I’m enough of a plant nerd and plant lover that any favorites list of mine is very much “of the moment”…there are simply too many which are great for different garden uses. That said, there are some I tend to fall back on as consistent favorites.
While my personal preference is for the native forms and hybrids, I enjoy them all due to their color range and, often, fragrance. All get good foliage colors in fall too. Yellow and true orange are colors you just don’t find in evergreen azaleas, but you can with these. I envision an eye-popping contrast with orange azaleas underplanted with purple or magenta woodland Phlox; you could tone it down a tad with yellow azaleas underplanted with blue-lavender Phlox, Violets, or Virginia Bluebells. They perform at their peak when treated like other azaleas – woodland conditions with dappled light suit them best – but they also can handle sunnier spots more gracefully than the evergreen forms. While some of the most boldly-colored varieties are non-native, they still harmonize well with native understory flora like ferns, spring-blooming perennials and low groundcovers. I always advocate for a mix of species so things stay interesting all season.
I’m going to cheat a bit here and lump two plants into one. These two related groups are renowned for their strong fragrance – something we welcome after a winter of air smelling like fireplace smoke or, well, painfully dry nothingness. They’re a fickle group, I’ll give you that – any one period of time their roots stay too wet and it could be their last – but worth it to keep trying. Winter Daphne is probably the most-recognized member, but I appreciate the variegated forms more since I’m a sucker for interesting leaves. ‘Mae-jima’ is a form that’s more uncommon where the leaf edges that are pastel yellow are much more prominent than the “regular” variegated form. I do also appreciate the one species we can grow here that isn’t fragrant…the so-called Lilac Daphne, Daphne genkwa. Their flowers appear before any leaves emerge and the color is a beautiful pastel lilac-purple. They would look stunning above a mat of short evergreen groundcovers, early-blooming perennials or white or purple Crocus or Anemone bulbs. Paperbush gets its name from the use of its stems in making paper in its native Asia; I like them for their silky white buds that hang down in clusters and open to a vibrant yellow that ages to cream. Fragrance is also potent and their summer foliage adds a nice sub-tropical look to the garden. Try them over golden yellow Crocus, Dutch Iris, over a bed of Barrenworts (Epimedium) or maybe even short Hellebores.
Their flowers are pretty unique – sort of a bottlebrush that’s been compacted into more of a pom-pom shape – but they have a light scent and they appear before the leaves are out (or far along) and so they really stand out on their own. My favorite Fothergilla is the one with blue leaves – think Hosta-level “blue” – and their fall colors are always good. Bluish foliage is hard to come by in shrubs – especially those tolerating shade – so I find it invaluable in making good foliage combinations for summer interest. I’ve seen a mass planting of one type, the so-called “dwarf” Fothergilla, that was glowing orange in autumn; another group of the same type was burgundy, plum, orange and yellow all at once. They are cousins to Witchhazel (their common name is Witch-alder, which I find amusing because alders and hazels are themselves related to each other, though not this group) and are native to the southeast. I have seen them in sun and mostly shade, though they seem at their best in a mix of the two. Given my preference for color harmonies, I can envision them mixing well with the blues, purple and pinks of the perennial world (Phlox, Bluebells, Foamflower, Dutch Iris, Crocus, Squill, Anemone, Fringed Bleeding-Heart and more).
An “oldie but goodie” for those of us in horticulture, these early-blooming standbys are great for woodland gardens with rampant deer. While it’s true that hungry deer will eat anything they darn well please, the vast majority of the time these will be left alone. Blooms open as early as late winter in mild weather and I have seen bees visiting the flowers if it’s warm enough to fly. Like their Azalea cousins (they may not look related, but they are…it’s a big family), they appreciate dappled light and detest poor drainage. There are dwarf forms that fit well into a perennial bed for a touch of evergreen interest, and there are tall-growing forms that, as they get leggy with age, look great underplanted with short perennials so their twisting stems can be seen and admired. Variegation is not uncommon and, while most have white flowers, light to ruby-pink forms can be found as well. Adding to their seasonality is the fact that several varieties sport very colorful new growth later in spring – often cherry-red or maroon. White Phlox (gee, can you tell Phlox is one of my favorite perennials?), ferns, sedges, Violets, Sweetbox, False Forget-me-not, Jacob’s-Ladder and Irish Moss.
Related to the Pieris above, these are “real” Andromedas and are cute little rounded shrubs with leaves shaped like Rosemary; in fact, one of their common names is “Bog-Rosemary.” The form that’s most common is the blue-leaved type, named ‘Blue Ice’, which I love to pair with other foliage colors and textures since it’s so unique in our shrub world. Native to the northern reaches of much of the northern hemisphere, they can be found in the wild in beds of Sphagnum moss and other bog plants. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “I live in neither Maine nor a bog, so how can I keep these happy?” Good point. I view plants like this kind like any other short-lived perennial, bulb or cool-season annual – they may not be happy year-round but we keep using them in gardens because we enjoy their presence so much. Keeping them minimally stressed simply means keeping the soil as cool as possible and making sure they don’t go through a drought unattended. It does not mean you have to build a mini bog in your yard, though I can think of many exciting plants to try if you do! (Put in a pond liner but, instead of making a pond, turn it into a Sphagnum peat bed – cold-hardy carnivores like Flytraps and Pitcher Plants would be great companions.) In any case, in a garden setting they mix well with other dainty sub-shrubs like Bearberry and Creeping Wintergreen along with perennial Partridgeberry and Marsh Marigold. Taller relatives like Leucothoe and Blueberries, both of whom don’t mind moister soils with acidic conditions, would also mix well. Given their extraordinary cold-hardiness, you can also try them in containers. If so, I might suggest something porous like terra cotta, so its evaporative properties keep the roots a bit cooler during our sweltering summer days.