Shrinking violets of the plant world can be garden gems

    Gardeners have it easy these days.
    Breeders are constantly improving plants, striving to make them increasingly disease resistant, more colorful, showier, sturdier, bigger or smaller. You can thank plant breeders for petunias that are self cleaning so you don’t have to pick off sticky spent blooms. And you can blame them if you have roses that don’t have a scent because they are responsible for that too. Sometimes in the quest to breed for specific characteristics, others are lost.
    Generally speaking, the work that breeders do, often on behalf of large plant companies, has made growing plants easier than it used to be. For instance, garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), long a mainstay in the summer garden, used to look terrible by late summer, its foliage ravaged by powdery mildew. Today most phlox you can buy are mildew resistant.
    These new and improved plants often come with flashy branding and sometimes advertising campaigns, which helps them fly out of garden centers. That’s good news, but a lot of plants don’t get the rock-star treatment and are forgotten about.
    I like seeking out these little-grown gems, many of which are great plants that simply lack the showiness of other eye-catchers.
    One of the species I’ve become enamored with is Thalictrum (meadow rue).
    A member of the buttercup family, meadow rue comes in many shapes and colors, but my favorites are the taller growing varieties with small, nodding flowers held on top long, sturdy stems, offering an ethereal see-through element in the garden. At the base of the stems is mounded, lobed foliage that resembles the leaves on columbine.
    Planting tall-growing plants that don’t block the view toward the front of the border offers great texture contrast and depth to a garden. I have three Thalictrum ‘Black Stockings’ in full bloom off the patio right now, and nearly everyone who sees them inquires about the plant with the dark-purple (not quite black, sadly) stems. They will continue blooming for weeks and the foliage will continue looking good even after I cut back the stems.
    I added two ‘Elin’ meadow rues to a new garden this year and I’m excited to see if it reaches the towering 8-foot height advertised. Like most meadow rues, it will grow in a variety of conditions from full sun with regular watering to part shade, and it’s hardy to zone 4 at least.
    I sought out ‘Elin’ after learning about it through the Chicago Botanic Garden plant evaluation trials (available at, where longtime plant trials manager Richard Hawke and his team put many varieties through their paces for eight years.
    Despite being an easy-to-grow perennial with a lot to offer, you’ll likely have to hunt a bit to find Thalictrum. There’s no marketing campaign for meadow rues and it’s unlikely you’ll find them taking pride of place at the garden center. The hunt is worth is it.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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