Undoubtedly, there are innumerable interesting and attractive plants species out there. However, some do not fair well in our steamy climate and others may be difficult to find at your local garden center. Therefore, I have created the following list of great plants that do well in the Piedmont, are generally available, and are a bit more interesting than the predictable crape myrtles, gardenias, azaleas and monkey grass that normally garnish the average southern garden.
1. Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus). An attractive small tree with bell-shaped, pendulous, fragrant white blooms in May-June. Described by those who know it as “beautiful and delicate” and “a tree of singular grace and beauty,” it fairs best with some afternoon shade and would be a great substitute for the more troublesome native dogwoods.
2. Teddy Bear Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Southern Charm’). An excellent small selection of native southern magnolia, comparable in size to the infamous ‘Little Gem’ (about 20 ft x12 ft), but with absolutely gorgeous foliage, prolific blooms, and a tighter growth habit. Granted, a little more expensive than the more common varieties, but in my opinion, worth it.
3. Hinoki Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Split Rock’). Probably my favorite evergreen, this beautiful shrub boasts an upright irregular shape with interesting tiered contorted branches. A slow grower that likes some sun, it can be used in containers to flank an entryway, as the focal point in a bed, or to soften the lines on the corner of a house.
4. Brass Buttons (Leptinella ‘Platt’s Black’). This is a really pretty groundcover with bronze-and-green foliage that resembles tiny delicate ferns. With a bonus of tiny yellow spring flowers, it can take light foot traffic if planted between pavers and is absolutely perfect in miniature fairy gardens. It’s one of my favorite groundcovers!
5. Vanderwolf’s Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’). This beautiful pyramidal evergreen has long twisted silvery-blue-green needles that are soft to the touch and arrayed on dense branches. A perfect specimen or focal point in your yard, the Vanderwolf Limber Pine also makes a great live Christmas tree.
6. Reifler’s Dwarf Viburnum (Viburnum obovatum ‘Reifler’s Dwarf’). This might possibly be the perfect foundation shrub. Globe-shaped, evergreen, heat and drought tolerant, it has no serious disease or insect problems, it can tolerate wet soils, has a heavy bloom of white flowers in spring, followed by reddish black berries that attract wildlife.
7. Chinese Snowball Bush (Viburnum macrocephalum ‘Sterile’) This viburnum could be described as a hydrangea on steroids. It is semi-evergreen, with a spring (and sometimes summer & fall) flush of huge white hydrangea-like blooms. A mature specimen in full bloom is truly a sight to behold. Give this one some space (12ft x 12ft) and some sun.
8. Japanese Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’, ‘Fastigiata’) Considered by the experts to be one of the best needled evergreens for shady areas in the heat of the Southeast. No serious pest or disease issues and is considered deer-resistant. ‘Duke Gardens’ is a graceful spreading cultivar that looks beautiful cascading over a retaining wall, while ‘Fastigiata’ is more upright and columnar.
Japanese Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clark’). Did you know that there are trees that bloom in the middle of winter? Now you do! Depending on how mild or cold our winter is, the Flowering Apricot can bloom anywhere from December to February. It provides a welcome and stunning display of fragrant double pink flowers that brighten the winter landscape. Because it blooms in winter, Flowering Apricot can be an important source of pollen and nectar for insects like honeybees who may have difficulty finding food during colder weather.
10. Dwarf Mat Rush (Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’). This is fast becoming one of my favorite ornamental grasses! Long, thin, dark green blades form a full and gently cascading mound that makes a bold statement in containers and can be used in the landscape as a substitute for monkey grass (Liriope). Lomandra has great texture and movement, and if we have a mild winter it remains virtually evergreen.