Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Underused plants, Uncovered!

Over the years I have created my “go-to” list of plants that have a bounty of the personality traits that I require for them to make it on to my special list. As designers, I’ve noticed that many of us tend to repeat using the plants on our “go-to” list over and over, because THEY make US look like we’re genius’!

A plant that makes it on THE list for me has these points going for them:

1) Great foliage– Seemingly obvious I know, but not everyone appreciates this when they are in the throes of passion for flowers at the nursery and garden center in Spring and Summer.

2) Flowers– This one is tricky because I don’t require the flowers to be ostentatious or bold and showy, but if they are – BONUS points!!

3) Plays well with others– If it’s an evergreen, it had better be an awesome tone, hue, shade or texture that I can marry well with others. I can think of a few “overused plants” that fit that category and need to be divorced from one another – think of the children!

4) Fall color– If it’s deciduous, it had better have great flowers AND fall color, those two are simply non-negotiable. Is that really So much to ask?

Now that you have a familiarity with what turns me on in a horticultural way, you will now understand why I have chosen to profile these two fantastic plants!

Hydrangea Quercifolia ‘Oakleaf Hydrangea’

This shrub could have me waxing poetic about it for days. Graceful and hardy with insanely beautiful panicle flowers bigger than my head! Not poetic, but you feel my passion, right?

Hydrangea Quercifolia 'Oakleaf Hydrangea'

The oak leaf shaped foliage lends itself to so many plant combinations that I can’t imagine why every garden with a shady corner does not have one! Every plant space, every school, every mall, every home in america. Except the desert ones of course. They have other beauties that I’m sure to love. But, every mortgage should require one like insurance for a beautiful garden in most of the country!

Watch out for the Hydrangea clause in your next mortgage contract!

Those blooms!! Through every stage of growth and all of the various colors as they morph, oh the bliss of those cool and elegant blossoms! Every time I look at these flowers it reminds me of fluffy white weddings. Or nougat candy, I’m not sure which is better.

Double Flowering Hydrangea 'Snowflake' with Brunnera 'Langtrees'

Single flowers as well as double flowers are equally apt to cast a spell over you once you try this shrub! Then you might be inspired to deeper levels of exhilaration with a  ‘Pee-Wee’ dwarf cultivar in a container or ‘Little Honey’ that glows a glorious chartreuse in the shade.

Yet, I am very comfortable with the clean and sophisticated look of these shrubs in a contemporary design setting as well. The ultra elegant fall color on the deep burgundy foliage as winter approaches is downright handsome! The blooms and foliage may both persist with strength and fortitude almost in a macho way, well into early winter here in my zone 7 area if they are sheltered from fall winds.

And now for something you’ll REALLY love: Sarcococca !! I can equally divide my enchantment between the nearly twin common forms of this fantastic little shrub/ground cover. I will love them in a separate but equal maternal way of course!

Sarcococca 'Humilis' or 'Dwarf Sweet Box'

The fabulous ground cover form has long leaves of glossy, deep green that are reminiscent of the way a concert pianist holds their hands while they play a gentle note. OR writers who delicately tap on a computer keyboard blogging for hours at a time. 🙂

As a shade evergreen shrub this plant has many admirable attributes. However, none rival, surpass or even come close to equaling the fragrance that this tiny powerhouse of a flower can muster! Did I mention that it does this in January? I repeat, this flowering shrub will bloom in winter with a fragrance that is next to impossible to compare. It’s flowers are SO tiny, that if you do not marvel at how much perfume they generate in a small area, your gardening license may be revoked and your neighbors will have rights to come and sniff it ALL up!

Captivating fragrance AND cool, glossy black berries on Sarcococca!

I once took small cuttings for bud vases I made for party tables, trust me it didn’t take much more than a 6 inch piece to make a big impact in a room full of people! Passers by will walk up and down your block like zombies looking for the scent of flowers they can’t see. It’s pretty funny to watch this play out until they are almost rooting around in a garden and pop up wide-eyed to find the sweet smell coming from such a demure and refined source! I like to think of Sarcococca kind of like my Pug- “A lot of plant (dog) in a small space!”

