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Meaning-full Indispensables
An expert with words picks 10 plants with something to tell us

DESPITE HER QUITE different approach to the task, Lee Neff came up with as juicy and desirable a list of 10 indispensables as any other gardener we've asked to participate in this exercise of discrimination. Perhaps her Quaker faith led Neff to consider the question philosophically, or maybe she pondered the definition of "indispensable" because as editor of the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin she deals in words and their meanings.

"It all hinges on what things in life are truly indispensable, and for me it all boils down to connections between people and the earth, to wider ideas, storytelling, personal connections," explains Neff. Combine such thoughtfulness with a collector's keen eye and Neff came up with a choice selection for Northwest gardens.


Neff and her husband, John, live and garden near Seward Park on almost an acre of mature trees, fruits and vegetables, fountains of roses and sweeps of colorful shrubs and perennials. How to choose a mere 10 plants from such an abundance? Neff considered a plant's history and meaning as well as its beauty. Her single choice of a tree is small and elegant, with camellia-like white flowers that bloom in autumn set off by fiery red foliage. Franklinia alatamaha was discovered along a Georgia river bank and saved from extinction by John Bartram, a Quaker who was one of our country's earliest botanical explorers.

Since a criterion for the indispensable list is that every plant chosen is reasonably available you'll want to know that it's possible to track down Daphne x transatlantica 'Summer Ice' at Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery. Neff chose it for its creamy variegation and fragrant white flowers that bloom most of the year. It doesn't need pruning or watering once established, and it came through this winter's tough freezes better than Neff's other daphnes.

Neff loves clematis for their ability to combine with shrubs and roses to weave a garden together, as well as clothe shrubs and perennials when out of flower. 'Duchess of Albany' is her choice of clematis, supreme for its tulip-like, clear-pink flowers that bloom mid-summer on through autumn. She grows the Duchess over one of her shrub choices, Edgeworthia chrysantha, which is long done blooming by the time the clematis flowers. Neff says of this early-spring shrub, "There's no plant whose bloom I anticipate more eagerly." Known as the paper bush, because its bark was used to make fancy paper, E. chrysantha has little round heads of soft-yellow, fragrant flowers in early March and grows to about 6 feet high.

All we "gardeners of a certain age" will appreciate that the largest category of plants on Neff's list are multiseasonal, easy-care shrubs. Joining the daphne and paper bush in this category is hardy Fuchsia magellanica 'Aurea,' chosen for its stunning combination of chartreuse foliage with pink-red flowers, and its great attraction for hummingbirds. To revive flagging midsummer spirits, Neff chose Hydrangea paniculata 'Floribunda,' one of the peegee hydrangeas with tall white cones of flowers perfect for cutting and drying. When her niece was married in October, 'Floribunda's' blossoms had turned the color of tawny cream lace, perfect for a wedding bouquet.

To round out the seasons, Neff chose winter-blooming Helleborus orientalis for its array of colors and variable stripes, freckles and double flowers. A little later in spring, Neff treasures species tulips, especially T. orphanidea 'Flava' for its delicate beauty and strong color. Native Pacific Coast irises "are so comfortable with our wet winters and dry summers," says Neff. She groups them in masses to form a full-color spectrum understory in her shady garden in May.

While Neff has several choices in common with other area gardeners (the native iris, hellebores and franklinia) her choice of blackberries is unique, and the first edible to make the indispensables list. Rubus 'Loch Ness' isn't a monster, but rather a thornless blackberry, a hit in Neff's Grandchild Berry Bed, with huge, sweet fruit and smooth, arched canes. It grows upright, rarely runs and is truly thornless, attracting pickers eager for Neff to brew up a batch of blackberry jam.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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