Extension Educator, Horticulture
We are a society of instant gratification and instant ratification. We want it to look good now and we want instant confirmation that it looks good. Gardeners are no different. We want our new gardens to look picture-ready or at least a vision of sweat-worthy accomplishment. But some plants just don't buy into our need for deed.
I often wander the aisles of perennial plants in garden centers. The extroverted plants wave their leaves with a "Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!" The introverted perennials wait for the informed, eccentric or adventuresome gardener to pick them. Mother Nature didn't give them the "I look good in a pot" gene. In addition the introverts need 2 to 3 years in the garden before they shine. Once established, be prepared to get out your camera. Some plants require a patient gardener, but they are worth the wait.
A couple of my favorite perennials for the shade garden are slow to make a show. Once they mature enough to produce multiple stems, Japanese painted fern and Japanese golden hakone grass brighten a shade garden with their unusual leaf colors. Other attributes they share include better growth in moist, high organic matter soils and better leaf color when they receive a glimmer of sun in the morning. They snivel and moan in poorly drained soil, heavy clay soil, or very dry soils. Both make a great border or mass planting in full to part shade.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum 'Pictum') with its many shades of metallic silver and gray and a touch of pink lights up any dreary corner of a shade garden. Many cultivars exist with varying dimensions of metallurgical silver. Fronds reach 18 inches tall and spread dutifully to form a parade of color.
Japanese hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra), is a two-foot tall arching grass of green and white or yellow leaves. Although its name doesn't roll off the tongue easily, golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') does roll into a shady garden with ease. Most ornamental grasses whimper without sun, but golden hakone grass is a beacon of light in a dark tunnel. The one-half inch wide leaves are bright yellow with very thin green stripes. Imagine a golden cascading waterfall in a woodland garden. The plants reach an easily used size of 12-18 inches tall. As the days grow cooler in autumn the golden leaves are tinged with pink and red.
For sun gardens a perennial introvert is blue false indigo or wild indigo (Baptisia australis). This eastern North American native was once a stalwart of the prairie with its 12-foot long roots that reach down in time to document the sunshine and storms of prairies past. Our Illinois native is white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) just as splendidly tough and richly beautiful as its blue cousin.
Wild indigo is appealing the minute its stems arise in late spring. By late May the impressive 10-12 inch spikes of violet blue flowers adorn the ends of each stem. The sweet pea looking flowers and foliage trace back to baptisia's lineage in the bean family. The spires of blue hover over the silvery blue leaves to make a fetching focal point in the garden.
Similar to many prairie plants wild indigo spends its first couple years developing roots before it sends up its high rise of stems. Be patient. The prize arrives later when it explodes into blue fireworks.
Another native prairie introvert is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Illini orange flowers are butterfly magnets. The introverts of the vegetable garden, asparagus and rhubarb, will reward the patient gardener.
Next time you are roaming the aisles of the garden centers choose the introverted wallflowers of the perennial plant world and ask them to dance in your garden.