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U of I Extension announces plants of the year

After the polar vortex of last winter, many are wondering if those cold blustery temperatures will return this season to affect our plants in Illinois.

According to winter predictions, and University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Bruce J. Black, this winter should be cold, but with enough snow, plants will be successfully insulated.

“When planning your garden, it is essential to choose plants that can tolerate our cold temperatures and still have blossoms all year long,” Black said. “After mapping out cold-hardy perennials you currently have planted, begin to think about what new plants could be added to your landscape. A great starting place is the All-America Selections.”

All-America Selections is a non-profit organization that releases several trialed plants each year as AAS Winners.

All-America Selections tests new varieties every year at their 80 private and public trial sites located around the United States and Canada. Currently, there are five trial locations in Illinois (three northern, one central, one southern).

Independent judges, who are professional horticulturists in geographically diverse areas, evaluate trial entries against comparison plants.

The results and observations are compiled and winners are chosen. For the best plants suited to the area, Illinois residents should look for Great Lakes winners or National winners on the AAS Winners lists.

Six 2020 AAS Winners have been announced, which include four vegetables and two flowers. They are:

Cucumber, Green Light F1 (Cucumis sativusvar. Green Light F1): Green Light is a vining cucumber, with a plant height of 80 inches producing 40 3.5-inch sweet and crisp fruits per plant. National Vegetable Winner.

Tomato, Celano F1 (Solanum lycopersicum var. Celano F1): Celano is a patio-type grape tomato with a bushy habit, producing uniform oblong sweet fruits. With excellent late-blight tolerance, Celano is considered to be sweet, with a phenomenal yield. Ideal for container gardens, but may require trellising and some pruning according to the judges’ observations. National Vegetable Winner.

Tomato, Early Resilience F1 (Solanum lycopersicum var. Early Resilience F1): Early Resilience is a determinate, uniform, Roma-type, great for cooking and canning. Judges noted Early Resilience was very resistant to blossom-end rot and other diseases, and was overall one of the healthier plants and fruits in the trial. National Vegetable Winner.

Watermelon, Mambo F1 (Citrullus lanatus var. Mambo F1): Mambo is a round, dark green rinded watermelon averaging 11 pounds per fruit. It doesn’t overripen and yields well in cool, cloudy weather. Judges said it is easy to grow, due to high seed germination rates and healthy vines. Seventy-five days to maturity from transplants. National Vegetable Winner.

Echinacea, Sombrero® Baja Burgundy (Echinacea hybrid var. Sombrero® Baja Burgundy): Sombrero® Baja Burgundy is a beautiful violet-red coneflower that was noted for its hardiness, sturdy branching, and beautiful habit. A great cut flower blooming mid-summer to frost, Sombrero® Baja Burgundy is pollinator and bird-friendly and deer-resistant. National Herbaceous Perennial Winner.

Rudbeckia, American Gold Rush (Rudbeckia x American Gold Rush): American Gold Rush is a compact, dome-shaped black-eyed Susan with narrow 2-inch hairy foliage. Bred for its resistance to Septoria leaf spot, this July to September bloomer shows no signs of fungus in humid and wet conditions. The blooms are pollinator-friendly and are great as cut flowers. National Herbaceous Perennial Winner.

Looking for something else to fill in your landscape and gardens? The All-America Selections website ( contains a list of all past vegetable and flower winners since its founding in 1933.

For more information about gardening, check out the University of Illinois Extension website, “Watch Your Garden Grow,” at or subscribe to the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture YouTube Channel:

Call Bruce J. Black at 815-632-3611 for more information.

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ voted 2020 Perennial Plant of the Year

The Perennial Plant Association has announced the 2020 Perennial Plant of the Year. Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is a fabulous high-impact perennial that brings a bold pop of glowing color and texture to the shade or part shade garden.

“Aralia ‘Sun King’ had been nominated by PPA members again and again over the years. It finally came out on top this year,” says Martha Smith, horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension. “Persistence pays off!” Aralia ‘Sun King’ also won the International Hardy Plant Union Outstanding Plant Award in 2012.

Native to shady forested areas in Japan, ‘Sun King’ was “discovered” by plantsman Barry Yinger in a Japanese garden center atop a department store. This perennial has become a beloved shade garden staple across the country.

Bright yellow shoots emerge in spring, then grow to 4 to 6 feet tall and nearly as wide. Small, cream-colored umbels of flowers appear in late July and last through September, attracting bees and eventually developing into tiny, dark, inedible berries. Despite Sun King’s stature, it’s very well behaved, with little to no reseeding or suckering.

Hardy to USDA zones 3 to 9 (Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico), it’s hard not to find a place in the garden for this gold-leaf beauty. To retain its color, place in part shade. If in heavy shade, Smith says the color will become more lime green.

’Sun King’ will tolerate more sun as long as ample moisture is provided. This low-maintenance perennial benefits from a pinching or slight cutback in May to encourage branching.

During long periods of drought, ‘Sun King’ will suffer if not kept watered. Being herbaceous, it will die back in the fall and re-emerge in the spring. It is best grown in well-drained soils and benefits from compost being incorporated. No serious insect or disease problems affect it, and deer don’t bother it.

Also called Udo, Japanese asparagus, Mountain asparagus, or Japanese spikenard, young shoots of this plant are considered a culinary delicacy in Japan where they are cultivated in underground tunnels.

The flavor is reported to taste “asparagus-like” or “lemony.” Young shoots are harvested and blanched or pickled. White fleshy roots are eaten as one would consume a parsnip.

The Perennial Plant of the Year® (PPOY) program began in 1990 to showcase a perennial that is a standout among its competitors. Perennials chosen are suitable for a wide range of growing climates, require low maintenance, have multiple-season interest, and are relatively pest/disease-free.