Phoenix Perennials and Specialty Plants

From the Vancouver Sun: April 2005

Perennially Yours
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 (Tricyrtis).

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, farm-style nursery."

'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 specimens.

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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