According to their website at http://www.gcamerica.org, they were founded in 1913. The Garden Club of America is a volunteer nonprofit organization comprised of 200 member clubs and approximately 18,000 members throughout the country.
Each year they give out several plant of the year awards. The Freeman Horticulture Medal is awarded to acknowledge the cultivation and use of native plants. This year's winner is the Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
I find this to be a perfect choice for 2014 since there has been so much focus on Monarch butterfly conservation efforts recently. Monarch caterpillars eat only plants in the milkweed family and numbers have been declining in recent years. The Butterfly Weed milkweed is often grown as an ornamental in perennial gardens for its brilliant clusters of fiery orange flowers. It prefers full sun and is drought tolerant.
The 2014 honorable mention winner is a Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans 'Stairway to Heaven'). It is considered heat-tolerant and a shade loving plant. Like all Jabob's Ladders it has clusters of lightly fragrant, blue bell-shaped flowers in spring that attract insects and butterflies. The Stairway to Heaven cultivar forms low mounds of medium-green leaves variegated with a cream color.
They also awarded a special recognition plant in 2014. It is the 'Raydon's Favorite' aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium var. angustus 'Raydon's Favorite'). This aster has vivid blue-purple flowers with yellow centers that appear in the fall. The Chicago Botanic Garden gives it high ranks for its "disease and pest resistance, winter hardiness, cultural adaptability, and flower production."
The 2013 winners were all trees. The winner was the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) known for its beautiful spring pink (and sometimes white) flowers. The black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) received honorable mention for its spectacular fall color and beneficial fruit.
For 2014 I hope you consider growing more natives in your garden. Start simple with one or two new plants. You might like it better than the old standby!
For you "Pinners" out there, I have a "Plants of the Year" bulletin board on Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/ILRiverHort. Stay tuned next month for our next plant feature.