Northwest gardeners are deluged with choice plants, or anyway with plant choices. The dilemma lies in discerning the difference.

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Northwest gardeners are deluged with choice plants, or anyway with plant choices. The dilemma lies in discerning the difference. Would that each little nursery pot came with a “benefits per space and resources required” sticker to balance out falling for the frill of a leaf or a flower’s sweet perfume. Facts, please. We need facts to make sense of the sensory overload.

Great Plant Picks to the rescue. This ambitious program, run by the Elizabeth Miller Botanical Garden and sponsored by the Miller Charitable Foundation, debuted here in Pacific Northwest magazine with just 15 plant picks in February 2001. Over the past eight years, teams of designers, growers, retailers and nurserymen have been busy vetting thousands of plants. These experts have agreed on an impressive list of 581 trees, shrubs, vines, bulbs and perennials, including 97 new picks for 2008.

Just picture it: more than 40 highly opinionated experts from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia gathering thrice yearly to deliberate over what plants are truly garden-worthy. GPP coordinator Lynne Thompson characterizes each committee as an exercise in personality types. As you might imagine, the tree group sets about their work seriously and studiously as befits those considering the woody giants of the plant world. The shrub and vine committee is more lighthearted, while the perennial and bulb group wears bright colors to debate this most diverse category of plants.

“We look at the plants rigorously,” says Lucy Hardiman, a Portland-based garden designer and educator who is on the perennial and bulb committee. Every winning plant must be disease- and pest-resistant, vigorous yet noninvasive, easy to grow, hardy, long-lived and available for purchase. A complete list of criteria as well as photos and descriptions of all 581 picks is available at A poster of this year’s picks is on page 18.

In its first few years, Great Plant Picks caught up on the basics. Now it’s moved into unusual plants so cool it’s hard to believe they’re easy-care and dependable. A few exciting 2008 picks:

• Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen.’ A trumpet vine with hot-colored, exotic flowers so lush you can’t believe it thrives north of Mexico. Hummingbirds love its gorgeous flowers, it’ll tolerate drought and poor soil, and you can prune it hard to control size.

Fargesia robusta. I was relieved to see this non-running bamboo get the stamp of approval, because I’ve already planted a hedge of it. No need to be afraid of this beauty with shiny olive leaves and white stem sheaths because it tops out at 15 to 18 feet tall and spreads politely into well-behaved clumps.

Enkianthus perulatus. This is the shrub everyone will exclaim over in your fall garden, for its tidy leaves turn pure scarlet as the weather cools. Smaller than most enkianthus, it has white urn-shaped flowers in spring and a mounded, layered shape ideal for urban gardens.

Heptacodium miconioides. The seven sons tree from China made the cut for its bright red calyxes that follow the jasmine-scented white flowers in autumn. It also doesn’t hurt that this is a healthy tree, has handsome peeling bark and attracts butterflies. “There’s nothing like it,” one juror said.

Arisarum proboscideum. A woodland perennial proves that even jaded GPP judges succumb to the adorability factor. In April, it sprouts maroon and white flowers partly hidden beneath its leaves, with 7-inch-long “tails” that earn it the common name of mouse plant.

• Begonia grandis. Believe it or not, a showstopping hardy begonia, with huge leaves and sweet pink and white flowers from July until frost.

Lonicera pileata. This versatile, tough shrub is a honeysuckle but not a vine. It stays under 3 feet, can be sheared, is an ideal backdrop for perennials and has large, bright purple berries in August.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is