The other common form of Sarcococca is the more upright form that creates a lovely boxwood feeling shrub in a part shade space too. With all the same attributes as it’s smaller cousin, ‘Ruscifolia’ has class and a myriad of fashionable uses. As a container plant in a shady entryway- can you imagine it in January???? Swoon….

Here’s the “Plays well with others” part of the Sarcococca story.

Sarcococca 'Ruscifolia' with Actaea Racemosa 'Black Negligee'

Sarcococca 'Humilis' with 'Tassel' Fern

But wait- there’s more! I managed to get both of my picks for “Underused Plants” in one picture.

If you learned something new about these two wonderful plants, I’m thrilled. If you just voyeuristically enjoyed my pictures and goofy writing that’s all good too. But, if you had a horticultural epiphany about why you haven’t used these two plants more, then I am over the moon with joy!

Be certain to go and read all of this months posts on the topic of “Underused Plants” here at the Garden Designer’s Roundtable page and meet other Garden Designers who are just as passionate about their choices as I am!

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Carolyn Gail Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL »
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN »
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO »
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK »
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT »
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ »
Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold: Garden Life Home : Atlanta, GA »


23 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Underused plants, Uncovered!

  1. What a fun post – I love the ‘hydrangea clause’. I rescued 2 oakleaf hydrangeas from the rubbish pile at a client’s garden this spring and planted them in a quiet shady corner of my garden that I rarely thought much about. That corner is now a favorite spot. I don’t have any flowers yet but the leaves are simply stunning. The combo of sizes and shades of green are amazing. Even if they never flower, they will still be a must-have shrub for me.

  2. Great criteria for “The List”! Oakleaf Hydrangea and its cultivars, have been favorites of mine for a long time. I glad you chose to showcase them, and with such beautiful pictures.

  3. Your favorite underutilized plants are so classy! Oakleaf hydrangea seems to do OK here in Austin if given a shady and moist spot. (Moist can be a rarity in our climate, but it does occur here and there.) I’m not as familiar with sweet box, but it looks like a winner to me.

  4. Christina, you’ve pegged some of my VERY favorites in this list! Pacific Northwest horties unite! I love the Actinidia and Tassel Ferns, and I’ve planted both Oakleaf Hydrangea and Sarcococca recently. All of these lovely plants deserve more play. Love your photos, too.

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  10. Interesting regionalism going on here since many of the plants you profiled are common to NJ gardens and some are native to this area. Not to say that they aren’t lovely though…

  11. Love Oakleaf, OBVIOUSLY! I planted some babies of a gold variety called ‘Little Honey’ this year, and even at such a young age, they’ve taken this hotter and drier summer outstandingly well.

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  14. Two of my favs! Sarcococca has the wonderful attribute of growing in COMPLETE shade here in CA, and the winter fragrance is such a bonus. And the fall color of the Oakleaf Hydrangea is such an unexpected bonus too, thanks for sharing them!

  15. Grow and use both plants myself but still enjoyed your writing and photos of them. Great choices!
    Best Wishes

  16. Sarcococca is also on my Top Ten list of favorites! I don’t know where I’d be without it AND Oakleaf Hydrangea! Thanks for featuring these two beauties and giving them their day in the sun!

  17. “If you learned something new about these two wonderful plants, I’m thrilled. If you just voyeuristically enjoyed my pictures and goofy writing that’s all good too. But, if you had a horticultural epiphany about why you haven’t used these two plants more, then I am over the moon with joy!”

    I’m in all three categories! Thanks for a very informative article…and written in such a captivating way!

  18. I just love your photos and agree totally with your choices. Hydrangea quercifolia is definitely one of my all time favourite shrubs, although in my very exposed garden overlooking the Bristol Channel it does struggle a bit to get going. I am perservering!! Lesley

  19. There isn’t a day in the year my oakleaf hydrangea are not doing something fabulous.

    Hmmmm, though I have both of your choices I don’t have them TOGETHER.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  20. Fortunately I am beginning to see more Oakleaf Hydrangeas put to good use in Chicago and for the small urban garden there is the dwarf form that is gorgeous as well.

    Very nice post.

  21. Pingback: Oakleaf Hydrangea and Sarcococca «

  22. Thanks for the great article. Shrubs are a wonderful accent to many beautiful backyard landscapes especially around backyards with pools. Really helps with minimal maintenance and are a great additions! Good pictures too!

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