From the Vancouver
Sun: April 2005
Toad lily and new varieties
of coral bells among picks
by Steve Whysall, Vancouver Sun
April 1, 2005
Ask Gary Lewis what plant he is most excited about
this season and he will quickly answer: the toad lily
The new owner of Phoenix Perennials, a farm-style
nursery on No. 6 Road in Richmond, Lewis says: "My
big kick of 2005 is to turn more people on to toad lilies.
"Most people shun them during the spring shopping
season and when they see them in flower in fall there
are none for sale at the nursery."
With spectacular brightly spotted orchid-like flowers
that form at the end of 90-cm (three-foot) stems, the
toad lily is a plant gardeners need to "buy and
plant on faith", says Lewis, believing that it
will perform exceptionally later in the year. Good cultivars
are 'Raspberry Mousse', 'Empress' and 'Dark Beauty.'
But Lewis is excited about much more than toad lilies.
Since buying the nursery, which was started by Vancouver
designer Clare Philips, he has been busy acquiring and
importing all sorts of rare and unusual perennials as
well as many of the trendiest new cultivars.
For instance, he has got four of the new introductions
in The Planet Series of heuchera (coral bells) which
are all named after plants in the solar system and have
fabulous foliage: 'Mercury' (mint green), 'Neptune'
(pewter-purple), 'Saturn' (dark veining over pewter)
and 'Mars' (purple-red).
All the hot new forms of echinacea from the Chicago
Botanical Garden and from breeders in Europe also caught
his eye including 'Orange Meadowbrite', 'Mango Meadowbrite'
and 'Big Sky Sunrise.'
New series of delphiniums, hellebores, and garden phlox
are also among the more than 2,000 species and cultivars
of plants he is offering at his little "down-to-earth,
'Coral Sunset' and 'Red Caroline' are both remarkable
colour breakthroughs in delphiniums while the Feelings
series of phlox is novel in that the plants produce
attractive lime-green to mahogany-black bracts rather
than flowers. The two kinds Lewis has brought in are
'Midnight Feelings' and 'Pleasant Feelings.'
Lewis also carries The Lady Series of Helleborus x
hybridus (lenten rose) includes striking new cultivars
such as 'Blue Lady', 'Red Lady' and 'White Lady Spotted,'
and Brunnera 'Looking Glass', which he reckons is an
improvement on 'Jack Frost', arguably the best new perennial
in the last five years.
Lewis came to Vancouver 10 years ago from his hometown
of London, Ont., to study at the University of B.C.
where he obtained a BSc and his masters.
But he has been a "plant nut" for as long
as he can remember and when the opportunity came to
own his own nursery he jumped at it. His goal now is
to make Phoenix Perennials one of the top spots in the
Lower Mainland for plant lovers to find new and unusual
A natural educator with a gift for speaking that has
made him a popular lecturer at garden clubs, Lewis shuns
the whole notion of gardening elitism and snobbery.
"Everyone is on their own garden path. I just
want to encourage them to garden with the plants they
love," he says.
In addition to a wonderful selection of plants, he
also offers a free in-nursery design service. "We
can help people make choices for their borders, but
we aren't into designing their whole garden."
Meanwhile, he continues to concentrate on excellent
perennial hybrids such as Ligularia dentata 'Britt-Marie
Crawford', a darker purple variety, Brunnera 'Jack Frost'
and new rival 'Looking Glass'.
Hardy geraniums always rate a high place in Lewis's
top 10, but he is especially fond of the kinds like
'Ann Folkard' and 'Espresso' that have great flowers
as well as eye-catching foliage.
And even a variety of clover gets a place of honour
when its unusual burgundy variegation turns it into
a striking cultivar called 'Dragon's Blood.'
© The Vancouver Sun 2005
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