As every gardener knows, the range of available plant choices makes choosing new plants a daunting task. To help boost confidence among gardeners in the lower Midwest, the Missouri Botanical Garden, along with its expert horticultural partner organizations, selects Plants of Merit. The plants are proven performers in Missouri, central and southern Illinois, and the Kansas City metropolitan area. To meet the criteria, plants must be easy to grow, noninvasive, pest- and disease-resistant, highly ornamental, and available for purchase.
Rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium) This native prairie plant looks as dramatic as its name. The leaves at the base of this plant look much like yucca leaves, which gives the garden a southwestern flair. Rattlesnake-master is best used in small groups as an accent in the border. Strong flower stems can reach 4-5 feet tall. The unusual flowers can bloom from June to September and are quite decorative in floral arrangements. Eryngium loves full sun and is drought-tolerant. It is easy to combine with other sun-loving plants, such as asters, sunflowers, goldenrod, and ornamental grasses. Zones 3-8 See more about rattlesnake-master.
Toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana) These flowers look so exotic, passersby will think you're growing orchids in the front yard. Toad lilies have rather small blossoms with pink-, lilac-, or purple-speckle petals. It's best to plant toad lilies where you'll be able to see the flowers up close, such as the patio or sitting area. The flowers also look great in arrangements. This perennial grow best in partial shade where its arching stems will reach 2-3 feet long. It blossoms in late summer and early fall and combines well with other shade plants such as hostas. Zones 4-9 See more about toad lily.
'White Pearl' bugbane (Actaea matsumurae 'White Pearl') Every shade garden must have at least one group of these stately perennials. 'White Pearl' bugbane has a cluster of fernlike foliage about 2-3 feet tall. The foliage is quite attractive and adds a great deal of texture to a shade or woodland garden. While most shade-loving plants bloom in spring, this Actaea sends up its long graceful flower wands in late fall. The showy white blossoms are balanced on the tips of the 3- to 4-foot-tall stems, bringing them nearly up to eye level. It's also called Cimicifuga 'White Pearl'. Zones 4-9
'Snowbank' false aster (Boltonia asteroides var. latisquama 'Snowbank') The name says it all. This false aster is covered with 1-inch daisylike flowers in late summer. Snowbank is an improved version of this lovely native perennial. It is a much more compact form that does not require staking to keep the plants from falling over. This butterfly magnet is a sun lover and is quite happy in most soils, even moderately dry ones. Snowbank spreads slowly, and after a few years, it may be divided. If its 3- to 4-foot height is still too tall, pinch back the stems in late spring. It will keep the plant even more compact. Zones 4-9 See more about 'Snowbank' false aster.
'Longwood Blue' bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis 'Longwood Blue') It's impossible to resist the fragrant violet-blue flowers that cover this small shrub in late summer. Soft silver-gray foliage complements the flowers beautifully and is quite fragrant in its own right. 'Longwood Blue' grows between 2-4 feet tall depending on your Zone and winter dieback. In general, it's best to cut the shrub back hard in early spring. It quickly grows back and flowers that same season. The blossoms are attractive to butterflies and other beneficial insects. Zones 5-9 See more about 'Longwood Blue' bluebeard.
Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa) If you think your garden is full, encourage it to climb. Dutchman's pipe has large, medium-green, heart-shape leaves. It grows quickly and will soon cover a sun porch, trellis, or fence. The flowers are remarkable, shaped like an old-fashioned Dutch smoking pipe. They bloom in early summer, but you'll have to lift up the lush foliage to see them. If the vine gets too tall, it is easily pruned in late winter. This is an outstanding plant for a butterfly garden. In fact, blue-and-black Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies will only lay eggs on this plant. It's easily grown in average well-drained soil in full sun to part shade, but it does prefer rich, moist soil. Zones 5-8
Japanese false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea') In landscape design, evergreens are important for color and texture, even in midwinter. This is a particularly lovely selection because of its golden weeping, threadlike foliage. It is often called a threadleaf false cypress. The golden foliage color stands out especially well in the winter landscape and in seasonal floral arrangements. Slow growing, this tree will only grow 6-7 feet tall in 20 years, but it can occasionally reach 20 feet tall in optimum locations. It's best in part shade and prefers fertile, moist, well-drained soils. Zones 4-8
Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) Hydrangeas are totally in. They are fabulous plants with stunning flowers. Even so, few people grow or even know about their elegant cousins, the climbing hydrangeas. Imagine beautiful white, lacecap flowers, backed by polished dark green leaves. This sturdy vine will climb a wall by itself. Gripping roots come out of the stems. The vine can reach heights of 30 feet in time, but it is easily pruned to keep it shorter. Exfoliating, reddish-brown bark adds interest all winter. Look for 'Firefly' with its yellow variegated foliage for added appeal. Part shade is best. Zones 4-7 Learn more about climbing hydrangea.
