If your landscape needs easy-to-care-for, waterwise, hardy, beautiful plants that thrive in the Midwest, consider these underused plant varieties that are winners according to the GreatPlants award program. A joint effort between the Nebraska Nursery and Landscape Association and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, the GreatPlants program annually selects new plant winners in four categories: trees, shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses.
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides) This is a rare and unusual plant with all-season beauty. The name seven-son flower comes from the fragrant, creamy white flowers that bloom in clusters of seven in late August and September. The flowers are an important food source for butterflies. A stunning display of purplish-red fruit follows the flowers. Some people find the fruit even more beautiful than the flowers. The bark exfoliates, much like a crepe myrtle, adding another season of interest. This fast-growing shrub will reach about 15 feet tall. Plant it in moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Zones 5-8
Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) Once you see a shagbark hickory, you'll never forget it. It is easily one of the most beautiful and distinctive North American hardwoods. A sizable tree, it reaches 60 feet tall and occasionally even 100 feet tall. The bark of this tree is what draws your attention. It peels in long curls and looks, well, shaggy. People and squirrels alike love the hickory nuts. Shagbark foliage is a pretty, bright, greenish yellow. It turns golden in early fall, eventually drying to a warm bronze. This tree prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. Zones 4-8
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) Woodland phlox is a delicate native wildflower that is relatively common in Midwestern woods and fields. For the best effect, plant this perennial in large drifts in a woodland garden. Butterflies and gardeners both find drifts of woodland phlox beautiful in the dappled light of spring. Woodland phlox also works beautifully as edging in a shady border as it only grows about 1 foot tall. The blossoms are pale blue, but now and then you'll see a violet or white one. Try planting woodland phlox with Jacob's ladder or in front of ferns and azaleas. This wildflower does best in part shade to full shade with well-drained, somewhat moist soil. Zones 3-8 See more about woodland phlox.
Palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) This is one of the best sedges you can buy. It's easy to grow, looks exotic, and will thrive in the shade. Palm sedge is a beautiful perennial with glossy green, grasslike leaves that grows 2-3 feet tall. An excellent shade-loving groundcover, palm sedge will flourish in damp soil, even clay. It looks particularly nice when used with broader-leaved plants, such as hosta, lady's mantle, and brunnera, in the shade garden. It makes an interesting addition to pond periphery plantings and will tolerate more sun as long as the soil is moist. Best of all, deer leave it alone. Zones 4-9
'Fireworks' goldenrod (Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks') This goldenrod does look like bright yellow fireworks, thanks to the gently arching branches. The cultivar is compact, reaching 2-3 feet tall, and has more flowers than most others. Fireworks goldenrod will steal the show in late summer and fall. This perennial loves full sun, is deer-resistant, and is drought-tolerant once established. It's also a great way to attract butterflies and songbirds to your garden. Contrary to popular belief, goldenrod, a great cut flower, does not cause hay fever. Plant it with asters, sedum, and coneflowers. Zones 3-9
Dwarf blue indigo (Baptisia minor) Blue wild indigo is a beautiful, long-lived, drought-tolerant perennial. Its intensely saturated violet-blue flower spikes reach 3 feet tall in late spring. With bluish-green, leathery foliage, dwarf blue indigo makes an attractive plant even after it flowers. The plant prefers full sun to partial shade in average, neutral soil. Because it's smaller than the species plant, it won't flop over or need staking. It looks natural in a perennial border or meadow accompanied by ornamental grasses, coneflower, and blazing star. Zones 4-8
Redleaf rose (Rosa glauca) When people think of roses, they usually think of flowers. Redleaf rose has darling, light pink, star-shape blossoms that emit a subtle sweet fragrance. This rose, however, is all about the foliage. In full sun, it appears bluish gray with a touch of burgundy. In the shade, the foliage seems to be silvery gray-green. It is a delightful addition to any flower arrangement, with or without flowers. The round hips are orange-red and persist into fall on 5- to 7-foot-tall reddish-violet canes. Zones 2-7 See more about redleaf rose.
Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) Eastern wahoo is a shrub or small tree valued for its attractive fruit and fall color. This native will grow 8-12 feet tall in dappled light or partial shade. It flowers with small purple blossoms that are hidden by the leaves and are not showy. The clusters of scarlet fruit they produce, however, are stunning and persist into winter, even after the leaves have fallen. The bright red fall foliage will provide a dramatic splash of color to your fall landscape. This is one of the few plants that will happily grow under a black walnut. Zones 4-9
St. John's wort (Hypericum kalmianum) Native to the Great Lakes region, this shrub is extremely hardy and versatile. Blooming in July and August, the flowers are a bright golden-yellow with a powder-puff bunch of yellow stamens in the middle. Blue-green foliage backs the flowers. The whole plant is compact and rounded, forming a mound 2-3 feet tall. It enjoys full sun and is tolerant of a number of soil types, from sandy and dry to moist lakeshore sites. Zones 4-7
Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioica) The Kentucky coffee tree doesn't make good coffee (the seeds are poisonous if not treated properly), but it does make a fantastic shade tree, growing up to 60 feet tall with an open, narrow crown. The branching and bark look rugged in contrast to the light and airy foliage. In fact, looking up through the foliage is like looking through lace. That same dappled shade also will ensure that your lawn gets enough sun. Zones (3b) 4-8 See more about Kentucky coffee tree.
Chenault coralberry (Symphoricarpos x chenaultii) Chenault coralberry is used extensively in Europe and deserves wider attention here. Best used as a groundcover, this perennial shines in tough situations, such as slopes and embankments where it can reduce erosion. It grows about 2-3 feet tall but much wider. Each time a branch touches the ground, it begins to root, forming a dense mat and smothering weeds. Happily, it's not all work. Pretty pink flowers bloom in late summer and rosy red berries follow. The berries persist well into winter and are fabulous in flower arrangements. Zones 4-7
'Shenandoah' switchgrass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah') Shenandoah is arguably the best burgundy-red switchgrass available today. This is a very tidy plant, reaching 3-5 feet tall and maintaining its compact, upright form. The foliage has a decorative dark purple cast to its tips throughout the summer, as do the airy plumes of flowers. Once fall arrives, the leaves turn bright burgundy red and will attract more attention than any other plant in your garden. Easy to grow in average soil, it likes full sun or light shade. Zones 4-9 See more about Shenandoah' switchgrass.
Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) If you are able to plant a whole drift of this charming native grass, do it. It's delightful to watch the breeze move the delicate blades of amassed grass. Prairie dropseed forms a neat, round tuft 2 feet high with narrow grass blades sweeping to the ground. Delicate flowers are held above the leaves like a cloud. What you'll notice most about the flowers is the incredible fragrance. Plant them near a pathway so you can take in the fragrance as you walk by. This native prairie plant likes full sun. Zones 3-9
'Smoky Hills' prairie skullcap (Scutellaria resinosa 'Smoky Hills') This darling perennial has a seriously high cute factor. It forms a neat mound about 10 inches tall with soft gray foliage, much like lavender. Smoky Hills is an improved selection that blooms longer and sports deep purple-blue flowers tipped with white. It is easy to grow in full sun and average garden soil. It looks terrific in rock gardens and perennial borders. Drought-resistant once established, it should be watered regularly the first year. Zones (3) 4-8
'Taylor' juniper (Juniperus virginiana 'Taylor') This stately Eastern red cedar was discovered in Taylor, Nebraska. Its tall, slender form, reminiscent of Italian cypress, earned it its spot in this program. It can grow up to 25 feet tall but only 3-4 feet wide, which means no pruning. These elegant trees, with beautiful blue-green needles, often are planted on either side of an entryway for a formal look. They are also effective in creating privacy screens. Zones: (3b) 4-9