These unusual and underused plants have earned awards from horticulturists for their proven value in New England landscapes.
An endowment from noted plantsman Edward A. Cary established the Cary Award for Distinctive Plants for New England in 1997. Horticulturists from across New England have selected more than 40 Cary Award winners to draw attention to unusual and underused plants and, above all, to help consumers choose plants with proven records of success.
Anyone may nominate a woody shrub, tree, vine, or groundcover that is hardy in at least two of the USDA Hardiness Zones of New England (Zones 3-6). Special attention is given to plants that have an extended season of interest or that have winter beauty. Winners must also be widely available for purchase. Award winners that feature the Cary Award ribbon can be found at local nurseries and garden centers throughout New England. Here is a sampling of recent winners and their attributes.
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) This show-off tree deserves a prominent place in your garden. Paperbark maples are best known for their exfoliating bark, and they begin to show this trait at a very young age. The handsome curls of cinnamon-color bark attract attention all year long. The trees look beautiful framed in their fall colors of burgundy, bronze, and red; however, they are perhaps most beautiful against a backdrop of snow. Planting them with low-growing evergreens will accentuate the look. These maples will eventually grow to be 30-40 feet tall and about half as wide. They prefer moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. Zones 4-8 See more about paperbark maple.
Weeping katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Morioka Weeping') Katsura trees are much loved for their heart-shape leaves. They emerge each spring touched with red and purple before taking on their bluish green summer color. In autumn, they light up the garden in shades of yellow, apricot, and orange and exude a brown sugar and cinnamon fragrance when their leaves fall. Young trees grow quickly in height but slow down when their branches begin to weep. Eventually, they can reach up to 25-30 feet in height and width. They do best in rich, moist, well-drained soil and produce the best fall color when planted in full sun. The root system of these trees is not very aggressive so it is possible to underplant them with rhododendrons, camellias, and shade-loving perennials. Zones 4-8 See more about katsura tree.
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) The fringe tree is certainly one of North America's most beautiful native trees. In late May to early June, the trees are dripping with snow-white blossoms, so many that it's almost impossible to see the newly emerged foliage. Reaching just 15-20 feet in height and width, they are often planted near the house where the white flowers stand out even more against a background of brick. Female trees produce blue, grapelike fruits that are relished by birds in late summer. In autumn the yellow leaves fall, exposing smooth gray branches. Pruning is rarely required. Plant fringe trees in full sun or partial shade in moist, fertile soil. Zones 3-9
Alaska cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula') As the name implies, these trees are native to the Pacific Northwest yet do quite well in the Northeast. These elegant trees, tall and slender with gracefully weeping branches, will reach 30-45 feet in height but less than half that in width. This tree makes a stunning vertical accent in the landscape. In nature, Alaska cedars often grow near rivers, so planting them near a pond or water feature helps to mimic their natural habitat. They appreciate moist, well-drained soil that is neutral or slightly acidic. Protection from strong winds is recommended. Zones 4-7
Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) Truly an American beauty, this native tree is absolutely dazzling in the fall. Once you see its fiery red and pumpkin-orange display, you'll never forget it. Small, yellowish green spring flowers are not very showy, but they do produce nectar irresistible to the bees that make the famous tupelo honey. In late September the dark blue fruit ripens to delight birds. Give this one plenty of room to grow to 30-50 feet tall with a spread of 20-30 feet. Plant in full sun or partial shade in moist, acidic soil. Zones 4-9
Magnolia 'Elizabeth' The lovely 'Elizabeth' was the first yellow-flowering magnolia tree to become widely available, and it is still considered by many to be the best. In late April to mid-May, large buttercream-color flowers appear even before the leaves unfurl. The pale yellow blossoms stand out especially well when planted in front of evergreens. Just be sure to plant it where you'll be able to enjoy the fragrant blossoms up close. All winter the furry, tapered buds hold the promise of spring. Eventually reaching 30 feet tall and up to 20 feet wide, this magnolia appreciates some shelter from strong winds. Plant it in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Zones 4-8
Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) Sophistication and elegance go hand in hand with Japanese stewartia. This is the perfect-size tree for today's urban gardens. Reaching just 20-40 feet tall, it deserves a prominent place in your garden so you can enjoy its all-season beauty. The camellialike blossoms are pure white with bright orange anthers that seem to shine against the dark green foliage. The fall brings warm shades of yellow, red, and purple. Reddish brown bark adds winter interest. A little protection from the harsh afternoon sun will be much appreciated. Zones 5-8 See more about Japanese stewartia.