'Gro-Low' fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low') This rugged groundcover has great fall color. 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumac generally reaches about 2 feet tall but can spread up to 8 feet. This is the perfect groundcover for large areas or to hold soil on slopes and embankments. The leaves are fragrant and display orange, red, and burgundy fall colors. Plant in full sun or light shade in average garden soil. 'Gro-Low' is a female cultivar with red berries that are loved by birds and small mammals. Zones 3-9 See more about 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumac.
Blue Muffin arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum 'Christom') Blue Muffin has three-season beauty wrapped up in one compact, easy-to-grow shrub. Reaching just 3-5 feet tall, this arrowwood viburnum is the perfect size for foundation plantings or shrub and perennial borders. Clusters of beautiful white flowers bloom in mid- to late spring. The blossoms produce small blue berries in late summer that look terrific in floral arrangements, add interest to the fall landscape, and attract songbirds. As if that wasn't enough, the glossy, deep green foliage turns orange to burgundy in the fall. Zones 3-8 See more about arrowwood viburnum.
Fall Fiesta sugar maple (Acer saccharum 'Bailsta') Fall is exceedingly beautiful in the Midwest, and the show gets brighter with this maple tree. Fall Fiesta sugar maple has deeper and more saturated fall colors. The yellows are golden, the reds are richer, and the oranges are fiery. This handsome shade tree will eventually grow to 50-75 feet tall. The canopy is full and pyramidal to round in shape; it can eventually reach 50 feet wide. Unlike most sugar maples, Fall Fiesta is resistant to frost cracking. Plant it in full sun with moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Zones 3-8 See more about the sugar maple tree.
Pyramidal European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus 'Fastigiata') More common in Europe, this hornbeam has a statuesque oval to upright form and is considered a superb landscape tree. It is also an ideal street tree and does a fine job planted between houses, where it can form a visual barrier. The tree grows 30-40 feet tall but may be pruned hard and grown as a hedge. The foliage is disease-resistant, bright green, and attractive all season. In summer, the tree produces small nutlets, and in the fall, the foliage turns yellow and orange. European hornbeam is easily grown in full sun or light shade in average, well-drained soil. Zones 4-8
'Pink Chimes' snowbell (Styrax japonicus 'Pink Chimes') This is the perfect-size tree to use as a special accent in smaller gardens or patio areas. This refined specimen grows 15-25 feet tall and wide. Clusters of soft pink, bell-shape, fragrant flowers bloom in May and June. Gray-green berries follow the flowers; they mature to brown then last into fall. Mature trees display interesting bark with deep fissures that show off inner layers of orange. It's best grown in humus-rich, slightly acidic, well-drained soil in full sun to light shade. Zones 5-8 See more about 'Pink Chimes' snowbell.
Regal Prince oak (Quercus x warei 'Long') This is an unusual oak tree because of its upright, columnar form. Regal Prince will grow to be 40-60 feet tall but only 25 feet wide, making it better suited to home landscapes than its much larger family members. It is lovely planted alone as a focal point or planted in small groups as a screen for privacy. The foliage is glossy dark green, turning to yellow and brown in the fall. This oak also shows good resistance to pests and disease. It prefers moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil in full sun. Zones 4-9
'Fat Albert' Colorado spruce (Picea pungens 'Fat Albert') This chubby evergreen really is as cute as its name. 'Fat Albert' is best known for having the perfect pyramidal Christmas tree shape. It is compact and grows to just 10-15 feet in 10 years. This is the perfect size for smaller yards where it can be planted as part of a foundation planting, as a single specimen, or in a group near the back of the border. Best of all is the steely-blue needle color. Easily grown in average, well-drained soil in full sun, neither deer nor rabbits find this spruce very delicious. Zones 3-7 Learn more about spruce.