"Powerhouse Plants." It's a phrase that attracts attention, and it's also the title of a recent book by Graham Rice (2013; Timber Press; 284 pp.; $24.95). It attracts attention because it seems important but leaves the potential reader with questions – what does he mean by powerhouse plants? Are they overly productive or hardy? The answer is in the subtitle: “510 Top Performers for Multi-Season Beauty."
Rice is a distinguished plantsman and award-winning gardener, and the multi-season interest that qualifies a plant for "powerhouse" status is something that landscape architects should already know - that plants with multi-season interest ought to be valued in the landscape. Rice’s intended audience may not be landscape architects – more likely other gardeners and home garden enthusiasts – so the notion of multi-season interest may be a newer concept to his intended audience than it will be for landscape architects.
That doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth a look, however. Rice is an enthusiastic and engaging writer, and his choices are sure to fire up some conversations, perhaps even controversy. For example, why do his selections in the Acer genus include griseum but not rubrum? The answer: griseum’s bark gives it winter interest.
“This is the sort of stunning color that sends you into a ditch as you drive round the corner: it grabs your attention and won’t let go. Please, gardeners, do not plant it at the roadside. If you do, someone will surely crash into your fence.” – Graham Rice’s commentary on Amsonia hubrichtii, Powerhouse Plants.
The text is organized, generally, alphabetically by genus. There are a few exceptions to the ordering system in his entries, however – sections on conifers, ferns, and ornamental grasses are included with those names as opposed to their scientific genus names (the scientific names are included in the text but not the heading). His plant selection tends to range towards smaller plants types – it’s heavy on annuals, perennials, and shrubs, and the trees included tend towards the ornamental. That makes sense, however, since it is primarily a book intended for use in gardens, where specimens are crucial, as opposed to the larger landscape designs which might require more full-size trees.
Each section is readable and relatively brief. While he may have an eye for detail,and gives some generally solid planting advice, there are some noticeable gaps - for example, the book has nary a mention of climate or hardiness zones. And some of the inclusions/omissions will likely be questioned by landscape architects - he includes Cyclamen but no Quercus? But then again, the "powerhouse" connotation is more of a subjective connotation with some scientific underpinning than it is a genuinely objective classification. In all, it's a good book to read through, especially for up to date information on annual and perennial varieties, and if you leave it lying around your home or office, it's almost sure to spark up some interesting and lively conversations.