Taking root New colors, better blossoms, more appealing aromas and other improvements lead to the latest fashion in flora.

March 22, 1998|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People think of gardeners as traditionalists, unimpressed by the latest fashion. But the good earth crowd is just as seduced by trends as the most die-hard mall rat. The difference is that their weaknesses are not platform shoes or accessories, but the hot new plants.

Hot plants can be the latest hybrids of old favorites that offer a new color, improved bloom, fragrance, hardiness, size, ease of maintenance or disease-resistance. Or they can be imports that create excitement by their sheer novelty.

This year, there is a great selection of hot new plants. And, thanks to our mild winter, itchy gardeners can begin putting some of the new cool-season plants in the ground, in protected spots, right now.

"We've had pansies and primroses for about a month," says Bob Salmond of Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville.

Pansies, treated as tender perennials in parts of Britain, thrive as annuals in Maryland's cool, wet springs. Violas (the family of pansies and violets) come in a lot of new varieties this year.

"There's a new one called 'Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,' " says Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville. "It starts off dark blue, then turns to light blue, then ends up being a white flower. It blooms from early spring until mid-July. People are looking for some cool-hardy plants for a longer season."

In addition to extending seasonal bloom, people often want tradition, a kind of cottage-garden look but without the need for industrial-strength maintenance. Many new strains of old favorites are bred for disease- and pest-resistance, which means they're virtually self-tending.

"A lot of the old-fashioned stuff is really popular this year," says Bob Salmond, "[including] hydrangeas and care-free roses like 'Carefree Wonder,' which comes in assorted colors. Some claim the care-frees get like 2,000 blossoms a season once they're established."

One popular new twist on an old staple is 'Flower Carpet,' a thick, very low-growing mat of nearly continuously blooming roses. It's available in white, light pink and ruddy pink, but more colors are coming.

"They seem to introduce another color each year," notes Salmond.

Another new rose is 'Fame,' a grandiflora All-American Rose Selections winner for 1998, ideal for beginning gardeners.

Though it has little fragrance, 'Fame' is covered with dark fuchsia-pink blooms all summer long, and is highly disease- and pest-resistant.

Old wine, new bottles

People are turning to re-introduced natives, in addition to the newer hybrids, to ensure gardening success under a variety of adverse conditions.

"If we have a summer anywhere like last summer," says Faith Wilson of Radcliffe Mill Garden Center in Chestertown, "we're going to go through all the real drought-resistant perennials. All the native grasses, the rudbeckia, gypsophila, coreopsis, the sedums -- all the things that did well in drought last summer. The Russian sage did wonderfully."

Russian sage, introduced several years ago, has exploded in popularity due to its beauty and ease of cultivation. Perovskia filigran, this year's new variety, has a more vertical growth habit than the earlier sage but, like the older strain, produces elegant filigreed foliage and tall, lilac-blue flower spikes that bloom for weeks in the garden and last for months as dried flowers.

Another native that has recently come to the fore is meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense). Unlike annual geraniums (which are actually pelargoniums), cranesbills are true native perennial geraniums producing a lush thicket of foliage and flower. Colors range from light salmon-pink ('Wargave') to magenta (G. psilostemon) to the lavender-blue of 'Johnson's Blue' to the rich, dark-veined violet of 'Rosemoor,' new this year.

"Cranesbills grow wonderfully," says Wilson. "They take a little while to establish, but once established, it's an early [and prolonged] bloomer, and can be heart-rendingly beautiful."

Another native that's hot this year is echinacea (purple coneflower), named Perennial Plant of the Year for 1998. Echinacea sports large, white or mauve, daisy-type flowers with spectacular gold and bronze pincushion centers. Very drought-resistant, echinacea keeps well as a cut flower and is also appreciated for its medicinal benefit. (Echinacea tea and tablets, available at health-food stores, are said to be immune-system boosters.)

Multi-function plants

Thanks to beautiful and drought-resistant natives like echinacea, gardeners now often consider the multidimensional aspects of any plant when planning.

"People are definitely gravitating toward dual or multipurpose plants," observes Engel.

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