Six Plants I Can’t Live Without

Six Plants I Can’t Live Without

When I was asked by my friend Steve Bender, a.k.a. Grumpy Gardener, at Southern Living magazine to participate in listing the six plants I can’t live without, the usual suspects ran through my mind; notably flowers. Somehow, the list fell short in expressing how I felt. This surprised me. I thought for sure my list would be all flowers; flowers bring me and the wildlife I attract great joy.

After given many choices a good consideration, my list of 6 was not about the flowers. It was form that excited me; a plant that I would stare at in wonder. Another was a smell that offered an escape. Others, deep in southern traditions; plants that reined well before my family became southerners. Another for the shear joy of seeing it and never tiring.

Although there were no rules, I chose an herb, a shrub, a perennial, a specimen tree, a large tree, and a bulb.

My choices are bronze fennel, dwarf butterfly bush, hardy begonia, Japanese umbrella pine, Southern Magnolia, white rain lily. For purposes of this post, we stopped at six. I’m comforted in knowing the list goes on…

Bronze Fennel

Name: Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’

Zones: 4 to 9

Size: 3 – 4 feet tall and 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil.


Bronze fennel is grown in my herb garden for several reasons, but the biggy is because it is a host plant for the Black swallowtail butterfly. The plant itself is very lusty looking with a robust size, seductive color and a soft touch. Bronze color adds interest in an herb garden that can be heavy on green. The feathery foliage looks good all summer, as long as it is not allowed to go to seed. To avoid this, feel free to cut it back during the summer, or just let the larvae do it for you. In some areas, bronze fennel can be invasive. Keeping it going to seed will lessen the worry.

Dwarf butterfly bush

Name: Buddleia davidii ‘Blue Chip’

Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 24 to 36 inches tall and 30 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun, well-drained soil


Parts of North Carolina deal with the exuberance of some Buddleia species; but there a new Bud on the block.  Buddleia daviddi ‘Blue Chip’ is now widely available. ‘Blue Chip’ was hybridized by Dr. Dennis (Denny) Werner, former director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University and a plant breeder in the NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Science. An unusual dwarf butterfly bush, ‘Blue Chip’ is a very, very low seed setter. As such, it is unlikely it will produce unwanted seedlings – also producing blooms all summer until frost with no deadheading.

Hardy begonia

Name: Begonia grandis

Zones: 6 to 10

Size: 18 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Part shade; moist, well-drained soil.


Hardy begonia is very easy to grow and offers a cooling effect located in the shade of the trees. Most of what I have came from plants passed along from my friend Brooks’ garden. The triangular-shaped leaves and blush-pink flowers keep thriving from summer through frost. Hardy begonia is often passed along from gardener to gardener or purchased from a quality nursery. The cultivar ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ offers especially huge, abundant rosy pink flowers.

Japanese umbrella pine

Name: Sciadopitys verticillata

Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 25 to 40 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; acidic, fertile, moist, well-drained soil.


A good plant will offer 2 seasons of interest or purpose; a plant with three seasons is even better. Add in a forth season, and it’s a winner through and through. Japanese umbrella pine always looks interesting. Lush, exotic, deep green needles in whorls give rise to its common name. With neither disease nor pest problems to deal with, this tree also meets my low-maintenance requirements. It is a very slow-growing however, so invest in a sizable plant to keep your patience from getting the best of you.

Southern Magnolia

Name: Magnolia grandiflora

Zones: 7 – 9

Size: 60 – 90 feet tall and 20+ feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; rich, well-drained, acid soil. Once established, extremely drought tolerant.


Quintessential southern landscapes include southern magnolias. Unfortunately, not all of us have the land to hold one. Thankfully, I do. My neighbors have 5 on their half acre lot! We have one on the south side of the house; it shades our home from the hot summer sun. Waxy, glossy leaves, with a brown under belly, drop each spring landing within her skirt. Their May and June blooms look and smell heavenly. I’ll pluck one and float in a bowl near where I read in the morning. It last but a day, but what a day it is.

White rain lily

Name: Zephyranthes candida

Zones: 7 to 10

Size: 6 to 12 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; rich moist soil.


The white rain lily was one of Elizabeth Lawrence’s favorite little bulbs. These fall bloomers like moist loam and don’t want to compete for water. Lovely white crocus-like flowers will open after it rains; the rest of the year, they offer a pleasing, grass-like leaf. Mine are located in an area made moist from receiving overflow water from my rain catch basin. Rain lilies have a magical quality in that they just seem to know from where the water comes: Rain lilies will bloom to the occasion of rain.

As a side note my friend Scott Kunst at Old House Gardens where I bought mine, donated a bundle for Elizabeth Lawrence’s gravesite. This white rain lily was her favorite. Thanks Scott!

Thanks, Grumpy, for organizing nine of us from the garden blog community.  For the list of six the others listed as plants they can’t live without, please visit the following:

Grumpy Gardener – Southern Living Magazine Steve Bender

Defining Your Home Garden Cameron
Diggin’ It Judy Lowe
Digging Pam Penick
Fresh Dirt – Sunset Magazine Jim McCausland
Fairegarden Frances
Hoe and Shovel “Meems”
Jim Long’s Garden Jim Long
Sweet Home and Garden Chicago Carolyn Choi

Helen Yoest




  1. Helen,

    Great choices! I had trouble selecting only six plants. So far, two of you have mentioned the fennel and I also grow it for the butterflies and love that it is such a hardy perennial for us. I “must have” the ‘Blue Chip’ after seeing it at Raulston and in Denny’s garden. I can’t have too many buddleia. I need another small variety to go with a sunny patch of stachys byzantina.


  2. Hi Helen, so nice to see your choices. We both cannot live without the bronze fennel for the same reasons. Thanks for showing the little butterfly bush. I have not tried those and your glowing report has put that on the want list. I have not tried the rain lilies, but you make a compelling case for them too.

