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Perennials come back - stronger than ever.

Perennials have been around the West as long as gardeners have been gardening here. And for more than 60 years, Sunset has been introducing these great-for-the-long-haul plants to home gardeners. But now perennials are coming on stronger than ever, and nurseries are offering more selections. Choices are almost endless in colors, textures, shapes, and sizes, making perennials suitable for lavish flower beds, mixed borders, and small pockets around the garden.

From this wonderfully diverse group, how do you choose the best ones for your garden? We asked perennial growers, specialty nurseries, and serious gardeners around the West to list overall favorites, as well as ones with great flowers, striking foliage, or unthirsty good looks, and for shady areas, low borders, or accents.

Choose plants from the categories that address your garden's needs; the listings (alphabetical by botanical name) that follow give information on each plant. Zones are from the Sunset Western Garden Book. Boxes list the best in each category.

47 great plant groups for your garden

Yarrow (Achillea) Sun, foliage

Generously blooming carefree plants 4 inches to 5 feet tall. Aromatic leaves are finely divided, gray to green; flowers grow in flattish clusters. Many excellent choices. Hybrids of A. millefolium and A. taygetea (Galaxy series, Summer Pastels, Debutante) bear flowers that range from creamy pastels to vivid colors on 2-foot stems; ferny gray-green foliage. 'Moonshine' bears yellow flowers, silvery leaves. All zones.

How to grow. Give full sun, cut back after flowering, divide crowded clumps. Tolerates drought once established but looks best with water.

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla) Shade

Mounding clumps of nearly circular 4- to 6-inch, gray-green leaves with scalloped edges. Stems of airy lime green flowers appear in late spring. Grows 12 to 18 inches high and 2 feet across. Zones 1-9, 14-24.

How to grow. Plant in sun in mild-summer areas, partial shade inland. Needs well-drained, moist soil.

Japanese anemone (A. hybrida) Shade

Graceful, spreading plants with dark green maple-like leaves. Pink or white flowers on branching 2- to 4-foot stems in late summer, early fall. All zones.

How to grow. Sun or partial shade on coast, shade inland; moderate water.

Thrift, sea pink (Armeria) Low beds, borders

Tufted mounds of grassy blue-green leaves 4 to 24 inches tall. Globular flowers on 6- to 8-inch stems in shades of pink, red, or white. Blooms almost all year near coast, spring elsewhere. A. maritima has fine foliage. A. alliacea has wider blades and larger flowers. A. m. 'Alba' has white flowers. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in full sun in soil with good drainage. Water moderately in dry areas, sparingly in moist climates.

Artemisia Sun, foliage, accent

Woody and herbaceous plants with feathery, aromatic silvery white or gray-green foliage. Many good choices, from 6 inches to 5 feet or more. Shrubby, dome-shaped A. 'Powis Castle', to 2 1/2 feet tall, spreads at least 4 feet. Prostrate A. stellerana 'Silver Brocade' has woolly white leaves. Zones vary by type.

How to grow. Full sun, well-drained soil. Moderate to little water.

Aster Flowers

Daisy-flowered perennials; most bloom summer to fall, but a few in spring. A. frikartii, 3 feet tall, has fuzzy, gray-green leaves. A. f. 'Monch' and A. f. 'Wonder of Stafa' are both lavender blue. Michaelmas daisies, 3 to 4 feet (dwarf hybrids 1 to 2 1/2 feet) have white, pink, rose, red, blue, violet, or purple flowers. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. Average water.

False spiraea (Astilbe) Shade

Light, airy, plume-like flower clusters May through July. Dark green foliage. In bloom, plants grow 1 to 4 feet tall. Many kinds: 'Avalanche', white flowers; 'Betsy Cuperus', pale pink; 'Fanal', garnet red, bronzy foliage. Best in zones 2-7, 14-17; short-lived in zones 8, 9, 18-24.

How to grow. Plant in partial shade inland, sun or partial shade near coast. Needs rich, moist soil.

Bergenia Shade

Large glossy leaves form bold clumps that can be massed as a ground cover. Rose, lilac, purple, or white flower clusters form on erect stems. B. cordifolia blooms in spring, B. crassifolia in winter. Zones 1-9, 12-24.

How to grow. Plant in partial shade (sun near coast). Takes neglect but responds to regular watering.