Fothergilla major It's hard to decide in which season this native shrub is more stunning. Each spring, just after the blue-green foliage unfurls, white flowers reminiscent of bottlebrush appear, filling the air with the scent of honey. The foliage remains clean and tidy all summer before it lights up the garden in autumn. Fall colors vary from yellow to orange to scarlet, often with all three colors present on the same leaf. This shrub is easily grown in average to slightly acidic garden soil that has good drainage, and grows best in full sun but tolerates shade quite well. At 6-10 feet tall, it is lovely when combined with rhododendrons. Zones 5-9 See more about large fothergilla.
Dwarf winterberry (Red Sprite Ilex verticillata) Who doesn't want big red berries in the fall? Red Sprite delivers with a profusion of huge berries just right for holiday decorations or berry-loving birds. There is a love story with this shrub, too. Red Sprite is a female winterberry, and she needs a male winterberry shrub like 'Jim Dandy' or 'Apollo' for pollination. One of these guys will be enough to pollinate a yard full of Red Sprite. With a height of just 3-5 feet, you'll have room for more than one. In fact, they would make an excellent informal hedge. Red Sprite does best in damp areas of the garden. Zones 4-9
Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) Hydrangeas are totally in. They are fabulous plants with stunning flowers. But few people grow or even know about their elegant cousin, climbing hydrangeas. Imagine beautiful, white, lacecap flowers standing out against polished, dark green leaves. These sturdy vines will climb up a wall by themselves with gripping roots that come out of their stems. They can reach heights of 30 feet in time. 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
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) This much-loved native shrub has gotten even better. The new cultivars of mountain laurels have opened up a new world of colors to brighten the garden in May and June. 'Elf' has pink buds opening to white flowers. 'Minuet' has light pink buds with broad maroon rings inside. 'Tiddlywinks' sports rich pink buds with light pink flowers. 'Tinkerbell' is deeper pink than 'Tiddlywinks'. Last but not least, 'Little Linda' has red buds and deep pink flowers. These are all diminutive evergreens reaching just 3-4 feet in height. Moist, well-drained, acidic soil is best. Zones 4-9 See more about mountain laurel.
Pinkshell azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi) After a long winter, nothing is as precious as the first flowers of spring. Pinkshell azaleas will be among the first and most beautiful plants to bloom in your garden. Even before the foliage appears, masses of light pink bell-shape flowers will adorn the light gray branches. Reaching 5-10 feet tall, this delicate plant will look at home in the shrub border or in a more naturalistic landscape enjoying dappled sunlight and acidic soil. Autumn brings an encore with intense oranges and reds that will seem to ignite the garden. Zones 4-7
'Miss Kim' Korean lilac (Syringa patula 'Miss Kim') People can't resist stopping to smell a lilac in the garden or in a vase. 'Miss Kim' is a rather petite shrub in the world of lilacs, growing just 5-8 feet tall. In May and June, the purple buds will open to exude their sweet fragrance above clean, disease-resistant foliage. 'Miss Kim' even has a lovely burgundy fall color. Plant in full sun for the best show of flowers, and wait for the hummingbirds and butterflies to arrive. Zones 3-7 See more about Korean lilac.
Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) Most people don't know that blueberries are not only delicious and loaded with antioxidants, but they also make gorgeous landscape plants. The foliage on these shrubs is dark green, almost bluish green, and shiny. In April and May, the tiny, white bell-shape flowers take on a light pink blush. The shrubs are just 2 feet tall and fit snuggly in the front of the border. As the foliage begins to turn red in late summer, the blue-black berries will ripen to be relished by wildlife and humans alike. Blueberries need moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Zones 2-8
'Weston's Sparkler' rhododendron (Rhododendron 'Weston's Sparkler') This rhododendron has been named a Proven Performer by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, and that is high praise indeed. Deep pink flowers with frilly petals open in July, filling the air with a spicy fragrance. Blue-green foliage shows its silvery undersides in the breeze and changes to wine red in the fall. This beauty will eventually reach 6-12 feet tall and nearly as wide. Like all rhododendrons, 'Weston's Sparkler' needs a moist, acidic soil in sun or filtered light. Mulching helps to keep the roots cool and moist. Zones 4-6