Phoenix Perennials and Specialty Plants

From the Vancouver Sun: April 2006

Perennial Passion
Gary Lewis shares his pick of top performance plants for a new season

by Steve Whysall, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, April 21, 2006

"I wouldn't be doing this if I weren't passionate about plants," says Gary Lewis, owner of Phoenix Perennials cottage nursery in Richmond.

It's a simple confession but a meaningful one nonetheless. It explains why Lewis is working so hard to make his little nursery one of the best places to shop for new, rare and unusual plants.
"I want the nursery to be the place where people know they will find all the best plants," says Lewis.

"We have three distinct focuses: cutting-edge cultivars -- all the new stuff like fancy new sedums, Big Sky echinaceas; stalwarts such as Alchemilla mollis (everybody needs some lady's mantle); and rare and unusual plants -- the other side of cutting-edge, including new species that have come out of plant explorations."

It is his passion for plants that makes Lewis one of the most knowledgeable experts in B.C. horticulture at the moment.

So what plants is he particularly excited about this season? And which ones does he think are undervalued and deserve more attention from gardeners?

"My five top groups for 2006 are arisaemas, echinaceas, sedums, hellebores and dahlias," he says, but he also has a kind word for new cultivars of hardy geranium, rodgersia, iris and gardenia as well as less well-known species of kniphofia and climbing hydrangea.
Let's take a close look at each of Lewis's five top groups.

"I found a source for these in India, which was an exciting discovery. They are the best plants to add a weird and wonderful look to your garden," he says.
Members of the Arum family, arisaemas are "botanically intriguing plants" that have the classic spathe and spadix-type flower similar to the peace lily and calla lily, says Lewis.
Of the 18 different species and cultivars he has for sale, he recommends A. galeatum, A. griffithii var. pradhanii, A. consanguineum 'The Perfect Wave' and 'Poseidon', A. tortuosum and A. utile.

Hot on the heels of the Meadowbrite Orange and Mango out of Chicago, the Big Sky Series is capturing attention and winning fans because of the reliability of the various cultivars.

"Unlike the Meadowbrites, which have the look and habit of its parent E. paradoxa, cultivars in the Big Sky Series have more of the look and habit of the classic purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea but with outstanding new colours," says Lewis.

The Big Sky echinaceas are also better for Vancouver-area gardens, being more tolerant of wet than the Meadowbrites. Names to look for are 'Sunrise' (citron yellow), 'Sunset' (salmon-orange petals around a copper cone), 'Sundown' (coral petals tipped in salmon), 'Harvest Moon' (gold petals around a golden-orange cone) and 'Twilight' (rose petals around a red cone). All of the Big Sky cultivars are fragrant.

"One reason sedums need more attention is that the ones that are getting all the press are not necessarily the best garden plants," says Lewis, who is particularly enthusiastic about some of the new upright sedums that have outstanding foliage.

As well as tried-and-true varieties like 'Lynda Windsor', 'Purple Emperor' and 'African Sunset', Lewis rates 'Black Jack' with intensely dark-purple, almost black, foliage, 'Blade Runner', which has red purple flowers above remarkably toothed leaves and red stems, 'Postman's Pride' with thick, small, rounded, bluish purple foliage and rosy-red flowers, 'Cloud Walker' with large mauve-pink blooms and dark tinted foliage, and 'Xenox' with a dark brooding (and bold) look brightened by pink flowers.

Although the flowering season for hellebores is coming to a close, Lewis still rates these plants for their foliage interest. It is also important to get them into the garden for subsequent years.

"Hellebores continue to be hot, especially with new cultivars and doubles coming available," he says.

'Heronswood Doubles' with "superlative double flowers" are available in purple, pink and white. "I acquired a plant of each of these a few years ago for my own garden and they are simply exquisite," say Lewis.

Other top cultivars of hellebore worth discovering include 'Ivory Prince' and H. argutifolius 'Silver Lace'.

"These are due for a revival," says Lewis. "The Bishop series is a classic with bright colours over rich burgundy foliage. Totally luscious."

Names to ask for include 'Bishop of Llandaff', 'Bishop of Canterbury' 'Bishop of Oxford', 'Bishop of York' and, new this year, 'Bishop of Leicester'.

The 'Chic' and 'Happy' series are two other groups worth getting to know.

'Chic' has double yellow flowers with amber centres while 'Chic en Rouge' has double deep-red flowers with darker centres. They both grow to 60 cm (2 feet).

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the 'Happy' series features 'Juliet' (lilac-pink with a dark centre), 'Romeo' (deep red with a dark centre), 'Kiss' (salmon-rose with a red ring around a dark centre) and 'Party' (bright yellow with a brown centre).



Other plants that get a high rating from Lewis include the following:

- Geranium 'Jolly Bee' (bright blue flowers with white-eye).

- Iris versicolor 'Gerald Darby'(dark purple foliage and purple-blue flowers).

- Kniphofia northiae. "Unlike other red hot pokers that have fine, somewhat disheveled leaves, this species sports broad bluish green architectural foliage with dramatic effect."

- Rodgersia 'Chocolate Wing' with chocolate-bronze foliage. "The flowers are also dynamic starting out pale pink and deepening gradually to burgundy-red."

- Gardenia jasminoides 'Kleim's Hardy': Hardy, evergreen gardenia with fragrant flowers.

- Hydrangea integrifolia and H. seemannii: Two relatively rare species of climbing hydrangea.

- Paris polyphylla: "Perhaps more than any other perennial, this rare woodland treasure earns the right to be called exquisite," says Lewis. The stem is circled by a single whorl of glossy, green leaves. This is echoed by the flower with its own whorl of green bracts subtending threadlike yellow-green petals, golden stamens and purple stigma.

For more information, contact Gary Lewis at Phoenix Perennials, 3380 No. 6 Road Richmond, or (604) 270-4133, or visit the nursery's website,

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