Swan River daisy (Brachycome multifida) Low beds, borders

Mounding ground cover, 6 to 8 inches tall and 1 1/2 feet wide, with finely divided leaves. Purplish blue, 1-inch-wide flowers spring through summer. Zones 14-24.

How to grow. Best in sun. Needs good drainage and moderate water.

Brunnera macrophylla Shade

Small-scale, clumping ground cover to 1 1/2 feet tall. Dark green 3- to 4-inch-wide heart-shaped leaves. Airy clusters of blue flowers in spring. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in part shade in warm areas; takes sun near coast. Prefers moist soil but tolerates some dryness. Self-sows.

Bellflower (Campanula) Shade; low beds, borders

Many kinds, from 3 inches to 6 feet. All zones. C. poscharskyana grows 1 foot tall, spreads, and bears blue flowers in spring. C. persicifolia bears 2-foot flower spikes in summer. C. portenschlagiana grows 4 to 7 inches high, bears violet-blue flowers in summer.

How to grow. In warm areas, plant in partial shade; in cool areas, give full sun. Moist, well-drained soil.

Chrysanthemum Flowers

This large group includes many garden perennials. Try painted daisy (C. coccineum), Shasta daisy (C. maximum), or marguerite (C. frutescens), a short-lived perennial to 3 feet tall with white, pink, or yellow daisy flowers. Zones vary by species.

How to grow. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. Needs moderate water.

Coreopsis Flowers

Most bear yellow flowers over a long season. C. auriculata 'Nana' grows 6 inches tall, 2 feet wide. C. grandiflora 'Sunburst' and 'Sunray' reach 2 feet. C. verticillata 'Moonbeam' is 1 1/2 to 2 feet. All zones.

How to grow. Hardy plants need little except full sun and well-drained soil.

Delphinium (D. elatum) Flowers

Tall flower stems are dramatic. Excellent cut flowers. Pacific Coast Hybrids grow to 8 feet. Choices include 'Summer Skies' (light blue) and 'Galahad' (white). Medium-height strains include the Blue Fountains, Blue Springs, and Magic Fountains. Best as annual in hot-summer areas. Zones 1-10, 14-24.

How to grow. Plant in full sun and porous soil. Plant slightly high; bait snails.

Pink (Dianthus) Low beds, borders

Mostly grassy-leafed, evergreen clumps. 'Tiny Rubies' (3 inches tall) bears ruby flowers in early summer. Maiden pink (D. deltoides), to about 1 foot tall, blooms in summer. Fragrant cottage pink (D. plumarius), 10 to 18 inches tall, with rose, pink, and white flowers, blooms summer to fall. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in full sun in light, fast-draining, slightly alkaline soil.

Twinspur (Diascia) Flowers

Low, spreading plants with small leaves. Spikes of pink flowers from spring to fall. D. fetcaniensis (salmon flowers) grows 18 inches tall; D. rigescens (rich pink flowers), 18 inches; D. 'Ruby Field' (deep pink), 10 inches; D. vigilis (light pink), 18 inches. Zones 5-9, 14-24.

How to grow. Full sun or part shade, well-drained soil. Moderate water.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra) Shade

Graceful fernlike foliage with long stems of heart-shaped flowers that rise above it. Dies back in winter. D. 'Luxuriant' (reddish pink flowers through summer), 12 to 18 inches tall; D. 'Snowdrift' (white flowers, spring), 16 inches; D. spectabilis (rose pink flowers, late spring), to 3 feet. Not reliable as perennial in Southern California and Southwest deserts. Zones 1-9, 14-24.

How to grow. Prefers filtered or part shade and moist, well-drained soil.

Fairy wand (Dierama pulcherrimum) Accent

Graceful, clumping plant with grasslike leaves and slender 4- to 7-foot flower stems. Flowers, in late spring and summer, are pendulous, bell-shaped, from near white to bright purple. Zones 4-24.

How to grow. Plant in sun or light shade and well-drained soil; water regularly.

Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) Flowers, sun

Trailing plant to 20 inches tall spreads 3 feet or more. White to pinkish daisy flowers appear spring to fall. Zones 8, 9, 12-24.

How to grow. Plant in full sun. Takes drought and poor soil. Can be invasive; to keep it in bounds, cut it back periodically.

