The 15 Most Underused Perennials

Most gardeners are familiar with classic perennials such as daylilies, peonies, hostas, and iris, but there's a whole host of lesser-known, underused perennials that can add color and interest to your garden. You may have to search for them at your garden center or an online source, but they're all worth the effort. Here are 15 of our favorite underused perennials.

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  • 1 of 16

    Baptisia

    Enjoy towers of gorgeous blue, purple, yellow, or white flowers every spring with Baptisia, once commonly called False Indigo. This beauty is a tough, reliable native perennial that will bloom year after year for decades in any sunny garden. Baptisia is heat- and drought-resistant and even when not in bloom, the plant's divided, blue-green leaves add plenty of interest to the garden. Baptisia isn't fussy about soil type and eventually forms a dense mound 4 feet tall and wide. The plants are slow growing, so for the best show, buy the largest specimens you can find. Zones 3-9

  • 2 of 16

    Gas Plant

    Although it can sometimes be hard to find at your local garden center, Gas Plant, Dictamnus alba, is definitely worth the search. A classic cottage garden plant, Gas Plant produces pretty spikes of pink or white flowers in the late spring and early summer. In addition, after the flowers fade, they form star-shape seed heads that add interest in the garden. Gas Plant also offers divided, light green leaves that give off a lemony fragrance when rubbed or brushed. A slow grower, Gas Plant will bloom for years if you plant it in full sun and leave it alone; it hates to be transplanted or divided. Gas Plant gets its common name from the fact on hot summer evenings the mature flowers produce a flammable oil that can be lit by a match, resulting in a quick vapor burn. Gas plant grows 2-3 feet tall. Zones 3-8

  • 3 of 16

    Malva

    At first glance, you might think Malva is a member of the hibiscus family. That's because this easy-care perennial develops masses of pink, open-face hibiscuslike flowers delicately etched with dark purple stripes. Malva, also called common mallow, grows 2-4 feet tall and blooms nonstop from mid summer to early fall. It's a fast-growing perennial that prefers full sun but is tough enough to thrive in partial shade. Malva can handle almost any soil type, but it doesn't have a long lifespan and may only last for a few years. But don't worry, Malva self sows frequently so there's often new a crop of plants growing near the feet of the faded ones. In fact, in some locations malva can become invasive, so keep tabs on runaway plants. Zones 4-8

  • 4 of 16

    Globe Thistle

    If you’ve spent much time trying to rid your landscape of Canadian thistle, you may be a bit wary of planting a perennial with “thistle” in its name. But unlike its weedy invader from the North, Globe Thistle, Echinops gmelinii, is a joy to grow. This sun-loving perennial grows 2-3 feet tall and produces showy, bright blue or white thistlelike balls of bloom from mid to late summer. Because the flowers are borne on upright, stiff stalks, they work great in fresh or dried arrangements. Globe Thistle is heat- and drought-resistant and will grow easily in any well-drained soil. It doesn’t transplant well, so plant Globe Thistle where you want it to grow permanently. The plants may self-sow if you allow the blooms to mature on the plant. Zones 3-8

  • 5 of 16

    Bergenia

    When it comes to common names, some perennials just can't catch a break. Take Bergenia for example. This handsome plant is commonly called Pig Squeak simply because the leaves are said to sound like an outraged porker when you rub them between your fingers. But once you get past the plant's silly common name, you'll quickly discover that Bergenia is a tremendously useful groundcover plant in shady spots. Its thick, dark green, heart-shape leaves and spikes of bright pink spring flowers are a welcome treat under tall trees or dense shrubs. In addition, Bergenia is rabbit-, deer-, drought-, and disease-resistant. The plant grows 12-15 inches tall and remains evergreen in the warmer parts of its range. Zones 3-8

  • 6 of 16

    Lily of the Valley

    It’s no surprise that spring brides often carry the fragrant, pendulous pink or white flowers of lily-of-the-valley as they walk down the aisle. For decades this sweet little perennial has come to symbolize humility, purity, and the return of happiness. Growing just 6-8 inches tall, lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, spreads quickly in shady locations with rich, slightly moist soil. The plant’s light green leaves pop up in the early spring and are followed by the short, graceful flower stalks just a few weeks later. Use lily-of-the-valley as a ground cover in woodland gardens or along the north side of your house.  Keep in mind that the flowers eventually form poisonous red berries, so keep away from small children and pets. Zones 3-8

  • 7 of 16

    Culver’s Root

    An American native, Culver’s Root, Veronicastrum virginicum, makes a bold statement in the back-of-the-border or meadow garden. Growing 4-7 feet tall, Culver’s Root produces a nonstop display of white, candelabralike flower heads throughout the summer. The plant prefers full sun and rich, moist to wet soil. Culver’s Root is also popular with butterflies that feast on its nectar-rich blooms. It’s not bothered by disease or insect pests, but may require staking if it doesn’t receive enough sunlight. Zones 3-8

