Thousands of people have been looking at other people’s gardens this month. During at least 15 Buffalo Niagara region garden walks, the Open Gardens event, and now all around the big one – Garden Walk Buffalo July 28-29 – we hear the question: “What is that?”
Some of the plants are commonly known to gardeners – hostas, daylilies and coneflowers for instance. But not all garden visitors are gardeners, so I will try to name the ones you’re seeing everywhere.
Other plants are less familiar even among gardeners, and dazzle everyone as they are used by the talented hosts of the garden walks. I’ll describe some of those showy plants that you are most likely to have photographed as well.
The high-impact drama queens
Garden center employees have learned to expect certain plant questions after garden walks. These are some of the “stars” that shine the brightest, and are asked about most.
1. “It has long, strappy leaves, and bright red-orange flowers that dangle off the stems … 3 or 4 feet tall. What is it?” It’s a perennial called Crocosmia; prefers full sun; blooms from mid-July on. Technically it grows from corms, but usually is sold in perennials departments.
2. “It’s purple, maybe indigo, with long pointy leaves with dark lines and a silver cast; it was in lots of pots. Can you tell me what it is?” That is Persian Shield (Strobilanthes). It is a dramatic annual that does well in containers or in the ground, in partial or full sun. It overwinters well as a houseplant with bright light.
3. “They have big round flowers – yellow, red, multicolored, some with wine-colored leaves, in pots. What are they?” Dahlias are gorgeous features of many gardens. They grow from tubers (similar to bulbs) that must be lifted out of the soil in fall and stored in a basement or cool place for the winter.
4. “These bushes have huge white, pink, or blue round or pointed flowers – 5 or 6 inches across. Are they hydrangeas?” Probably. If the shrubs are 3 or 4 feet tall with big leaves they are probably H. macrophylla, the kind that are supposed to bloom off and on all season. If they are 6 feet tall, they are H. paniculate, the easiest kind to grow, flowering just about in time for Garden Walk Buffalo.
5. “What are the heavy vines, with orange flowers, that climb up some telephone poles – or drape over arbors? Hummingbirds were all over them.” They are trumpet vines – slow to start but super-vigorous later.
These plants appear again and again, in hundreds of gardens. They are the plants without which July garden walks would be mighty dull.
Even non-gardeners who would rather be watching golf can name many of them. Others are especially popular in this region because we have such extraordinary garden tourism.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis): First you should know they are not lilies. Their name came about because each flower blooms for one day, but mature, high-quality cultivars have many stems with many buds. Leaves are strap-like; flowers come in many colors, textures, and patterns. Deer eat them but we all must grow some.
Lilies (Lilium): Technically bulbs, these summer beauties are now threatened by the red Asian lily-leaf beetle that gobbles them up. Still, you will see gorgeous lilies from 2 to 5 feet tall. (Note a strong, sweet fragrance? It’s likely to be a lily.) Warning: Lilies, if ingested, cause kidney failure in cats. Do not take inside if cats are present.
Hostas: Surprisingly some folks don’t know that this is the most popular perennial in America, with thousands of named cultivars, from 2 inches to 5 feet tall. Leaves are shades of blue, green or yellow, with many patterns and textures. Hostas produce lilac, purple, or white flowers during summer, although the foliage is their greatest strength. Most gardens include hostas especially in shade, and some of the most famous regional gardens are primarily hosta showplaces.
Coneflowers (Echinacea): They are like daises but the petals usually curve backwards, and there is a round central disk or head that is much-loved as a source of nectar for pollinators of all kinds. The common name is Purple Coneflower. The native coneflower is pale lilac, and cultivars come with red, raspberry, orange, pink and many other bright hues. If you have sun, grow coneflowers.
Filipendula rubra (Queen of the Prairie): I have listed the Latin name first because I notice that many or most gardeners say it that way around here. One of my personal favorites, the plant grows 4 to 5 feet tall when flowering, with pink fluffy plumes. In full or part sun and moist soil it will spread – so place it where that is good.
Annual flowers bloom all season
On this topic, naming the most visible plants gets tricky since our growers produce such variety. You will see masses of coleus, with every possible pattern and color combination. Red or pink-flowering mandevillas drape from baskets or climb trellises.
Petunias, geraniums, salvias, begonias – I hope you know them, but don’t be afraid to ask the variety or cultivar name.
And that’s the take-home message: Do not hesitate to ask the gardeners, “What is that?” and how they chose and care for their plants. Western New York gardeners want to share, and they are giving us all a great gift: the joy of seeing gardens.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
* Planning to go to Garden Walk Buffalo? Here are the details: