Now that the holidays are over and winter has us in its grip, gardeners naturally are thinking spring. If you are considering adding trees, shrubs or permanent vines to your property — what’s known in the trade as “woody ornamentals” or just “woodies” — the array of varieties available is staggering, and it can be difficult to make good selections.

If that’s the case, then I would recommend turning to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s list of Gold Medal Plants. This program was instituted in 1978 by the distinguished nurseryman Dr. J. Franklin Styer, who recognized homeowners’ need for knowledge about superior landscape plants.

Since 1988, 113 woody plants have been awarded the PHS Gold Medal. The complete list, along with photographs and more in-depth information, can be found at their Web site, Every plant on the list would make an excellent addition to the landscape, given the right situation; and you could create a beautiful, low maintenance and sustainable garden using just plants from this list.

These award-winners must be hardy in Zones 5 to 7 (which covers all of Pennsylvania; we are situated in Zone 6) and must meet standards of excellence for pest and disease resistance, ease of culture, beauty and multiple seasonal interest, such as foliage, flowers, form, bark or berries.

The Web site mentions the caveat: “… when planted and maintained by recommended methods,” which means that “right plant, right place” still applies. As with any woody plant, it is still important to assess the site – sun, soil, moisture, exposure; select a plant that will do well given those conditions; and then plant and care for it properly.

Many Gold Medal winners are cultivars that have been around for years or species the selection committee feels are unfamiliar, under-appreciated and under-utilized. Because of this, some may be difficult to find, but each must be in a propagation program that ensures availability to the home gardener. The Web site does include places to see and places to buy the award winners.

Gold Medal selection is not limited to native species, but many excellent native species and cultivars are winners, including some of my favorite plants, such as Bottlebrush Buckeye, Oakleaf Hydrangea and White Oak. Some of my favorite non-native plants, such as Paperbark Maple, Persian Ironwood and Japanese Umbrella Pine, are also Gold Medal winners.

2010 winners

For 2010, five superb plants, two of them native, have been selected as Gold Medal winners.

Tom’s Compact Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia ‘Compacta’) is a variety of our native summersweet shrub that was originally found in a compost pile in New Jersey in the 1970s. It has darker, glossier leaves and a more compact, denser habit than the species. Reaching a height and spread of about 4 feet, it grows well in full to partial sun and prefers a rich, moist but well-drained soil. Like the species, it has fragrant white flowers in late summer that are very attractive to bees and butterflies.

Red Beauty Holly (Ilex ‘Rutzam’) is a narrow, pyramidal, densely branched holly with glossy dark green evergreen leaves and abundant red berries. To set fruit, it needs a male pollinator plant, such as ‘Blue Boy,’ ‘Blue Prince’ or ‘Blue Stallion’ planted somewhere nearby. It grows best in full sun and well-drained soil to a height of 15 feet and a width of 10 feet, and can be used as a specimen, foundation, border or hedge plant.

Florida Anise (Illicium floridanum ‘Halleys Comet’), the other native 2010 selection, is a shade-loving, deer-resistant, evergreen shrub with 4-inch-long aromatic leaves that resemble those of a rhododendron and large, red, star-shaped flowers that bloom in May and continue on into summer. It prefers moist soil and a shady site; too much sun will cause leaf yellowing. Height and spread is about 6 feet.

Shore Juniper (Juniperus conferta ‘Silver Mist’), a low-growing juniper that is tolerant of salt, heat and drought, has dense, bright silvery-blue needles. It reaches a height of about 1 foot with a spread of up to 6 feet and forms an excellent groundcover in sunny locations with excellent drainage.

Emerald Pagoda Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Sohuksan’) forms a single-stemmed, medium-size upright-spreading specimen tree, 30-feet high with a spread of about 35 feet. Its glossy leaves are larger and darker green, and its highly fragrant white flowers are also larger than the species. It grows quickly when young, and performs best when situated in fertile, well-drained soil and partial light shade.

Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at