Erysimum linifolium 'Bowles Mauve' Flowers

Rounded, shrubby perennial 1 to 2 feet tall with narrow gray-green leaves. Spikes of purple flowers over a long period, most heavily in spring. Zones 14-24.

How to grow. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil. Best with regular water but can take some drought.

Euphorbia Sun

Rugged plants, many with showy flowerlike bracts. Diverse in form and size. Milky sap (poisonous in some species) causes skin irritation. E. characias wulfenii is rounded plant with narrow, blue-green leaves and yellow to chartreuse bracts in late winter, early spring. Zones vary by species.

How to grow. Full sun, well-drained soil, little water.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora) Flowers, sun

Red and yellow daisy flowers atop 2- to 4-foot plants over a long season. Several strains and varieties; 'Goblin' is compact (to 1 foot), with deep red flowers bordered in bright yellow. All zones.

How to grow. Give full sun, well-drained soil, low to moderate water.

Gaura (G. lindheimeri) Flowers, sun

Erect plant with branching flower spikes 2 to 4 feet tall. Pink buds open to white through summer. All zones.

How to grow. Give full sun. To keep blooms coming, cut back seed-bearing spikes.

True geranium Flowers; low beds, borders

Upright, trailing, or mounding plants about 1 to 2 feet tall with five-petaled flowers mostly in spring or early summer. G. dalmaticum (hardy to at least 10|degrees~) has light pink flowers; G. incanum (zones 14-24), rosy violet flowers; G. sanguineum (all zones), magenta flowers.

How to grow. Most need sun (light shade in hot inland areas), average soil, moderate water (G. dalmaticum and G. incanum tolerate drought).

Hellebore (Helleborus) Shade

Evergreen plants with large, leathery, sharply toothed leaves. Flowers (2 to 4 inches wide) look like single roses, bloom in winter or spring. H. orientalis, to 1 1/2 feet, bears greenish, purplish, or rose flowers. H. argutifolius, to 3 feet, bears chartreuse flowers. Zones vary.

How to grow. Prefers shade or part shade. Plant in soil well amended with organic matter. Moderate water.

Daylily hybrids (Hemerocallis) Flowers

Tough, deciduous and evergreen clumping plants, 1 to 6 feet tall with arching, sword-shaped leaves. Lilylike blossoms open on branched stems. Repeat-blooming varieties give two or three bloom cycles. All zones.

How to grow. Give sun (afternoon shade in hottest areas). Takes most soils. Water while in bloom.

Coral bells (Heuchera) Shade; low beds, borders

Compact plants form clumps of roundish leaves with scalloped edges. Bell-shaped flowers April to August on stems 15 to 30 inches tall. H. Bressingham hybrids bear white, pink, or crimson flowers; H. maxima, white; H. 'Palace Purple', purple foliage; H. sanguinea, red or coral pink. Zones vary.

How to grow. Full sun near coast, light shade inland. Best with ample water (H. maxima needs less).

Plantain lily (Hosta) Foliage

Handsome green or variegated foliage. Blooms in summer. Plants range from 6 inches to 5 feet tall. Choose by leaf shape and color (green, white, yellow, cream). Zones 1-10, 12-21.

How to grow. Takes heavy to light shade. Needs moist soil during growing season. Bait for snails, slugs.

Houttuynia cordata 'Variegata' Foliage

Ground cover to 1 1/2 feet tall. Heart-shaped leaves are cream, pink, yellow, and red. Deciduous in winter. Spreads by underground rhizomes. Zones 4-9, 14-24.

How to grow. Plant in sun near coast, morning sun or light shade inland. Can be invasive in damp or wet soils.

Evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) Low beds, borders

Reliable plants 8 to 12 inches tall. Narrow, dark green leaves. White flower clusters in winter and early spring. 'Snowflake' (4 to 8 inches tall) is showiest; 'Little Gem', 4 to 6 inches tall; 'Purity', 6 to 12 inches tall and spreading. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in sun or partial shade. Shear lightly after bloom to stimulate bushy new growth. Average water in well-drained soil.

Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum) Shade, foliage

Ground cover (1 to 1 1/2 feet) with heart-shaped leaves. Blooms in spring or early summer. Deciduous in cold winters. Silver-leaf types: 'Beacon Silver', rosy pink flowers; 'Pink Pewter', pale pink; 'White Nancy', white. 'Aureum' has gold leaves, pink flowers. All zones.

How to grow. Light shade, moist but well-drained soil.

Lavender (Lavandula) Flowers; sun; low beds, borders (smaller types)

Rugged evergreen plants 8 inches to 3 feet. Tiny fragrant flowers, usually lavender to purple, cluster along tips of slender stems. Aromatic leaves usually grayish. Excellent choices include compact L. angustifolia 'Hidcote' (to 1 1/2 feet) and L. a. 'Munstead' (to 1 1/2 feet). Larger types include L. angustifolia (3 to 4 feet) and L. intermedia 'Provence' (to 3 feet). Zones 4-24, depending on species.

How to grow. Sun, well-drained soil, moderate to little water. Cut back after bloom.

Lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus) Accent

Branching, shrubby, 4- to 8-foot plant with toothed leaves; velvety, bright orange flowers in tiered whorls bloom around upright stems summer through fall. Zones 8-24.

How to grow. Needs sun, excellent drainage, little water. Cut back in winter.

Catmint (Nepeta faassenii) Flowers; low beds, borders

Soft, fragrant, gray-green leaves on mounding plant 1 to 2 feet tall. Lavender flowers bloom in early summer. 'Six Hills Giant' and 'Snowflake' are especially showy. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in full sun; give regular water. Shear off faded flowers to stimulate repeat bloom.

Evening primrose (Oenothera) Flowers, sun

Carefree plants with abundant broad-petaled flowers in warm season; some open during the day, others at night. O. berlandieri (rose pink) blooms during the day; O. b. 'Siskiyou' (lighter pink) is more compact. Both can be invasive. Yellow blooms of O. missourensis open in the evening. All zones.

How to grow. Give sun, fairly well-drained soil. Moderate to little water.

Penstemon Flowers

Diverse group of more than 250 species, all with tubular flowers. Some are mat-forming alpines, others grow 2 to 4 feet tall. Showy hybrids include 'Firebird' (red), 'Huntington Pink', 'Midnight' (purple). In desert, try P. parryi, pink flowers; P. eatonii, red. Zones vary.

How to grow. Plant in full sun (light shade inland) in soil with good drainage. Give modest water; hybrids take regular water.

Russian sage (Perovskia) Accent

Woody, multistemmed plant to 3 feet tall. Finely cut or toothed gray-green leaves. Lavender blue flowers in many branched spike-like clusters. All zones.

How to grow. Likes warmth, full sun. Tolerates some drought.

Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) Accent

Coarse, semishrubby plant to 4 feet or more. Gray-green leaves, yellow flower clusters along upper stem in early summer; bloom repeats with regular water. All zones.

How to grow. Give full sun. Tolerates poor soil, drought. Cut back for repeat bloom.

Phlox Flowers

Many kinds; all have showy flowers. Favorite perennials include summer phlox (P. paniculata), with dome-shaped white, pink, lavender, and red flowers on 3- to 5-foot stems (zones 1-14 and 18-21), and moss pink (P. subulata), a ground cover that makes sheets of bloom in white and shades of pink, rose, and lavender in late spring or early summer. (zones 1-17).

How to grow. Summer phlox needs regular water and full sun. Moss pink is moderately drought tolerant.

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) Sun, accent

Big, crepe-papery white flowers on 8-foot stems in summer. Gray-green leaves. Can be invasive. All zones.

How to grow. Needs sun. Cut back in late fall. Can withhold summer water.

Salvia Sun, accent (tallest ones)

Diverse, undemanding plants with flowers from white to pink, blue, and scarlet. Foliage often coarse, aromatic. Dozens to choose from. S. chamaedryoides (true blue flowers, gray-green leaves) grows 2 1/2 feet tall, 5 feet across; S. clevelandii (lavender blue flowers, gray-green leaves), to 4 feet; S. greggii (red, purple, pink, or violet), to 4 feet; S. leucantha (velvety purple or deep rose spikes), to 4 feet; and S. uliginosa (sky blue), to 6 feet. Zones vary with species.

How to grow. Most need sun and well-drained soil. Moderate to little water.

