Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Each year the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) (www.perennialplant.org) selects its "Plant of the Year". Members of the selection committee choose four perennial plants from an extensive list submitted by PPA members. Each year, the members of the PPA are invited to choose one plant among these four finalists to be designated as "Plant of the Year".
To be considered for the title "Plant of the Year", plants must exhibit the following characteristics:
∑ suitable for a wide range of climates
∑ low maintenance
∑ easily propagated, either by seed or vegetative propagation
∑ has multiple seasons of interest in the landscape
For 2011, the PPA chose Arkansas Blue Star, Amsonia hubrichtii, as its Perennial Plant of the Year. This plant actually is native to Arkansas, where it was found by naturalist Leslie Hubricht in 1942 quite by accident. Mr. Hubricht was an employee of the Missouri Botanical Gardens at the time, so he was well versed in identifying plants. But his true passion was collecting as many species of land snails as he could find. He had gone to Arkansas in search of interesting land snails.
He found the unusual species of Amsonia on his snail hunting trip, and brought it back to his supervisor at the Botanical Garden. This was not only an unusual plant, it was a completely new species. The new species was named Amsonia hubrichtii in honor of Leslie Hubricht.
Amsonia hubrichtii is a very versatile plant in the landscape. Full sun is the best place for the Arkansas blue star, but it can handle a bit of shade. It does well in moist well-drained, average soil, but will tolerate drier conditions once it's established. Honestly, when reading it prefers "average soil" in many descriptions of this plant, I'd really like to see "average soil" defined somewhere. I like to think this means it doesn't require absolutely perfect conditions to perform well in the landscape.
The Arkansas blue star's foliage and flowers make it a stand out performer in the landscape. The foliage is described as bright green and fern-like, developing a bright yellow-golden color in the fall. Flowers are fairly small, light blue in color, star-shaped and borne in clusters in late spring and early summer. The blooms also attract lots of local bees and butterflies.
When a large mass of Arkansas blue star comes into flower, the effect is said to be spectacular. It will form seed heads containing viable seeds, so if you do not want seedlings sprouting nearby, the seed heads need to be removed before or soon after they form.
This plant is fairly large, measuring about 36 inches tall and wide at maturity. The plants' stems will tend to flop open if not cut back slightly after flowering, and also if grown in too much shade. It is particularly eye-catching when planted in large mass plantings, paired with ornamental grasses. It's also worth mentioning that Amsonia hubrichtii is considered to be deer resistant due to a milky sap that discourages deer feeding.
I read a blog recently that said Amsonia hubrichtii was definitely "out" for the 2011 garden, suggesting it was overused and way too common. I think somehow the "Perennial of the Year" award triggered labeling this plant as "overused and passť" by this particular author.
I would argue that at least around here, it is not seen all that much. So does that make it "in" or "out"? I have no idea. I say if you like it, plant it. And I think there's a lot to like about this plant.
Incidentally, I did find that without even knowing it, my garden is trendy. The author of the blog that disregarded Amsonia hubrichtii as "out" said that Amsonia tabernaemontana was definitely "in". This is a cousin of Amsonia hubrichtii is shorter, with a maximum height of about two to three feet. The leaves are wider, bearing a striking resemblance to willow tree leaves. It has a nice clumping habit, and is filled with light blue star-shaped flowers in May and June. It is a nice shade of blue in my Illini garden, and it will be there regardless of whether it's trendy or not.