The Perennial Plant Association has announced the 2020 Perennial Plant of the Year®. Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is a fabulous high-impact perennial that brings a bold pop of glowing color and texture to the shade or part shade garden.
“Aralia ‘Sun King’ had been nominated by PPA members again and again over the years. It finally came out on top this year,” says Martha Smith, horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension. “Persistence pays off!” Aralia ‘Sun King’ also won the International Hardy Plant Union Outstanding Plant Award in 2012.
Native to shady forested areas in Japan, ‘Sun King’ was “discovered” by plantsman Barry Yinger in a Japanese garden center atop a department store. This perennial has become a beloved shade garden staple across the country. Bright yellow shoots emerge in spring, then grow to 4 to 6 feet tall and nearly as wide. Small, cream-colored umbels of flowers appear in late July and last through September, attracting bees and eventually developing into tiny, dark, inedible berries. Despite Sun King’s stature, it’s very well behaved, with little to no reseeding or suckering.
“Place ‘Sun King’ where you want height. It is fast growing, filling a background space all season long,” Smith says.
Hardy to USDA zones 3 to 9 (Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico), it’s hard not to find a place in the garden for this gold-leaf beauty. To retain its color, place in part shade. If in heavy shade, Smith says the color will become more lime green.
’Sun King’ will tolerate more sun as long as ample moisture is provided. This low-maintenance perennial benefits from a pinching or slight cutback in May to encourage branching. During long periods of drought, ‘Sun King’ will suffer if not kept watered. Being herbaceous, it will die back in the fall and re-emerge in the spring. It is best grown in well-drained soils and benefits from compost being incorporated. No serious insect or disease problems affect it, and deer don’t bother it.
Also called Udo, Japanese asparagus, Mountain asparagus, or Japanese spikenard, young shoots of this plant are considered a culinary delicacy in Japan where they are cultivated in underground tunnels. The flavor is reported to taste “asparagus-like” or “lemony.” Young shoots are harvested and blanched or pickled. White fleshy roots are eaten as one would consume a parsnip.
Smith says ‘Sun King’ is terrific in combination with hosta, ferns, and past Perennial Plant of the Year stars such as Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ (1991), Brunnnera acrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ (2012) and Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ (2013). “It’s a knockout when placed near Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ or other maroon-leaf plants,” she says. “And don’t forget containers – ‘Sun King’ is bold and beautiful in a big pot!”
The Perennial Plant of the Year® (PPOY) program began in 1990 to showcase a perennial that is a standout among its competitors. Perennials chosen are suitable for a wide range of growing climates, require low maintenance, have multiple-season interest, and are relatively pest/disease-free.