Gold Medal Winners

PLANT SELECTION can be a challenge for even the most seasoned. Not only are there considerations of personal taste but also those of suitability to site, maintenance and water requirements, longevity and mature size questions to name a few. Hours can be spent in researching plant options online and even more time trying to make sense of what grows best in which zone, soil type and so on.

Fortunately there is a quick, easy way to minimize your research time and maximize your gardening success—a one-stop review of the authoritative list of Georgia’s Gold Medal Plants.

Each year, beginning in 1994, an elite group of approximately 30 professionals, which includes representatives from the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, university faculty members, plus nurseryman, flower growers, garden retailers and landscape professionals from across the state, convene to select plants to include on this annually published list. The group’s mission is to choose a slate of outstanding ornamental plants in various categories, such as annual flower, herbaceous perennial, vine, ground cover, shrub and tree, that are particularly well-suited for cultivation in the state. Only one plant in each category can earn the plant selection committee’s coveted Gold Medal Award, with a different group of plants selected every year.

The winners are judged on a strict list of criteria, including pest tolerance, ease of maintenance, survivability, seasonal interest and availability as well as consumer appeal. The list of nominees is long and the selection process tedious, but in the end, the committee unanimously agrees that the plants chosen are deserving of the Gold Medal designation.

Another goal of the committee is to promote the planting of deserving but underused plants in Georgia landscapes. It also is geared to break through a tough supply and demand barrier. If a plant’s not popular, the demand is low, growers don’t supply many, prices stay high and demand stays low. This supply and demand barrier hurts consumers by keeping superior plants in short supply. Plants that could be prized additions to your landscape never make it there.
Each year the Gold Medal winners are revealed to the regional growers in the summer so they can propagate ample supplies. The selections are formally announced the following February.

Here is a list of some of my favorite selections from over the years as well as some whose popularity has exploded.

Purple Wave Petunia
Petunia hybrida, Purple Wave: 1996

Purple Wave is an extremely vigorous summer annual that took the gardening world by storm. A single plant will cover four square feet by mid-season and, when planted in full sun, it forms a dense mat about six inches tall. Unlike other petunias it does not get leggy late in the season and its flowers do not have to be deadheaded. Purple Wave stays in bloom for several days then fades away as it is replaced by another bloom, providing continuous waves of color from spring until frost. Other Wave petunias are now available in a multitude of colors.

Chinese Snowball Viburnum
Viburnum macrocephalum: 2006

Unrivaled in their beauty, Chinese Snowball Viburnum feature showy white flower clusters, up to eight inches across, that look just like snowballs only without the ice crystals. It is a large, deciduous shrub that reaches a height of 10 to15 feet with an equal spread. It is best used as a background plant where it disappears into the winter landscape, then pops to the foreground in April when it becomes a focal point of the landscape. Flowers emerge green, then gradually fade to pure white—eventually becoming light brown, persisting on the plant for several weeks. Sometimes a second flush of blooms occurs in late summer. The flowers may be cut for both fresh and dried floral arrangements.

Rabbiteye Blueberries
Vaccinium ashei: 2012

This easy to grow plant offers not only blooms but also edible fruit and excellent red fall color. Blueberry is native to Georgia and seldom requires spraying for insects and disease like so many other fruit plants. They require an acidic soil to grow well, normally in the 4.0 to 5.3 range. The most important thing to remember about starting blueberries is to plant more than one variety for cross pollination.

Chinese Fringetree
Chionanthus retusus: 2003

If you’re looking for a small tree consider planting Chinese Fringetree. It has pure white, strap-like flowers that literally cover the tree in such large numbers they mask the foliage. Another outstanding feature is its grayish-brown bark, which exfoliates into paper-like curls as the plant ages. Although the tree is deciduous, the leaves often persist into December. Chinese Fringetree can be grown as a large, multi-stem shrub or small tree, reaching 15 to 25 feet at maturity. Plants are either male or female, but both produce flowers.

Green Giant Arborvitae
Thuja plicata: 2007

For three decades Leyland Cypress have been a favorite with Augusta gardeners looking for a needle-leaved tree that grows fast and large to produce a screen. But with the tree’s serious disease problems in this area, the Green Giant Arborvitae is an excellent alternative to Leylands. Arborvitae grows fast, tolerates almost any soil condition, withstands adverse weather conditions, such as ice storms and wind, and has shown excellent pest resistance, including deer browsing. Green Giant reaches 50 to 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide, so it’s better suited for larger spaces. Its growth rate exceeds three feet per year under good growing conditions. For best results plant Green Giant in full sun and well-drained soils. Space plants 15 feet apart for best screening and wind resistance.

Pride of Augusta
Carolina Jessamine
Gelsemium sempervirens: 2008

This one deserves mentioning for its name alone. People are forever looking for ways to disguise a fence, cast shade over a patio or add low maintenance color to the landscape and Pride of Augusta is an excellent choice for all these uses. This double-flowered form of our native Carolina Jessamine has bright yellow, tubular flowers about one inch across and borne in clusters along the stems. Bloom time varies from February to March depending on the location within the landscape. Although the spring bloom is the most dramatic, additional blossoms are produced sporadically throughout the growing season, with peak bloom lasting about four weeks. Also referred to as Plena in some catalogs, this Jessamine is a twining evergreen vine for sun or partial shade. It grows a manageable 10 to 20 feet and is not invasive like so many vines. Once established, it is low maintenance, pest-fee and deer resistant. It needs a support since it lacks the tendrils and holdfasts of other vines and adapts well to arbors, trellises and fences.

Pink Muhly Grass
Muhlenbergia capillaris, 2013

Pink Muhly grass has gained quickly in popularity since it appeared on the list. During its spring through summer growing season, the plant is blue-green to gray-green in color. By early fall, a fine-textured pink “cloud” hovers above the green foliage, catching the breeze and sunshine. This cloud is actually the pink inflorescence­­ or flowers of this native grass. Many improved selections are widely available, but all will age to a tan color and hold on to their flowering stems through the winter. Cut back as new growth begins to emerge in spring, which is also a good time to divide the clumps. Muhly grass matures at three feet tall and wide. This native Georgia plant is deer resistant, drought tolerant, fights back weeds, never needs chemicals, can be massed as a groundcover and adds fall color. Its fine texture is an impressive contrast to bold textured hollies, massive evergreens, various tree trunks, retaining walls and brick or privacy fences.
These are just a few of the approximate 90 Gold Medal Plants from which to choose. There is certain to be one to fit any need you may encounter in your landscape. For a complete list of plants go to the Georgia Botanical Gardens website at

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