12 Top Midwest Plants From a Michigan Garden Expert
A yellow peony, showy trillium, award-winning hosta and periwinkle-blue iris are some of a Michigan expert’s plant picks—and they’ll thrive in your Midwest garden, too.
Ask Hans Hansen what makes a winning plant, and he’ll tick off several qualities, including a long season of interest even before and after flowering, low maintenance and distinction at 10 feet away.
Hansen, who grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern, started experimenting with hybridization as a teen. Over the past three decades, he has introduced hundreds of new plants, including many as the head of new plant development at Walters Gardens in Holland, Michigan.
Even after hours, Hansen embraces gardening chores at his home in Zeeland. “Weeding is a good thing for me,” he says. “You can understand and observe plants, seedlings, and nature better on your hands and knees than any other way.” Check out his 12 favorite plants, starting with Paeonia ‘Bartzella.’
This peony is a shining star in a new class of Itoh peonies. Itohs are a cross between a classic garden peony and more shrub-like tree peony. Hansen praises their large double yellow flowers (6-8” diameter) and strong stems that don’t need staking. Established clumps grow to 3’ and produce as many as 80 blooms. For added bonuses, the flowers have a sweet fragrance and shrub-like foliage that lasts all season long. (Perennial; Zones: 3-8; 24-36” H)
Trillium ‘Snow Bunting’
For 25 years, Hansen has been growing this showy double version of the native trillium. “I look forward to its spring blooms every year,” he says. In April, these wildflowers are found blanketing hillsides of many Midwestern woodlands and can be grown in home shade gardens in moist but well-drained soil. Its name refers to its trios of leaves and petals. (Perennial; Zones: 4a-8b; 8-12” H)
This award-winning hosta is an improvement on the popular Hosta ‘Sagae’ by using a breeding technique that doubles the chromosomes and results in a more substantive plant. The blue-green leaves edged in creamy yellow bring stunning color to a shade border or woodland garden. It was named a Hosta of the Year by the American Hosta Society. (Perennial; Zones: 3a-9b; 26” H)
Iris siberica ‘Cape Cod Boys’
Hansen favors this “classy and distinct” Siberian iris for its bountiful periwinkle blue flowers. Their golden veins make them a standout. And when not flowering, the wide blue-green leaf blades are attractive. Plant iris’s bulb-like rhizomes in a sunny or partly shady spot that’s moist but well-drained. They look best massed in naturalized settings, mixed in perennial borders or planted around water features. (Perennial; Zones: 3-9; 27” H)
Baptisia ‘Sparkling Sapphire’
One of Hansen’s hybrids, this compact variety is a polished version of the native baptisia. The vivid blue flowers bloom in late spring. They’re easy to grow and thrive in full or part sun with little maintenance. Use them solo like a shrub, massed in meadow plantings or as a backdrop in borders. (Perennial; Zones 4-9; 30-36” H)
Lilium ‘Conca de Oro’
Bright lemon-yellow flowers tower over other perennials in the July garden. Their pie-sized blooms are fragrant, and their stems are as thick as broom sticks. Hansen attributes their vigor to the hybrid’s cross between a trumpet lily and an oriental lily. Plant in full sun. (Perennial bulb; Zones: 4-8; 4-5’ H)
Helleborus ‘Annas Red’
Hansen gushes, “Annas Red is arguably the finest hellebore ever introduced.” Burgundy flowers bloom in late winter and early spring atop a clump of thick marbled foilage. Plant them in moist but well-drained soil beneath shade trees. (Perennial: Zones: 5-8; 15” H).
Mangave ‘Lavender Lady’
Mangaves are a relatively new phenomenon, a cross between decoratively patterned manfredas and robust agaves. Hansen has been breeding a line of mangaves that have agave’s succulent-like leaves but not their spines. They’re fast growers, too. When grown in full sun, ‘Lavendar Lady’ has a lovely smoky lavender cast to its succulent leaves. In the summer, grow them outdoors in a patio container then overwinter them indoors by a sunny window. (Tender succulent; Zones: 8-10; 8-10” H)
Clematis ‘Stand by Me’
This unique clematis is Hansen’s first commercial clematis hybrid. Instead of growing as a vine like most clematis, this one grows into a shrub. Its adorable blue bell-shaped flowers bloom in late May and June with as many as 30 flowers per stem. More blooms return in late summer. After blooming, cream thread-like seed heads appear. Plant in full sun or light shade and support the plant with an obelisk or bamboo pole. (Perennial; Zones: 3-7; 34-38” H)
Buddleia ‘Grand Cascade’
This late summer beauty is Hansen’s favorite from his 10 years hybridizing buddleias, also known as butterfly bushes. Says Hansen (pictured with buddleias), “insanely large flowers arch and cascade over the clump.” Indeed, huge 12-14” purple flowers put on quite a show later in summer. Plant them in full sun, and cut them back in later winter or early spring. (Perennial; Zones: 5-10; 5-6’ H)
Hosta ‘Autumn Frost’
The frosty blue leaves and bright yellow margins are striking in a shaded landscape. This hosta is medium sized with heart-shaped leaves and light lavender flowers. (Perennial; Zones: 3-9; 12” H)
Hibiscus ‘Berry Awesome’
Bring a tropical flair to your northern gardens with this hardy native hibiscus. In late summer, the compact shrub puts on quite a show with its dinner-plate-size flowers in lavender pink with cherry eyes. The bright blooms truly pop against the attractive midnight green foliage. “It’s special to me, as it set the bar for the hibiscus hybridizing program at Walters Gardens,” says Hansen. (Perennial; Zones: 4-9; 40-48”H)