Meet the Elite Eight Shrubs: Part One

This week's Shrub Madness match ups determine the Elite Eight shrubs, which will then compete to determine our Floral Four, i.e. the Grand Prize. Who are these heavy hitters? Let's get to know the first batch of potential winners.

Let's Dance® Diva! hydrangea

Hydrangea macrophylla

Last June, a knot of bitty toads was crossing a path between greenhouses. When such a discovery of adorable, baby amphibians is made, there is only one thing to do: you place them on the largest flower in bloom and take pictures. That flower was Let's Dance Diva! hydrangea.

Though just arriving at retail this year, Let's Dance Diva! hydrangea has become an instant favorite. Each bloom is comprised of sterile florets the width of a grown man's palm, creating a dinner plate-sized lacecap flower. Its coloring is soft, shifting between the perfect baby shower shades of pink and blue. As part of the Let's Dance series, it is, of course, a strong rebloomer.

USDA Zone 5 AHS Zone 9 | 2-3' tall and wide | Full Sun/Part Shade
Fun Fact: During its trialing process, Diva! was called Flying Saucer.
Like this lacecap? Try one of these: Abracadabra® Star bigleaf hydrangea, Edgy® Orbits bigleaf hydrangea, Let's Dance® Starlight bigleaf hydrangea, Tuff Stuff™ mountain hydrangea, Tiny Tuff Stuff™ mountain hydrangea

Cityline® Mars hydrangea

Hydrangea macrophylla

If you have been following along with Shrubs Center, you might think I have it out for this shrub after its devastating win over Summer Shandy™ hop, one of my Floral Four. Not at all. Cityline Mars hydrangea joined my garden last year, and I can't wait to see its showy bicolor blooms again. Coincidentally, it's planted just a few feet from Summer Shandy hop.

The Cityline series doesn't get as much attention as the Let's Dance rebloomers, but these super compact plants also offer an answer to the age old question, "Why isn't my hydrangea blooming?" Often, a few mistimed snips of the pruning shears remove the old wood buds on bigleaf hydrangeas, eliminating the season's flowers. With such a compact size, only 1-3' tall and wide, the Cityline varieties never need pruning. Ever. This short stature also means they are perfect for growing in containers.

USDA Zone 5 AHS Zone 9 | 1-3' tall and wide | Full Sun/Part Shade
Like this tiny variety? Try one of these: Cityline® Berlin bigleaf hydrangea, Cityline® Paris bigleaf hydrangea, Cityline® Rio bigleaf hydrangea, Cityline® Venice bigleaf hydrangea, Cityline® Vienna bigleaf hydrangea

'Sweet Summer Love' clematis

Clematis flammula hybrid

I'm going to go out on a limb to say that 'Sweet Summer Love' is one of the most anticipated releases for 2014. It has already won multiple awards, most recently the 2014 Green Thumb Award from the Direct Gardening Association. Why all the hype? Three words: colorful 'Sweet Autumn.' And one more word because I know you're going to ask: noninvasive. 

While 'Sweet Summer Love' has many similarities to 'Sweet Autumn', like scent and easy growth, it is actually a different species all together. This hybrid can be planted without the risk of a take over. Need extra reassurance? Check out Clematis flammula's UDSA invasiveness map.

Now let's just sit back, enjoy those vibrant cranberry-violet blooms, and dream of summer...

USDA Zone 4 AHS Zone 9 | 10' tall | Full Sun/Part Shade
Like this eye-catching vine? Try one of these: Summer Shandy™ hop, 'Scentsation' honeysuckle, Rose Sensation® false hydrangea-vine

Black Beauty™ elderberry

Sambucus nigra

Maybe it's just me, but deep black plants like Black Beauty elderberry make me want to nestle into their branches and just hang out. Weird? I don't deny it. Dark foliage is enchanting.

This deer resistant shrub is more than a pretty face. Did you know that the fruit of Sambucus nigra is edible? In fact, it's widely consumed in Europe. Of course, there are a few important caveats: the leaves and stems are toxic, and the berries must be ripened and cooked. Use a bit of caution, however, and you can enjoy the purple-black fruit in elderberry jam, muffins, liqueurs, and more. On a hot summer day, soak the lacy pink flowers with lime slices in a pitcher of water, and you have a refreshing and beautiful beverage.

USDA Zone 4 AHS Zone 8 | 8-12' tall | Full Sun/Part Shade
Fun Fact: Elderberries were named the 2013 Herb of the Year.
Like this edible fruit? Try one of these: Black Lace™ elderberry, Big Lifeberry® goji berry, Sweet Lifeberry® goji berry, (coming spring 2015) Sugar Mountain™ Blue sweetberry honeysuckle

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