Published May 10, 2011 | By Robert LaHoff, Halls Garden Center & Florist

Years ago, when I first started to learn horticultural vocabulary; I had two bosses who gave me a new plant to learn everyday. Starting out in this business over twenty years ago, I worked a summer job at Metropolitan Plant Exchange in West Orange, New Jersey. I had two wonderful mentors, Tony Maiello and Stephen Schuckman. To this day we are the best of friends and both are true gentleman in every sense of the word. My friends taught me much about plants and even more about business over the years. To this day I remember the word games they gave me to try and remember some of the complex vocabulary that often comes with botanical nomenclature. I would do word associations to remember the plants. Three plants that are stellar performers for the month of May are Deutzia, Exochorda and Fothergilla (D, E & F).

I believe this to be true: all three of these plants are highly underused in our landscapes today. Azaleas and rhododendron seem to account for much of the retail sales in May and when I suggest these other three plants, people often balk at the thought simply because they have not heard the names as often or if ever. The thought of buying a plant that you have never heard of seems preposterous to most. Often the first response I get is “is it hardy”? In fact these three plants offer so much to a landscape and all are “tough as nails”.

Slender Deutzia, Deutzia gracilis, I have long admired, if for no other reason, it seems to be very deer resistant. Do I have your attention yet? Slender Deutzia is a medium sized shrub that grows comfortably between 2 and 4 feet tall and wide. It can grow slightly larger, however, it can easily be kept to these specs. This broad mound of a shrub has graceful, slender branches. A deciduous beauty that looks fantastic when mass planted, especially in the month of May. Perfect, white flowers, that have some fragrance, are born in panicles and continue to flower for two weeks. Place this small garden gem in more sun than shade and prune them after they flower. The fall color can be purple, however, I find that to be hit and miss.

Common Pearlbush, Exochorda racemosa, is perhaps the one that people have least heard of. This is a sizeable plant that can exceed 10 feet high and wide. Perfectly hardy to zone 4, Exochorda has captivated me ever since a saw a hedge line of it in Bernards Township, New Jersey. Another noteworthy spot to view this beauty is Longwood Gardens. Consider using this plant the same way you would use some Viburnum. Sometimes described as being open in habit or loose, Pearlbush can be trimmed hard to have a more dense habit. Again, perfect white flowers appear here and last for a few weeks. The flowers are 5-petaled and are 1 ½” across. According to Michael Dirr, “each expanding bud reminds of a pearl”. With no serious pests, Exochorda likes full to part sun and can survive even with neglect. Be on the look out for Exochorda x ‘The Bride’. A dense, compact hybrid of (E. racemosa x E. korolkowii) that only grows to about 4 feet tall, this garden gem features racemes 3-4” long of 5-petaled white flowers. Yellow fall color is a bonus here also.

Finally, dwarf Fothergilla, Fothergilla gardenii. This botanical beauty looks outstanding in the landscape in mass or as a single specimen in a container. Only growing 3-5 feet tall with a similar spread, Fothergilla is hardy to Maine. With almost blue-green foliage that is quilted and leathery, Fothergilla has sensational fall color markings. Expect a combination of yellows, oranges and reds in the autumn. For now, look for white, fragrant 2” long flower spikes that look like a bottlebrush. Easy to spot now as the flowers precede the foliage. Another trouble free plant that would benefit from more sun than shade, Fothergilla will even tolerate clay soil. An excellent choice for borders, containers and foundation plantings, this plant truly has 3 seasons of interest. Couple this native plant with ericaceous plants and your garden will “pop”.

Don’t get caught up this spring with just azaleas and rhododendron. There are so many other worthwhile plants out there for you to consider. Be bold, think out of the box, and try something new in your garden. The average cost for one of these plants can be the same price as an entrée in a nice restaurant. That experience can be gone the next day, but these plants can last a lifetime.