Great Plant Picks: A New Plant Awards Program from the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden

Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’. Photograph by Richard Hartlage

Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’. Photograph by Richard Hartlage

Gardeners are famous for their opinions. Be it compost or bulb sources, there is no shortage of debate. Imagine, then, the excitement in having over thirty of the Pacific Northwest’s most talented horticulturists meet to recommend the best plants for this temperate region, known for its plethora of plants and its ideal growing conditions. That’s what happened in the inaugural meetings for the Great Plant Picks, a new plant awards program funded by the Pendleton and Elisabeth Miller Charitable Trust and administered by the Elisabeth C Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle.

Pacific Horticulture editor Richard Turner had suggested the idea of an awards program to Richard Hartlage, director of the Miller Garden, in 1999. Both thought it could be a tremendous service to gardeners in the region. Richard Hartlage began investigating other plant award programs, particularly the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) granted by the Royal Horticulture Society.

“The AGM has more than ten plant committees, extensive trial gardens, and an annual budget of several million pounds. That’s not something we can duplicate overnight. But we knew that the AGM is the preeminent plant awards program in the world and we were determined to learn as much from them as possible,” explains Richard.

Geographic Boundaries

The first order of business involved narrowing the scope of the awards program. Originally we considered addressing the entire West Coast, but zonal differences from north to south proved too extreme. The awards region was eventually narrowed to the maritime Pacific Northwest: north of Eugene, Oregon and south of Vancouver, British Columbia. Victoria, British Columbia was selected as the westernmost point, while the Cascade Mountains were chosen to mark the eastern boundary.

Selection Committee

Richard had little problem recruiting horticulturists. “Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic and willing to participate,” notes Richard. “I was not surprised. Gardeners love to talk about plants.”

In selecting committee members, emphasis was given to geographic diversity, with equal representation from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. In all, thirty-one horticulturists were asked to volunteer on the selection committee. The committee was then divided into three teams, each to focus on a distinct group of plants: trees and conifers; shrubs and vines; and perennials.

Selection Criteria

General plant selection criteria were sent to the committee prior to the first meeting. It was determined that all plants should:

  • be hardy in USDA zones 7 and 8
  • be long-lived
  • be vigorous and easy to grow by a gardener of average means and experience
  • be reasonably disease and pest resistant
  • have a long season of interest and preferably multiple seasons of interest
  • be available from at least two retail plant sources
  • be adaptable to a variety of soil and fertility conditions
  • not require excessive supplemental irrigation (with the exception of aquatic plants)
  • not be invasive or overly vigorous in colonizing the garden or the larger environment

Selection Process

The Great Plant Picks selection committee members were asked to nominate at least five and no more than ten plants prior to the initial meeting in Seattle. None of the three lists had fewer than ten plants to begin, and the compiled nomination list is impressive in its own right.

During the first meeting, members focused on developing a process by which to narrow their lists. One group used weighted voting while another developed a five-point rating system. In the end, each group left the first meeting with a shortened list of nominees.

The goal of the second meeting was to narrow down these short lists of recommended plants to the award winners. We expected the second meeting to turn raucous as good plants were dismissed in favor of great ones, but the groups worked diligently and seriously. The fifteen finalists in the 2001 Great Plant Picks are the result of an invigorating debate and the accumulated knowledge of many talented horticulturists.

Next Steps

The Great Plant Picks will be promoted through point of sale labeling and our web site. The goal is to have all of the plant information available on the web site so that growers, retail nurseries, landscape designers and architects, educators, and gardening enthusiasts can take advantage of the selection committee’s work.

Elisabeth C Miller tirelessly in advocating the identification and use of superior plants for Pacific Northwest gardens, and we are happy to continue her efforts in the Great Plant Picks plant awards program. For more information about the program, please visit our web site at www.greatplantpicks.org.


2001 Great Plant Picks

Trees & Conifers

Acer griseum – paperbark maple

Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ – fernleaf fullmoon maple

Cornus kousa ‘Milky Way’ – ‘Milky Way’ dogwood

Crataegus x lavallei – Lavalle hawthorn

Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca’

Shrubs & Vines

Corylopsis pauciflora – buttercup witch hazel

Fothergilla gardenii – dwarf fothergilla

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ – ‘Snow Queen’ oakleaf hydrangea

Rhododendron ‘Ken Janeck’

Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ – ‘Moonlight’ hydrangea vine

Perennials

Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ – ‘Moerheim Beauty’ sneezeweed

Helleborus foetidus – stinking hellebore

Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – black mondo

Pulmonaria longifolia ssp. cevennensis