COLUMN: Amsonia the 2011 perennial plant of the year

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By Jeneen Wiche

The 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year is Amsonia hubrichtii, or the Arkansas blue star. We have long enjoyed Amsonia tabernaemontana, Arkansas blue star’s less refined cousin, in the garden; but A. hubrichtii takes the prize for superior multi-season interest.
Arkansas blue star was discovered by Leslie Hubricht back in 1942 growing wild out in Arkansas (it is native to Arkansas and Oklahoma). It is different from A. Tabernaemontana because it has finer thread-leaf foliage that turns a golden yellow to copper color in the fall when it is just about ready to go into bloom, clusters of small, baby-blue stars appear.  
The bright green, finely textured foliage and the soft blue blooms combine with most other perennials well and the plant, once established, requires very little from the gardener. It has a robust character that is not compromised by drought, poor soil, pests, heat or four-legged browsers. Full sun will encourage more stout growth; in partial shade the plant will have a more open habit. Once established, it will reach about 36 inches in height and maintain a clump form. Give it some room in the garden because its clump will increase substantially in a matter of a few years.
Another advantage that Arkansas blue star has over A. tabernaemontana is that it does not reseed in the same troublesome way; however, I do take the time to deadhead sent blooms to avoid any potential for excessive reseeding. This deadheading usually encourages a flush of new foliage, which brightens the summer appeal of the plant.
For some gardeners, the tactile experience of maintaining the garden is not really what they’re after. I love the whole process but I realize that most people just want things to look good without too much fuss. Therein lies the mission of the Perennial Plant Association’s “Plant of the Year” program.
Each year, industry professionals vote for what they think is an outstanding perennial, both beautiful and easy to grow, and this year the votes have been cast for Amsonia, give it a try.
Other past winners include personal garden favorite’s false indigo (Baptisia) which is hard to kill and lovely all season; hardy Geranium “Rozanne” with its delicate blue blooms tinged in white and Nepeta “Walker’s Low” that scores high for wildlife.
Bees and butterflies love the blooms of all of these plants; most all are deer and rabbit resistant and all persist in the garden under stress once established (with the exception of “Rozanne” if she doesn’t get a little afternoon shade). The Nepeta and the hardy geranium will bloom again late season if you cut them back by about half mid-season.
Other past Perennial Plants of the Year that continue to be excellent choices for the mixed border include Coreopsis “Moonbeam,” Shasta daisy “Becky,” Russian sage, Salvia “May Night,” Phlox ‘David’, Hellebore hybrids, and feather reed grass ‘Karl Foerster’. If you are new to gardening and you have a sunny location for a mixed perennial border, consider starting out with some of these.