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Indispensables, the series
The Indispensables
(Aug. 13, 2000)
Indispensables revisited
(Jan. 21, 2001)
More Indispensables
(July 8, 2001)
Indispensables, Continued
(May 26, 2002)
Indispensables to move us
(Oct. 13, 2002)
Indispensables of Distinction
Following a love of the unique, our expert picks a singular bunch

If you had to move your garden, which 10 plants would you dig up first to take with you? That is the tough question I put to Richie Steffen, coordinator of horticulture for the Miller Botanical Garden in Shoreline. Steffen describes himself as a "full-fledged rhododendron snob," which is apparent from the list of plants he can't imagine gardening without. Even though he painfully limited himself to a single rhodie, most selected plants are good companions to his favorites. And no wonder. Before taking his current job, Steffen worked for years at the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way.
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Epimedium acuminatum Agapanthus 'Stormcloud'
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Daphne transatlantica 'Jim's Pride' Pacific coast hybrid iris
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Fothergilla major Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight'
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Molinia caerulea 'Moorflamme' Athyrium 'Ghost'
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Hepatica acutiloba Rhododendron augustini
Besides spending his work day propagating plants for the Miller Garden, Steffen is busy beating back blackberries and taking out grass in his home garden to create what he describes as a rhododendron ghetto of a collector's garden. Perhaps because of his devotion to "cool" plants, which of course means the hard-to-find and the unusual, not a single one of Steffen's choices overlaps with this column's earlier "indispensables" lists put together by other gardeners. I think it was harder for Steffen to curtail his list to plants that are actually available, in nurseries or by mail order, than it was to come up with just these 10 picks:

Epimedium acuminatum. The evergreen groundcover epimedium thrives in shade (for instance, growing beneath rhododendrons), and this one is a tidy clumper, good for squeezing into crowded gardens. Steffen chose it because its flowers are his preferred color combination of purple and white, and the new spring foliage is becomingly flushed with red.

• What would any list be without at least one supremely fragrant plant? Daphne transatlantica 'Jim's Pride' has little white flowers flushed with pink that perfume the garden for nearly 10 months of the year after an initial burst of bloom in April. It stays conveniently small, reaching only about 4 feet, and, says Steffen, "is easy to grow, for a daphne." This plant has suffered one of those frustrating name changes, and is often still sold under its old name Daphne caucasica.

• Another reasonably sized shrub on the list, chosen both for sweet-smelling flowers and brilliant foliage, is Fothergilla major. It is tough and stays under 6 feet, and its fluffy honey-scented spring flowers are followed by an unbelievable display of autumn color.

• Also chosen for late-season splendor is Molinia caerulea 'Moorflamme,' a short (under 3 feet) ornamental grass with airy blooms that catch the autumn light.

• Probably no serious plant collector would fail to mention hepaticas. Steffen's choice is H. acutiloba, one of the best for our climate. These little early-bloomers have exquisite flowers in pale blue, white or pink. They form sturdy clumps of evergreen foliage, with some leaves mottled in silver. Curiously, when you first buy the plant it will have white flowers, but once settled in, the flowers on some plants turn to shades of pink and blue, becoming brighter as the plant ages.

• Steffen has collected agapanthus for years, searching out those that are both reliably hardy and have the largest, darkest flowers. Agapanthus 'Stormcloud' is a winner, with deep blue-purple blooms and handsome, strappy leaves; plus, it's drought tolerant.

• Pacific Coast hybrid iris are also good choices for dry gardens. The iris have evergreen foliage and come in an array of luscious color combinations that belie their easy-care nature.

• Along with purple flowers, Steffen appreciates silver-toned foliage. The Japanese climbing hydrangea, Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight' has the white-lacecap flowers you might expect, but made the list for its pretty leaves, which are deeply veined in green with a silvery cast.

• Athyrium 'Ghost' is a hybrid between the tough lady fern and the more delicate Japanese painted fern. It is "the new of new ferns" says Steffen of this 2-foot-high beauty with a silver sheen to its fronds.

And which rhododendron reigns supreme? "I already have four Rhododendron augustini in my garden, and there are going to be more," says Steffen. A species with smaller foliage and a light and open look in the landscape, it can be grown in a shady woodland garden or a sunny perennial border, reaches 6 to 7 feet high, and is beloved by Steffen for the glory of its incredibly blue flowers.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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