To celebrate the 12th year of the program, Great Plant Picks recently rolled out a redesigned, more interactive website (

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THE GREAT Plant Picks committee has been at it again, sifting through thousands of tried-and-true plants to come up with fresh choices ideal for our Northwest climate.

How do these dedicated volunteers keep coming up with plants that help us garden more successfully? I’ve been to enough of their meetings to know they reach their decisions through many hours of old-fashioned, friendly discussion.

The designers, nursery owners, curators, plant buyers and research scientists drive from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore., and points in-between twice a year to hang out at the Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline. They gather in their committees (Trees, Shrubs and Vines, Perennials and Bulbs) around tables laden with coffee and sandwiches, and debate the merits of plants they’ve grown, evaluated and tested for years. The discussion is fast, furious, funny, sometimes argumentative and so knowledgeable it’s intimidating.

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There’s much talk of weather, insects and fragrance, but, of course, these plant nerds stray off into the coolest, newest introductions. That said, they remain reliably hard-nosed when it comes to evaluation, coming back to the program’s goal of compiling a working list of available plants that thrive in our corner of the country with little intervention from gardeners.

To celebrate the 12th year of the program, Great Plant Picks recently rolled out a redesigned, more interactive website ( You can search by flower color, height, light level and other common characteristics and garden conditions. The photos are larger and more plentiful. I love the lists of companion plants. For any plant you find, you’re gifted with the names of a bunch more plants that’ll happily grow all around it. “The people who come up with these plant combos are really great gardeners,” says Miller Garden curator Richie Steffen. “We’re going to keep adding more companion plants to the website.”

The theme of this year’s poster is “Made in the Shade” because so many of us garden beneath large trees. Past and new picks are combined to come up with a group of plants that grow well in shade ranging from light to open, dappled to deep.

The 2012 picks, including collections of monkshood and hostas, aren’t necessarily shade lovers. “They’re simply the best of the best to fill out the lists,” explains Steffen.

Six of the new picks are shown here, including these standouts:

Hosta ‘Sagae’ is an especially showy variegated perennial that spreads into a bold mound 4 feet wide and 2 feet tall. The blue-green leaves are held quite upright, and each is outlined in bright primrose yellow. The leaves are deeply ribbed and have a slight waviness that adds to the elegance.

Hydrangea aborescens ‘Annabelle.’ GPP continues to evaluate older as well as newer plants, evidenced by this year’s pick of the vintage ‘Annabelle.’ “Lots of the new hydrangeas coming out are unproven,” explains Steffen. “We didn’t have a good white mophead on the list, and ‘Annabelle’ is such a great performer.”

Diphyllea cymosa, or umbrella plant, is a goliath of a perennial with fetchingly round leaves. In summer it sports white lacy flowers, but the real show is in autumn when umbels of blue berries appear on tall, bright red stems. “When you see it you think ‘What is that?’ and then realize you must have it in your garden,” says Steffen.

Disporum flavens, commonly called fairy bells, is a little woodland perennial that drips pale-lemon, bell-shaped flowers in spring. It’s shaped a little like the more familiar Solomon’s seal, with leaves that bend at the top like candy canes. It’s a sweet and delicate little clumper that disappears in winter and pops up again in early springtime.

These are just four of the more than 40 new plants for 2012. Steffen is incredulous when I express concern that the program might run out of truly great plants. “We have an enormous plant palette here — 900 plants just scratches the surface,” he says. “That’s a worry for a far future curator.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at

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