant.
Leave it to the plant breeders, though, to come up with landscape quality plants. There are several forms that only grow 6 feet high with the same spread. Instead of green leaves, some are yellow while others the dark purple-black of the flowers. It’s not a maintenance-free shrub, but can provide a nice contrast to the typical lilac or forsythia.
David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension.