Garden Photo of the Day

Aralia ‘Sun King’: Perennial Plant of the Year

Great foliage from a durable perennial

Today’s post comes from Richard Hawke, plant evaluation manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, who is introducing a fabulous plant that has been named Perennial Plant of the Year.

Aralia ‘Sun King’If you’ve not heard of the Perennial Plant of the Year, now is the time to take note. Aralia ‘Sun King’ (Zones 3–9)—the 2020 winner—is the perfect introduction to the Perennial Plant Association’s signature program. Its glowing golden leaves and bodacious stature rule the shady garden. I coveted ‘Sun King’ for years but just couldn’t see how to fit it into my pint-size garden. After many wistful moments leaving garden centers empty-handed, I finally made a spot for ‘Sun King’ last year. I’m sure the half-dozen plants that lost their place might balk at my move, but I have no regrets!

‘Sun King’ is a slow starter the first year or two but with age will reach 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. It’s also a bit slow to emerge in the spring, so be patient. The large golden yellow leaves are decidedly tropical in demeanor, but ‘Sun King’ is hardy in USDA Zones 3–9.

Aralia ‘Sun King’ flowersUmbels of pollinator-friendly creamy white flowers add interest in summer.

‘Sun King’ grows best in partial to full shade, and morning sun enhances the leaf color. Consistent soil moisture guards against flagging and/or crispy leaves in dry spells or too much sunlight.

Leaves are more chartreuse than golden in deeper shade.

Whether golden yellow or chartreuse, the foliage complements an array of colors, such as the orange of this coneflower (Echinacea hybrid, Zones 5–9). The bold texture and bright leaves are great foils for shade-loving hostas, ferns, Brunnera, Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, Zones 5–9), and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum species).

The luminescent leaves lighten up even the darkest corners of the garden.

‘Sun King’ makes an impressive focal point, or it can be massed for a dramatic show in larger landscapes. Where in-ground space is limited, ‘Sun King’ can be easily grown in big pots.

‘Sun King’ was “discovered” by plantsman and plant explorer Barry Yinger. On one of his less daring expeditions, he found ‘Sun King’ in a garden center atop a department store in Japan. Thank you, Barry!


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  1. User avater
    simplesue 07/29/2020

    That is a beauty. I love foliage and this shade of chartreuse and how it glows in the shade. I was trying to tell what color the stems were? They look like they might be a nice contrasting/darker color?
    Such a pretty garden and setting with the woodland in the background.
    Cute story on "Barry Yinger. On one of his less daring expeditions"~!
    Also I was happy to learn of The Perennial Plant of the Year, I had not heard of that until now.
    Thanks for this post!

  2. User avater
    treasuresmom 07/29/2020

    It is certainly a wow plant in the landscape!

  3. beetlesandbees 07/29/2020

    Cultivars are not host plants for caterpillars, as they have evolved to host on native plants. The blooms on this one would most likely attract generalist pollinators, but not specialists. Very nice!

  4. cheryl_c 07/29/2020

    It is lovely foliage, but I would not call it durable. I've had one for three years now, have moved it once, and cannot find where it is happy. It is more susceptible to dry weather than hydrangeas, and for the last two years has blackened and gone dormant by the third week of July in my zone 6 garden. I think once our spring rains let up, it just can't take the heat, being even more sensitive than brunnera to short periods of dry weather. I'll try one more move - to full shade in an area where I've created a bog, to see if it can prosper there. If it comes out of dormancy this time.

    1. User avater
      cynthia2020 07/29/2020

      cheryl_c - thanks for sharing your experience!

    2. MedusaWoman 07/29/2020

      Cheryl: As a gardener, I'm never surprised at how differently plants can be in other gardens. But your comments have shocked me. I'm in Zone 7 -- have 4 in the garden, one in a container. My container is fussy -- needs water. But I have others in both shade and sun and they never give me problem. I haven't had to do one bit of care to them -- 2 are 3 years old. But if you're moving at again, maybe wait til it's cooler? And maybe try moist shade?

  5. User avater
    cynthia2020 07/29/2020

    Richard - thanks for sharing your information and photos on Aralia ‘Sun King’. I do like to know about Perennial Plant of the Year.

    I also appreciated the link to an article on focal point.

  6. MedusaWoman 07/29/2020

    I have 6 of these. I LOVE them. Bought 2 in containers 3 years ago and put them in my garden. The next year they grew to over 5 feet. One in sun, one in shade. Gorgeous color! The one in sun GLOWS. Looks great with purple flowers. 2 years ago, I put on on my sunny deck in a container. Also beautiful, but if I forget to keep it moist it will wilt. Leaves will curl. Last year I bought one online -- 3 inch pot -- planted it in August in the back of my garden next to a beauty berry bush. Right now it's a 2 feet This year I bought 2 more -- one I am putting in the shade garden next to some blackleaved hillside black beauty bugbane with some lemon love coral bells. And the 6th one? Don't know yet -- but BOY do they light up a dark corner. And you know in August, how the garden can start to look dried out ? These plants ALWAYS are dewy fresh looking. I'm not surprised they won plant of the year. Also, I don't do ANYTHING with the ones in the garden -- haven't fed them yet -- haven't even watered in dry spells (except the container). I'm in zone 7. NYC. My garden is heavy with clay soil -- amended with compost.

  7. sydneyleigh 08/04/2020

    My aralia did not begin to shine until I planted it in full sun on a hill. It was small and pale in my shade . I guess you could try it everywhere.

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