Winner plants

Sunset's Flora Awards honor our favorite role-players
SHARON COHOON

Nearly every profession publicly honors its top performers with an award. Journalists get Pulitzers. Musicians receive Grammys. The advertising industry gives out Clios. Broadway awards Tonys; television, Emmys. And then, of course, there's the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Oscars, the most glamorous awards of all.

That is, until now. We think plants that consistently put on exemplary performances should receive their own public acknowledgment. So in honor of Hollywood's Academy Awards ceremony this month, we're declaring our own awards: the Floras. We surveyed Sunset staffers, gardening friends, nursery experts, and landscape architects to find the best plants in each category. May we have the first envelope, please?

Best costume design
Has the Academy ever given out an award for a costume that wasn't gorgeous? Perhaps. But those aren't the costumes we remember, are they? It is outfits like Vivien Leigh's emerald-velvet number in Gone with the Wind that stick in the memory. Or, for that matter, Charlize Theron's champagne sequins at last year's Oscars.

Calla lily

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) is a plant of equal glamour. The lustrous colors and smooth texture of calla flowers are coolly elegant. But their curvy cornucopia shape and generous size (to 8 in. deep) are frankly voluptuous. This sophisticated combination makes callas seem high maintenance, but they're tough as nails. "You wouldn't think they could handle the desert," says Phoenix landscape architect Greg Trutza, "but give them a cool, eastern exposure, and they're indestructible." Callas grow from rhizomes into 2- to 5-foot-tall clumps of long-stalked, arrowhead-shaped leaves. Zones 5, 6, 8, 9, 12?24, H1, and H2.

Best visual effects
In today's movies, the most dazzling visual effects are usually generated by computers. In the garden, though, the wow power usually comes from brightly colored leaves. There has been a mini explosion of colorful subtropical foliage plants in recent years, but our favorite is a veteran player.

'Tropicanna' canna

The tiger stripes on this big-leafed canna are definitely in the Technicolor range ― red, pink, yellow, and green on a purple background. The result is so visually powerful, you hardly notice that the plant also sports hot orange flowers in summer. "If you want to take someone's breath away, plant it en masse," designer Scott Spencer says. "It's stunning." Perennial in zones 6?9, 12?24, H1, and H2; elsewhere, enjoy until frost, then dig up and store.

Best dramatic performance
Hollywood likes to give this award to actors like Meryl Streep who have the knack of disappearing into their roles. But we wanted the horticultural equivalent of Marilyn Monroe: a plant incapable of being anything other than the center of attention.

Angel's trumpet (Brugmansia)

This stout-stemmed South American shrub has large, tropical-looking leaves, but its awesome pastel flowers are its main attraction. They're huge (up to 15 in. long), shaped like Gabriel's trumpet, and dangle from the shrub's branches like giant pendants. They're also powerfully fragrant. "One plant will perfume a 50-foot-diameter space," says garden designer Scott Spencer of Fallbrook, California. The plant can also be grown in a large container. Sunset climate zones 12, 13, 16?24, H1, and H2.

Best soundtrack
Just as music enhances a movie, sounds can make the garden experience more pleasurable. Splashing water features contribute, of course, but some plants generate their own sound effects.

Quaking aspen

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), a native Western high-country tree (20 to 60 ft. tall, 15 to 30 ft. wide), is rarely silent. Its dainty leaves tremble with the slightest breeze, creating a pleasant rustling sound. Planting in small groves within enclosed spaces amplifies the rustle, says Santa Fe landscape designer Richard Wilder. Zones A1?A3, 1?7, and 14?19.

Best supporting role

The job of evergreen shrubs is to provide a quiet contrast to the center-stagers, and they're content with their background role.

Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Sheen'

P. tenuifolium is taller than wide (15 to 25 ft. tall, 10 to 15 ft. wide). 'Silver Sheen' is more open than the species; its silvery leaves are smaller. They tremble in the slightest breeze and seem to dance in the light, says landscape designer Cristin Fusano of Laguna Beach, California. Zones 9, 14?17, and 19?24.

Best art direction
A good set design conveys such a strong sense of place that viewers imagine they're part of the picture. Some plants have the same transportive power. See them and you know you're in the West. Bougainvillea is such a plant ― forever associated with Mediterranean climates and Spanish-style homes.

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea is tough, vivid, and has a don't-mess-with-me attitude, says landscape architect Greg Trutza. Like Westerners. This vigorous (to 30 ft.) evergreen subtropical vine loves heat ― the more the better ― needs little water, and actually prefers alkaline soil. It comes in bright colors that look good in strong light, and it is thorny enough to make a great barrier plant. If frost-damaged, established plants usually grow back from their roots quickly. Reliably hardy in zones 22?24, H1, and H2, but widely grown in zones 5, 6, 12?17, and 19?21 in large containers that can be moved to a protected location for winter.

Lifetime achievement award

Matilija poppy

Hollywood hands out laurels to performers who keep producing year after year; we decided to do the same for a flower. "Mary Elizabeth Parsons (author of the 1897 book The Wild Flowers of California) called the matilija poppy 'the queen of all our flowers,' and I concur," says Mike Evans of Tree of Life, a wholesale nursery in San Juan Capistrano, California. With huge, diaphanous white flowers atop 6- to 8-foot-tall stems, Romneya coulteri is regal, indeed. "We tell people, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, not to plant it close to busy intersections," Evans says, "because matilija poppies definitely get attention." Plant on slopes or isolated borders where it won't overtake less vigorous plants. Zones 4?12, 14?24, and H1.