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The Survivors – Drought Tolerant Plants
by Stephanie Cohen
August 22, 2004

North and South, East and West, all were under attack. As the dreaded killer went from town to town, none were safe. Around July we were under full-scale attack in the Middle Atlantic States. We all shuddered and prayed to be delivered from the horrid onslaught. No one was safe and each media report deepened our depression. As each week wet by, there were fewer and fewer survivors. My hands began to hurt as I tried to keep the dreaded “D” from mass annihilation.

The scene became more desolate and bleak as grass became brown and crunchy. Trees lost their leaves as a self-defense mechanism. Each day was 90 degrees Fahrenheit plus and humid, with no relief in sight. Finally, at the end of the eighth week, coming from nowhere, to our rescue was the guy in the white hat – RAIN. The drought was far from over, but those two days of rain gave us hope that we would be saved. Little did we know four more weeks of trials and tribulations awaited us.

By fall the rains came. The drought was declared officially over. “D” had finally been vanquished. By this point in time I had developed the cursed disease, HOSE HAND. We were only allowed to water with a hose early in the morning and late at night. It took weeks to unbend my fingers as each day they assumed the hose position automatically.

I looked out into the field of battle – my garden – after the massacre was over. Who were these intrepid survivors that were still there. The plants seemed to break into distinct categories – those plants originally from Mediterranean climates, many of them herbs, those with silver or hairy leaves, succulents, plants of Native American origin with lots of root mass, ornamental grasses and bulbs.

In USDA Hardiness Zone 6, after twelve weeks of only two days of rain, the winners and champions in my book were: all of the Lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia), ‘Hidcote’, Munstead’ and especially ‘Blue Cushion’, a very beautiful and compact form. All ornamental Thymes, Sages and Oreganos met the challenge.

Another group with superior staying power were the Pinks (Dianthus) that are hardy in Zones 4 to 8. My favorites are ‘Pixie’ (pink with dark pink accents and a dark rose ring around the throat), ‘Firewitch’ (magenta), ‘Bath’s Pink’ (soft pink) and ‘Mountain Mist’ (smoky pink). A new cultivar called ‘Rosish One’, from the brilliant lifework of the Fleming Brothers, joins these exceptional drought and heat resistant varieties. ’Rosish One’ produces multi-layered flowers of mottled velvety dark rose with petal edges delicately traced in white.

Let’s not forget the Yarrow (Achillea) that held its ground – ‘Anthea’. Hardy to Zones 4 to 8, it looked a little peaked, but I cut it back and as soon as the rain started it began to freely reflower right into fall. I love the beautiful sulphur-colored yellow flowers, lovely dissected gray foliage and erect stems. Another good plant that held its ground (excuse the bad pun) was Perovskia atriplicifolia, the indomitable Russian Sage. Hardy to Zones 5 to 9, it never faltered. All of the cultivars performed admirably. They just kept on flowering regardless of the weather conditions.

The later flowering plants bloomed as they normally do in fall, although some flowered shorter than usual. Among these were Bolton’s Aster (Boltonia asteroids) ‘Snowbank’ (white), Goldenrods (Solidago species) and a variety of Asters, including ‘Flora’s Delight’ (lilac pink), ‘Purple Dome’ (purple), ‘Woods Pink’ (pale pink) and ‘Blue Bird’ (soft blue)..

Siberian Iris, Daylilies, Lilies, Ornamental summer-flowering Onions (Alliums) also remained unscathed. Another group of plants that defied the weather were the Red Hot Pokers (Kniphofia) that are Hardy in Zones 5 to 9. Outstanding cultivars were ‘Bressingham Comet’, ‘Cobra’ and ‘Shining Sceptre’. These are very durable hot weather plants. They seemed not to notice the mortality rate of their fellow comrades, which were stressed out, or disappearing.

The stalwart natives were Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) ‘Magnus’ and ‘Ruby Star’, Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia species) ‘Goldsturm’ and ‘Viette’s Little Suzy’, and a marvelous new Helen’s Flower (Helenium) ‘Mardi Gras’. This new cultivar (Zones 4 to 8) flowers from midsummer to August and lights up the garden with its multicolored blooms. It has yellow petals splashed with orange red surrounding a deep brown cone – a truly psychedelic fantasy. Don’t forget about Tickseed (Coreopsis) that hung in there in Zones 4 to 8. ‘Golden Gain’ never fails, as do its two newer and colorful companions ‘Sweet Dreams’ (two-tone white and raspberry) and ‘Limerock Ruby’ (ruby red). All of these combined well with Ornamental Grasses to keep the summer garden colorful and full. Many times we are looking for exotic and unusual for the garden, but a lot of these stalwarts saved the day.

The plants that died were interred with dignity. As a true garden fanatic I can now look at all the empty spaces and contemplate all of my new additions for next year. Even a drought has some rewards!

Stephanie Cohen is Adjunct Professor at Temple University, Dept. of Landscape Architecture & Horticulture, Ambler Campus, 20 years; Mid-Atlantic representative of the Perennial Plant Association; and her articles have been featured in leading consumer and gardening publications. She received the Garden Communicator Award of the Year in 2000 from the American Nursery Landscape Association.

article courtesy Blooms of Bressingham


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