Sedum Foliage

Succulents with fleshy leaves and stems and star-shaped flowers in clusters. Size, form vary by type, usually not exceeding 2 feet tall. Dramatic S. 'Autumn Joy' (to 2 1/2 feet) has gray-green leaves and 3- to 6-inch pink flower heads that age to deep bronze. Zones vary by type.

How to grow. Sun or some shade, average to low water.

Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) Foliage

Gray-white leaves ar soft, thick, woolly. Leaves of 'Primrose Heron' are yellow in spring, gray by summer. 'Silver Carpet' spreads rapidly; no flowers. All zones.

How to grow. Plant in any well-drained soil, sun or light shade. Moderate water.

Germander (Teucrium) Low beds, borders

Evergreen perennials that are sun, drought, and heat tolerant. T. chamaedrys, to about 1 foot tall, twice as wide. 'Prostratum' (pink blooms), 4 to 6 inches high, to 3 feet wide. Flowers attract bees. All zones.

How to grow. Needs well-drained soil. To force side branching, cut plants back in early spring and late summer.

Mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox arcticus) Low beds, borders

Dense mats 2 to 6 inches high of roundish, dark green, aromatic leaves. Purple-white flowers, summer. 'Albus' has white flowers; 'Coccineus', crimson flowers; 'Reiter's', rose red flowers. All zones.

How to grow. Needs sun. Best in light, well-drained, dryish soil.

Verbena Flowers, sun

Mostly low, spreading, drought- and heat-tolerant ground covers. V. bonariensis has 6- to 7-foot-tall flower stalks with fragrant lilac purple flowers. V. peruviana (pink, lavender, red, and white flowers, spring and summer) is 8 inches tall; V. pulchella gracilior (rose violet to pink or white, spring), 8 to 12 inches tall. Zones vary.

How to grow. Needs sun, heat. All dislike wet foliage.

Speedwell (Veronica) Low beds, borders

Small flowers in spring to summer on 4-inch to 2 1/2-foot plants. Varieties include 'Barcarole' (rose pink blooms), 10-inch plants; 'Crater Lake Blue' (bright blue), 10-inch plants; 'Icicle' (white), 15-inch plants; and 'Sunny Border Blue' (violet-blue), 1- to 2-foot plants. All zones.

How to grow. Full sun or light shade; regular water.

All-time top choices

Of the four dozen plants we describe on these pages, the perennial favorites arre salvias, pictured above, and campanula, true geranium, and lavender.

17 perennials for showy flowers

Aster, chrysanthemum, coreopsis, delphinium, Diascia, Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron), Erysimum linifolium, gaillardia, gaura, Geranium, daylily (Hemerocallis), lavender, catmint (Nepeta), evening primrose (Oenothera), penstemon, phlox, verbena

9 favorites for accents

Artemisia 'Powis Castle', fairy wand (Dierama pulcherrimum), lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus), Russian sage (Perovskia), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), salvia (S. 'Costa Rica Blue', S. leucantha, S. uliginosa)

11 favorites for sun, unthirsty good looks

Yarrow, artemisia, Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron), euphorbia, gaillardia, gaura, lavender, evening primrose (Oenothera), Matilija poppy (Romneya, coulteri), salvia, verbena

11 perennials for striking foliage

Yarrow (Achillea taygetea), artemisia (A. 'Powis Castle', A. stellerana 'Silver Brocade', A. schmidtiana 'Silver Mound'), plantain lily (Hosta), Houttuynia cordata 'Variegata', dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), sedum (S. spurium 'Dragon's Blood', S.s. 'Tricolor', S. 'Vera Jameson'), lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina)

16 choices for low beds or borders

Thrift (Armeria), Swan River daisy (Brachycome multifida), bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), pink (Dianthus deltoides, D. plumarias, D. 'Tiny Rubies'), geranium (G. dalmaticum, G. sanguineum), coral bells (Heuchera), evergreen candytuft (Iberis), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote', L. a. 'Munstead'), catmint (Nepeta), germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), mother-of-thyme (Thymus), speedwell (Veronica)

10 favorites for shade

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla), Japanese anemone, false spiraea (Astilbe), bergenia, Brunnera macrophylla, bellflower (Campanula), bleeding heart (Dicentra), hellebore, coral bells (Heuchera), dead nettle (Lamium)
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Author:MacCaskey, Michael; Ocone, Lynn; Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:May 1, 1993
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