Many plant award programs have patterned themselves after the Gold Medal Plant Awards. The prestigious Pennsylvania Horticulture Society has been overseeing the plant evaluations and selections since 1978. Chosen plants must exhibit standards of excellence in disease resistance, ease of growing, and, of course, beauty. The judges take into account all of a plant's interesting attributes -- not just its flowers. When buying a Gold Medal winner, you get a tried-and-true plant for your region.
The Rising Sun Redbud (Cercis canadensis 'JN2') Redbud is a much-loved harbinger of spring. The Rising Sun, however, takes this tree into a whole new dimension. The lavender-pink buds still bloom early on slender branches, attracting the first butterflies of spring; that's where the similarity stops. The new foliage emerges in bright shades of peach and tangerine, changing to chartreuse and finally to light green. This is a small tree, generally reaching just 12 feet or so, the perfect size for urban gardens. Plant in full sun or light shade for best color. Zones (4) 5-8 See more about The Rising Sun redbud.
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) This is a showstopper in April, when the 6- to 10-inch-long, bright red flowers bloom. Planting a red buckeye is a wonderful way to attract ruby-throated hummingbirds and early butterflies to your garden. Like many native trees, it is very low-maintenance and will not require pruning. This is a large shrub or small tree that will reach 20 feet in height. It is easy to grow in a wide range of soil types but prefers moist, well-drained soil. Once established, it is fairly drought-tolerant. The red buckeye grows best in full sun or light dappled shade. Zones 4-8
'Shoal Creek' Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus 'Shoal Creek') It's almost like having a lilac that blooms in late summer. 'Shoal Creek' chaste tree is known for its violet-blue flowers that can grow up to 18 inches long. The fragrant blossoms attract butterflies to your garden. Not many trees bloom in late summer, making this one all the more special. In cooler Zones 5 and 6, it may die back to the ground in winter but will reemerge from the roots each spring. It can grow 4-7 feet in a year. Even if it does die back, the tree will bloom again that same year. In warmer climates, it will grow 10-20 feet tall. Zones (5) 6-8
Leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) Leatherleaf is a tough evergreen shrub with all-season interest. It has bluish-green, hollylike foliage held out by red stems. The yellow flowers are extremely fragrant and bloom in March and April. Later in the season, grapelike clusters of blue-black fruit appear to the delight of songbirds that will quickly gobble them up. Some say the fruit is even more attractive than the flowers. Growing 4-10 feet tall, leatherleaf makes a lovely screen in a shady area of the garden. Zones 5-8
Venus Dogwood (Cornus x 'KN30-8') This hybrid has everything you love about a flowering dogwood and more. Venus was bred with disease resistance in mind, as other dogwoods often have problems with foliar disease. The leaves are a handsome, glossy deep green but hardly visible in May, when 6-inch pure-white flowers bloom. In October and November, the strawberrylike fruits become visible at the same time the leaves begin to turn. Long-lasting fall color will light up your garden in warm shades of orange, red, and purple. Venus has a round habit and will reach 20-30 feet tall and nearly as wide. Zones 4-8
'Halley's Comet' Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum 'Halley's Comet') Florida anise is a 6-foot-tall evergreen shrub with aromatic rhododendronlike foliage that prefers to grow in shade. 'Halley's Comet' is a vast improvement over the species. It flowers more heavily with larger flowers and for a longer period of time. The deep-red flowers are star-shape with long, recurving petals. The shrub blooms in May, and the flowers can persist into summer. Occasionally, the plant will send out some flowers again in the fall. It likes moist, well-drained soil but is quite adaptable. This deer-resistant native shrub is also resistant to pests and disease. Zones 6-8
'Blue Mist' Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii 'Blue Mist') Each spring, just after the bluish-green foliage unfurls, bottlebrushlike white flowers bloom, filling the air with the scent of honey. The bluish foliage, a nice diversion from the plain green of other shrubs, remains clean and tidy all summer long and turns yellow in fall. 'Blue Mist' is easily grown in average to slightly acidic garden soil that has good drainage. It grows in full sun but tolerates shade quite well. This dwarf variety grows 4-10 feet tall and is lovely combined with rhododendrons. Zones 5-8
'Margarita' Carolina Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens 'Margarita') In April, when the first flowers of the new season are in bloom, this delightful native vine puts on quite a show. The fragrant yellow blossoms are reminiscent of trumpet vine yet smaller and more delicate. The deep green, glossy foliage is evergreen or semievergreen in some places and remains attractive all season long. This is a remarkably adaptable shrub that will grow in sun or shade. It prefers moist, well-drained soil but will tolerate dry soil, too. Climbing 10-20 feet, it may be used as an evergreen screen on a trellis or fence. It may also be left to scramble over the ground in informal areas of the garden. Zones (5) 6-9
Cool Splash Southern Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia 'LPDC Podaras') Cool Splash is the first variegated bush honeysuckle, and its bright white-and-green foliage stands out dramatically, especially in borders with dappled shade. The foliage stays bright and clean right up until the first hard frost. Small bunches of butterfly-attracting yellow blossoms adorn the plant in June and July. A small, densely branched shrub -- just 2-3 feet tall -- it is easy to grow in a variety of soils and will spread over time. It's lovely used in the front of woodland gardens because deer tend to leave it alone. The bright foliage looks smart in a perennial border, and the shrub is spectacular planted in large groups. Zones 4-7
'Midwinter Fire' Bloodtwig Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire') I can't decide if this shrub is more beautiful in summer or winter. This multistem shrub can grow 8-10 feet tall. Clusters of tiny white flowers bloom in late spring and are later replaced by purple grapelike berries. The fruit is not terribly showy, but songbirds find the berries delicious. In the fall, the foliage turns golden before dropping to expose the exquisite stem color. Yellowish-orange stems extend out to fiery red twigs, hence the name. Cut branches are perfect for flower arranging and holiday decorations. Zones 4-7
'Amethyst Falls' American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens 'Amethyst Falls') The fresh green foliage of this charming native climber is formed of many leaflets and gives the plant a lacy appearance. This wisteria looks fabulous grown on a trellis or when allowed to ramble 15 feet or more along a fence. The fragrant blossoms, which attract butterflies, hang down like bunches of grapes in shades of lavender and blue. It is much better behaved than the aggressive and invasive Asian species of wisteria, and it flowers a month later, so the two are easy to tell apart. This wisteria will grow in shade, but it will provide the best show of flowers in bright sun. Zones 5-8 (9)
Spicebush (Lindera glauca var. salicifolia) Spicebush seems to be a well-kept secret, or it would be planted far more often. It grows 4-10 feet tall and nearly as wide. The willowlike leaves are bluish green and not particularly attractive to deer. The flowers are inconspicuous but produce nice-looking black fruits. For about a month each fall, the foliage turns fire-engine red with yellow and orange highlights that complement the shiny black fruit. As the weather turns colder, the foliage loses its pigment and turns to a clean, tawny brown. It stays on the shrub all winter, providing a dramatic background for evergreens and redtwig dogwoods. Zones 5-7
'Starburst' Amur Maackia (Maackia amurensis 'Starburst') 'Starburst' is not only a Gold Medal winner, but it was also declared one of the top five urban-tolerant trees by the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. It has a well-branched, uniform canopy and is considered more uniform and vigorous than the species. Growing to just 30 feet in height makes it ideal for small gardens and city plantings. The petite white flowers bloom in midsummer on stiff stems that are 6 inches long. It grows best in full sun with well-drained soil but is considered quite adaptable. Zones 4-8
Sweet Box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) Sweet box is so fragrant that you can smell its delightful perfume before you see the plant. This shrub actually blooms in late winter, when few other plants can tempt us out into the garden. The foliage is evergreen, shiny, and deer-resistant. It makes a lovely groundcover in a woodland garden, reaching just 2-3 feet tall. Sweet box loves rich, organic soils, but it will tolerate lesser soil and will grow well even in deep shade. It spreads, but not at an alarming rate. Zones 5-8
'Pallida' Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida') Pallida is an exceptional hybrid shrub known for producing abundant, sweetly fragrant yellow flowers from January to March. Each flower has four narrow petals that are crinkled like tissue paper. You can cut branches in January to bring indoors, where you can admire the flowers and the fragrance up close. This is a large deciduous shrub with a wide spreading habit and broad oval leaves that turn yellow in autumn. Grow it in moist but well-drained, acidic to neutral soil in full sun or partial shade. Zones 5-8