Pity the poor pastels, once the tasteful darlings of the gardening cognoscenti, now cast into the outer darkness. Today’s discerning gardener is supposed to plant scarlet cannas next to cerise dahlias and orange kniphofias and like it. The trouble with fads and orthodoxies—aside from the smugness they encourage—is their narrowness. Is it possible, is it thinkable, that a pastel-flowered plant could actually be, you know, cool? Not only is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ a cool plant by whatever definition of the word you like to use, it is also, for beauty, versatility, and toughness, one of the ten best hardy perennials for northern gardens. (I will reveal the other nine only under the influence of superior alcohol.)
If you didn’t know that ‘Lemon Queen’ was a perennial sunflower, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as kin to such Ethel Mermans of the plant world as ‘Miss Mellish’ and ‘Loddon Gold’. Where they bellow, ‘Lemon Queen’ whispers; where they stun, ‘Lemon Queen’ seduces. Although it takes a while to get going in the spring, by late summer ‘Lemon Queen’ forms a dense, arching mound, six feet tall and four feet across, of medium green foliage, which, if you’ve sited your plant in full sun and haven’t gone nuts with the nitrogen, shouldn’t need staking. Then, in mid-August, the floral display begins. It’s like watching the stars come out, only over the course of days rather than hours. At first there are just handful; then, a week or so later, the entire plant is spangled with pale-yellow daisies; and by early September you have the floral equivalent of the Milky Way. All told, ‘Lemon Queen’ is a fountain of light in the border for a good six weeks.
There may be things out there that like to munch on or otherwise afflict ‘Lemon Queen’, but if so I’ve never come across them (though I can’t vouch for deer). If you decide to give it a try, you’ll find that ‘Lemon Queen’ is merely the sum of all that is good and desirable in a perennial.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 5 (September/October 2002).