Take Five: Forgiving Perennials for Sun

 The list of favorite and forgiving perennials is actually quite long, beyond just the five I'm about to list here. But, if I were to distill it down to those that need nothing from me, this would be that list. 

The easier the plant, the happier the gardener in my case. With two acres of garden to look after I no longer have the luxury to coddle really anything, much less plants far away from hoses. This group of five plants have never failed me and still look good to this day. The criteria for these is that they are low to no water (once established), disease free, provide something for wildlife and grow no matter the changing weather patterns. My recent "Take Five" posts of shrubs for shade and shrubs for sun can be revisited here and here to get the full picture. Okay, are you ready? Here we go! Let's talk perennials for sun and low water.

ASTERS (some now classified as SYMPHYOTRICHUM)
Asters, now mostly classified as Symphyotrichum (save for plants from Europe and Asia and a couple other rare North American examples), are a large and showy presence in my garden, especially beginning in September. I can name a few species around Chickadee Gardens; however, I fear that my native Douglas' aster, Symphyotrichum subspicatum, has taken over and made many babies with questionable parentage. Here, though, I can positively identify this beauty as Symphyotrichum ericoides 'Snow Flurry' which begins its bloom cycle around mid-September.

Very appropriately named, it is a flurry of tiny white flowers on soft, feathery foliage reminiscent of heath, hence its species name. It is a favorite of bees. In fact, they all are, some more than others.

Symphyotrichum subspicatum is the most prolific of all of my asters. It sets a million seeds and they go everywhere. I think that if you mowed them they could become a lawn alternative, no kidding. They are by far the earliest blooming and the most visited by pollinators.

Symphyotrichum novi-belgii 'Winston Churchill' is a brilliant bright color, standing out from its more purple and blue neighbors.

Aster × frikartii 'Jungfrau', a European aster, is a petite but hardy plant and an early bloomer, sometimes beginning to flower in August.

This is a seedling of Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Septemberrubin' and is quite tall at about 4 - 6' in height and forming a large clump in time.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum 'Lady in Black' is a bushy plant with sprays of attractive and rather small pale flowers with dark purple centers. Its foliage is dark, hence the name. It appreciates a touch of shade in the hottest areas and is very happy in my meadow garden. I have yet to see a seedling come off of this East Coast native. Her brother is S. l. 'Prince'.

I really am at a loss for what aster this might be, but its color is a darker, richer one than our native Douglas' aster and its foliage is also darker green. It might be some offspring of Symphyotrichum subspicatum, but I am doubtful.

The same goes for this lovely all white flower that turns shades of purple as it ages.

Aster ageratoides 'Ezo Murasaki' is a Japanese aster, one of the last to bloom in autumn. It is about 2' in height and is said to be a rampant spreader, but I have had it for at least 10 years and it has stayed a relatively small clump. Often it is blooming well into December when the weather is mild.

Asters are all deciduous, though I leave stems standing through winter (I do cut back some of the Douglas' asters to prevent them from taking over the world) as they are visited by birds and are good cover for wildlife. Other asters in my garden are Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Purple Dome', a definite favorite though I lack a good photo, Aster dumosus 'Wood's Pink' and Symphyotrichum novi-belgii 'Chatterbox'.

If you have been reading my blog over the years you know of my love affair with this plant. Teucrium chamaedrys is really more of a sub-shrub but I list it as a perennial as that's how you will often find it in nurseries. It is an evergreen low grower at about 2' tall and a spread of between 2' and 4', depending on how (or if) you prune it. It sends up small purple-pink flowers in late spring that the bumble bees go mad over and it never needs watering in my garden (once established). It handles some overhead shade and full sun equally well. After working at Cistus Nursery for several months now I see there are a LOT of Teucrium species out there, I want to try them all. This is a favorite, for sure.

Here it is in late spring after I prune it back in late winter. It's a great boxwood alternative and can be pruned in the same manner.

Can you count all the bumble bees on this?

Here it is later in the season after it has opened up a little and spread. You don't have to prune it if you want it to sprawl a little, I just need to keep it in bounds along this gravel path so this lot gets an annual chop.

A second Teucrium species I have is T. fruticans. It is equally as forgiving but much larger. This is about 5' tall in my garden, has silver foliage and blue-purple flowers. It has been moved, neglected, in a pot for ages and it still forgives me. I can prune this back if needed to refresh but it's not necessary. Excellent plant for low water gardening.

I never really considered the hardiness of Yuccas but they are indeed superstars. In fact, I don't think I can kill them. This is Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata', one of five in my garden. This was actually moved from the old garden in Portland years ago and has thrived and gotten quite large. I think I will actually have to chop one of three at the base of our deck completely back as it's now intertangled with a manzanita.

Yucca 'Blue Sentry' pictured last year before I moved it. This is where the "I can't kill it" comes into play. I moved it to an airier and sunnier spot a few feet away and it was doing great in its new location until it wasn't. It died this spring, I thought, but is coming back beautifully from its roots, it turns out. Not only that but I also must have missed a root chunk as it is returning in its original location.

My friend Evan Bean also gave me a few yucca rhizomes to grow several years ago that I planted in an out of the way place. They are currently growing beautifully near our gate and really are never watered.

Yucca rostrata, beaked yucca, a definite favorite, happily growing along in the gravel garden. This of course forms a large trunk in many years and is quite architectural when mature. I have a way to go but I'm looking forward to its eventual large size.

I purchased this as Yucca nana in 2014, though I see now it is listed as Yucca hermmaniae. It is a small, slow-growing plant that has survived terrible weather and what I thought was death. It too emerged from its roots after a nasty snow and ice storm in 2016. It is native to Utah.

Yucca recurvifolia, native to the American Southeast is a larger, flexible leaved yucca that will eventually reach heights of 6' - 10'. 

Many yuccas are completely cold hardy, but too much mushy wet and shade can be their downfall. Air circulation is always a good idea. I love yuccas because they are very sculptural, are evergreen, add punctuation to the garden and are totally drought-adapted. When in flower they provide nectar for pollinators and their fruits are said to be a source of food for browsing wildlife. They can also provide cover for smaller wildlife. Its roots or rhizomes can be made into soap.

There are plenty of great roses out there, I just don't grow many. I have a few species roses, and my favorite among them is Rosa glauca. Why? It is so easy, shows no signs of any kind of disease in my garden, has incredible blue-ish foliage (hence the species name), pretty flowers and rose hips that last forever. It never needs water (once established) and has never died on me. It doesn't require pruning though it would handle it with no issues.

I mean look at these! They persist for such a long time and they are also a food source for birds.

Another image of its rose hips with Solidago 'Fireworks' in the background, a very autumnal scene.

Pretty even in winter. 

It's just such an easy rose. I never thought I would list a rose as a forgiving plant but there it is, a total winner in my dry garden. It adds height, color for much of the year, cool foliage and is a favorite of foraging birds in the colder months.

There are many species of sedum in my garden that are all great for some reason or another, but here I list two species that are particularly outstanding. The first of these is Hylotelephium telephium 'Matrona' (syn. Sedum telephium 'Matrona'). It is an upright sedum with smoky foliage, dark stems and clusters of pink flowers. 

It's really quite romantic with its soft flower color and contrasting dark stems. I rarely if ever give them summer water and they remain upright, sturdy and forgiving. The bees go nuts for the flowers, bumble bees especially. This particular color combination plays well in my dry garden with silvers and even greens.

Those stars get me every time. Now not all sedums are necessarily drought-adapted; some look better with some summer irrigation. These, however, appear to do just fine in a rather dry part of the labyrinth garden. 

Even through autumn and into winter, the stems remain upright and strong adding interest to the year-round garden.

Sedum oreganum is an Oregon native stonecrop with low-growing apple green foliage and yellow flower spikes in late spring. It is most adaptable to many different regions in my garden from full hot sun to partial shade, wet soil to dry soil. Not too much water, though, and not too much shade - they will get leggy and pale. It does burn a little in total all day sun on the hottest of days but it still looks pretty good. It often turns bronze tints in full sun. It is evergreen and spreads politely and is an attractive ground cover, though on a small scale. For year-round interest, it's an easy and adaptable low-growing sedum. A great rock garden plant, too.

Honorable mentions include Epilobium canum (syn. Zauschneria californica), Phlomis russelliana, Baptisia australis, Mirabilis multiflora, Solidago, some Allium species and many grasses. These are all very worthy but again, I am trying to keep it down to the top five and I have featured them several times before. In fact, here is a post all about grasses at Chickadee Gardens. Epilobium is a great native groundcover/low growing perennial that is completely winter deciduous, it has great bright orange tubular flowers and is well-visited by hummingbirds. Phlomis russelliana (and other species of Phlomis) have an evergreen presence and particularly handsome brown pom pom seed stalks that persist all through winter and into spring. It is extremely drought-adapted. Solidago 'Fireworks' pictured in the photo with Rosa glauca as well as other species of goldenrod should be on this list for the insects they attract in late summer into autumn, plus their seed is a source of food for foraging finches and other small birds. Alliums, there are some great ones, but many are prolific re-seeders so am careful to recommend them as a group. Baptisia and Mirabilis multiflora are tap rooted plants so can really reach down to that water table. All are drought-adapted and require nothing special from the gardener save well-drained soil and sunshine.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. What are your favorite perennials for sun and why? Let's keep the conversation rolling! As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do love hearing from you!


  1. Another great list, Tamara. I'm fond of asters but the only one that's really held up here is Symphyotrichum chilense. It's a California native but unfortunately it spreads wildly in good rain years and looks terrible in the exceptionally dry ones. I have a few different Teucriums, including T. chamaedrys but they don't look as robust as yours.

    1. Ah, that's right, you mentioned that aster before. Yes, our native aster also spreads like crazy as mentioned. Interesting about your Teucrium - which ones do you grow? I'm curious...

  2. Great choices. I grow all of these except the Teucrium (tender). Lots of great new groundcover sedums on the market that fit into small spaces nicely. I adore Epilobium This is the first plant visitors to my garden ask about. Takes our hot and dry summers without blinking an eye as well as our very cold often snowless winters too. Love these posts.

    1. Thank you Elaine, Epilobium is a great perennial for sure - as you point out for tough sites. A winner in my book! Cheers.

  3. Anonymous10:22 AM PDT

    Another fascinating plant lists. Many are more suitable for a two acre plot and yet I find many common plants we both grow. Impressed with your specimen I planted Phlomis russelliana earlier this year. It doubled in size and I hope for blooms next year.

    I grow Aster but not sure which (purple and reseeds happily). It's cool to have something blooming in Autumn: when the tall purple flower stocks lean into the Hakonechloa macra it is dazzling and makes me very happy. Pulling the volunteers the following spring, not so much.

    If I ever grew a rose, it would be Rosa glauca for all the reasons you mentioned: simple blooms, blue foliage and those hips.

    You mentioned Allium. I was turned off/burned by prolific re-seeding. That is until I read recently about Allium millennium: a sweet little thing with the promise of sterile seeds. Rushed to the nursery and purchased two. Fingers crossed.

    1. That combination of purple asters with Hakonechloa macra is lovely. Yes, alliums are great....to a point. Fingers crossed for you! I hope your Phlomis russelliana does well for you, it's such an easy and cool plant.

  4. All of these do well in my garden too. Teucrium chamaedrys took several tries, but I seem to finally have a small one established. I've read that it spreads assertively, but mine hasn't grown much at all over the last 2 years probably because I keep things fairly dry. Hopefully it takes off next year. I enjoyed seeing again how you weave different heights, colors, and textures together - it really helps to see how you use each of your top five into the garden.

    1. I'm surprised about Teucrium chamaedrys for you - taking several tries and slow growth. I just goes to show how what works for me might not for others. Aggressive spreading? I've never heard that....interesting! I think they benefit from a prune in late winter to get them off to a good sturdy start. Thanks for your comments too, I appreciate it! :)


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