  • 8 of 16

    Sea Holly

    If you love to create fresh flower arrangements, be sure to plant Sea Holly, Eryngium planum, in your garden. A popular cut flower since the Victorian era, Sea Holly is prized for its stiff steel-blue flowers that hold their color even when dried. The plants grow 2-3 feet tall and produce armloads of thistlelike blooms from June to September. This easy-care perennial is a sun worshipper that actually does best in dry, sandy soils. In fact, if you fertilize or over water Sea Holly, you might end up killing it with kindness. Sea Holly does not transplant well, so avoid moving it once it’s established. Zones 5-9

  • 9 of 16

    Solomon’s Seal

    When it comes right down to it, there aren’t a lot of perennials that thrive in dense shade. But Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum odoratum, is a colorful exception that will quickly light up the darkest corners of your landscape. This handsome plant grows 2-3 feet tall and develops cheerful green or variegated foliage and quantities of small, bell-shape white flowers in April and May. Solomon’s Seal prefers rich, slightly moist soil and slowly spreads through the garden by underground roots. In the fall, the foliage turns bright yellow, adding an extra boost of color as the growing season comes to an end. Zones 3-8

  • 10 of 16

    Queen of the Prairie

    Growing 6-8 feet tall and 3-4 feet wide, Queen of the Prairie, Filipendula rubra, is no shrinking violet. This amazing native perennial is ideal for large gardens or open hillsides where you can give it enough elbowroom to hold court. The plant is a snap to grow in any sunny spot with rich, slightly moist soil. Once established, Queen of the Prairie will produce masses of fragrant, pale pink flowerheads throughout the summer. It’s also dressed in large, bright green, finely cut foliage that’s resistant to hungry deer. Queen of the Prairie will self-sow and eventually form thick clusters of regal plants. Zones 3-8

  • 11 of 16

    Geranium, cranesbill

    When it comes to flower power, few perennials can compare to Cranesbill Geranium. These little beauties rarely grow more than 2 feet tall, but they put on a big show in the garden because they always seem to be smothered in flowers. Cranesbill Geranium comes in a wide variety of colors, including white, pink, blue, lavender, purple, red, and bicolor; all varieties sport interesting, lobed foliage. They are super hardy and thrive in full sun or light shade. After the first flush of bloom some plants may start to sprawl, but all you need to do is shear them back to encourage more flowers and compact growth. Use Cranesbill Geranium in the front of the border, rock garden, or woodland setting. Zones 4-10

  • 12 of 16

    Catmint

    We probably get more compliments about Catmint than any other perennial in our Test Garden. Planted en masse along a border edge, this little powerhouse never fails to produce a showstopping display of bright bluish-purple flowers. It’s extra hardy with no insect or disease problems and comes in a variety of sizes that range from 6 to 36 inches tall. Catmint prefers full sun and well-drained soil. The plants bloom in late spring and early summer and can easily be encouraged to bloom again if you shear the plants back by two thirds after the first flowers fade. Catmint is a popular nectar plant and will lure hungry hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden. Rabbits and deer leave catmint alone. Zones 3-8

  • 13 of 16

    Veronica

    Once found in every perennial border, Veronica isn’t always the first plant you see when you visit the garden center. That’s probably because the plants don’t look all that showy when they’re young. Yet, Veronica remains one of the easiest and prettiest perennials you can grow. These reliable plants grow 12-24 inches tall and develop sturdy spikes of blue, purple, red, or white flowers that keep coming all summer long if you remember to clip away the dead flowers as they fade. Veronica makes a great cut flower, too. And to top it all off, deer and rabbits won’t mow your plants to the ground. Zones 4-9

  • 14 of 16

    Turtlehead

    Late summer can be a drab time in the perennial border unless you include plants that put on their best show at the end of the season. Turtlehead, Chelone oblique, for example, produces attractive snapdragonlike, rose-purple, pink, or white flowers from July to September. What’s more, Turtlehead can easily grow in either sun or partial shade. This native perennial rises 2-3 feet tall and thrives in rich, moist, almost swampy soil. Turtlehead is a great choice for bog or rain gardens or planted alongside koi ponds or waterfalls. Zones 3-9

  • 15 of 16

    Epimedium

    Some perennials are natural problem-solvers. Epimedium, for example, is one of the best groundcovers for dry shade. This makes it invaluable for use under tall, shallow-rooted trees such as maples that suck a lot of moisture from the soil. Epimedium, once called Barrenwort or Bishop's Hat, grows 6-12 inches tall and develops pretty heart-shape leaves topped with clusters of starlike yellow, white, lavender, or rose flowers in April and May. The plants are resistant to deer and rabbits and have virtually no disease or insect problems. Zones 5-9

  • Next Slideshow The Best Perennial Plants for Shade

    The Best Perennial Plants for Shade

    Brighten up sheltered spots in your landscape with these easy-to-grow, colorful shade plants that come back year after year.
    Begin Slideshow »
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