  3. I like your choices. That hardy begonia has always intrigued me. I want to try it. I have never seen it at a nursery around here. I have seen it in gardens a little south of where I live yet in the same zone (6). Everyone says it is difficult to find. I am still looking. Happy gardening.

  4. Cameron, you may also want to try the new ‘Miss Ruby’, a ‘Blue Chip’ cousin. ‘Miss Ruby is also a dwarf, but about 50% taller with a few more seeds, but still a very low seed setter. Both cultivars will keep your clippers in your pocket.

  5. Hey Frances, I loved your choices as well. It was hard to do. I guess it was not surprising there were overlaps and choice envy. For the most part, I could have selected the same choices as most of the plants posted.


  6. Very appealing choices. I really miss Southern magnolias and hardy begonias. You — and the others — have convinced me that I’ve got to go right out and buy bronze fennel. I’ve read about it before, but never acted on the impulse to buy it. Now I know I just have to! I’ll definitely be back to visit (and hear more about it as well as other plants).

  7. Hey Lisa,

    I was reluctant to mention Hardy begonia for that very reason. I know the originial Heronswood carried it (hence the cultivar name), not sure about the newby. Worth a try though.

  8. Meems said

    Hi Helen,
    I really like all your choices. You did a very nice job chronicling them- very easy to read. The reasoning for your picks is one I admire and associate with my own choices as well. 🙂 AND I actually recognize many of your choices.

    My southern garden has a 35′ magnolia on the north side yard and I wouldn’t want to be without it for certain… it is already showing blooming signs. I grow several types of begonia here as well and was hard pressed not to include them in my six plants. They are so wonderfully understated and low mainenance.

    I grow the pink rain lilies here. Ours bloom in spring with every flush of rain and will continue throughout the first part of summer and sporadically into fall. Sturdy, hardy, easily divided, and as sweet as they are durable.
    So nice to visit your blog.
    Meems @ Hoe and Shovel

  9. Hey Judy,

    Here’s a garden with the best fennel around – In the Summer, 2009 copy of Nature’s Garden


  10. Grumpy Gardener said

    As usual, Helen, you are very organized and systematic. Perhaps you could help me organize my garage? My wife would appreciate that. Got to get me that dwarf butterfly bush. And hardy begonia rocks.

  11. Gail said

    Hi Helen, Love, love, love bronze fennel and once you have it…there will be a few babies to move about! The same with hardy begonia…it seeds nicely here and there in a garden. I added Metallic Mist hardy begonia to the garden last fall…but I haven’t seen it peaking up! Not sure it made it through our colder then usual winter. Great choices…I know I couldn’t stick to 6! Thank goodness it’s just a thinking assignment for us! gail

  12. The Southern Magnolia is one of the most beautiful trees in the whole wide world as far as I’m concerned.

    Great choices, Helen. The Japanese umbrella pine is very unique and while it will grow in a sheltered spot here in Chicago, it’s very marginal. And, since its very pricey you don’t see it planted in many gardens.

  13. Yes, well Grumpy, I like order in my life of disorder. Btw, it drove me CRAZY when you first listed the 10 participating bloggest and they weren’t in alphabetical order. So glad to have that behind me. I like to think this makes up for my inability to self-edit my own writing.

    As for garages, I might consider it. Actually, I may not be able to help myself when I visit. Yesterday, I reorganized my nursery pots, first according to size, then according to manufacturer. I wish they would all just self destruct in biodegradable pieces in 10, 9, 8, …

  14. Agreed, Carolyn…Southern magnolia is the best tree in the WWW! It was the only no-brainer choice I made. The others just floated to the top today…who knows what tomorrow might bring. H.

  15. […] When I was asked by my friend Steve Bender, a.k.a. Grumpy Gardener , at Southern Living magazine to participate in listing the six plants I can’t live without, the usual suspects ran through my mind; notably flowers Here is the original post: Six Plants I Can’t Live Without « Gardening With Confidence ™ […]

  16. Rose said

    I’ve enjoyed seeing the different choices the ten of you have made. I’m glad to see that at least three of these can be grown in my zone 5 garden. You and Frances both mentioned the bronze fennel, a new plant to me. I’m always looking for more plants to attract butterflies, so this one may just find a home here as well!

  17. Grumpy Gardener said

    I think it’s interesting that so many Northerners covet Southern magnolia. I was sent a photo once of a beautiful specimen growing in mid-Illinois that had withstood -15 degrees. This got me thinking of what Northern plant I wish I could grow. The first that comes to mind is Colorado blue spruce. Ah well…that’s a topic for another time.

  18. Helen, I admire your choices. Mine were made for a similar reason: texture and evergreen form over flowers, much as I love them.

  19. […] posting his choices on Monday, and Sharon Cohoon in southern California is posting hers on Tuesday. Gardening With Confidence. Helen Yoest in Raleigh, NC The Grumpy Gardener. Steve Bender in Alabama Hoe and Shovel. Meems in […]

  20. Hi Helen,
    Thanks for your choices. I too grow bronze fennel and love it: nothing seems to do a better job feeding bees and other six-legged creatures. And now I’ve got to try Zephyranthes.


  21. lilly00 said

    great article the white rain lilly is my prefered flower, it is always bright and beautiful. I have decided to start to grow them in my garden.

  22. Joanne Cameron said

    Dr. Steve: In the May issue on Pg. 70, #2 “Torch Blanket Flowers” caught my eye as a perfect flower to place on the west side of our long driveway. Would you please give me another name so that I may call the nursery and order some. Thank you. J.C.

  23. […] Gandiflora, Southern Magnolia – Six Plants I can’t Live Without […]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: