Writer, lecturer and instructor Edward Lyon, M.S. Horticulture, wears several hats including director of Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW — Madison campus, proprietor of Spellbound Garden Writing and Consultation and writer for industry and public magazines.

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10 Stunning Plants for Dazzling Effects
by Edward Lyon    

Like many ornamental gardeners, it took me a while to warm  up to annuals due to their expense and the fact that they have  to be purchased every year. Once I got out of the comfort zone  of traditional petunias and impatiens and started exploring  what I call “temperannuals,” I haven’t looked back! Here are  10 favorites that will truly make your containers and beds sizzle.

Mojito’ Elephant Ear 
(Colocasia esculenta ‘Mojito’)

I am fond of all Colocasia spp., Alocasia spp. and Xanthosoma spp. for their tropical look and feel. They are fast growing and can make a Midwest container or bed shine whether through sheer size and impact as with Colocasia gigantea or the shade brightening gold foliage of Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’. Several new cultivars have spots and variegation. I love the chocolaty brown irregular splotches that make ‘Mojito’ interesting and unique. Elephant ears and taros can be overwintered by storing bulbs, if they produce them, or by drying down potted plants and storing in a cool area.
(Cynara cardunculus)

Even though cardoon is fairly available in garden centers, I am surprised at how many people ask what they are at Allen Centennial Gardens in Madison, Wis. They are even more amazed when I tell them that we planted these robustly large plants from 4 inch pots! One year I obtained larger plants and they flowered. The giant thistle-looking flowers are also insect attractants. Impact incarnate!

Honey Bush
(Melianthus major)

Another tropical plant that grows quickly in summer heat, honey bush has a lovely blue color that lights up beds and containers. Sometimes called peanut butter plant, it really does smell like peanut butter when you rub the foliage. In spring, tubular deep burgundy flowers, heavily scented of honey, are borne above the foliage. However, flowers occur only on second-year wood, so it must be overwintered. It can be stored in a cold greenhouse or sun porch during the winter. Cut the stems back hard, to 3 inches, as growth resumes in spring.

Mauritius Hemp 
(Furcraea foetida v. mediopicta)

This could well be my favorite showy annual. It is a succulent and I have overwintered plants indoors from year to year because it is slow growing and you will want size to make an impression. It appreciates the same well-drained soils as most succulents, but is robust enough to compete in a border. It exhibits a translucence that is appreciated if planted where it will be backlit.

Caribbean Copper Plant 
(Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Atropurpurea’)

When I first saw this plant I thought someone was using smokebush as an annual, it has that appearance. It is a large shrub or small tree in climates where it is hardy. The foliage is bright wine-red on new growth which darkens to rich burgundy on older foliage. It works equally well in containers or beds. Give it well-drained soils and plenty of sun.
Lion’s Ear
(Leonotis leonurus)

You’ll look twice at this one. The plant has tubular orange flowers in tiered whorls, typical to the mint family, that encircle the 6-foot plus square stems and the leaves are aromatic. It is indigenous to South Africa. The largest drawback is that it blooms very late, often in fall. To ensure bloom in the Midwest, it is best to start it from plants, not seed.

Moses in the Cradle
(Tradescantia spathacea ‘Tricolor’ syn. Rhoeo spathacea ‘Tricolor’)

This is not a new plant, but it isn’t used nearly enough. The lance-shaped foliage grows out of rosettes, with metallic green above and purple below and whitish-pink striped variegation. This is a pleasing color combination and the soft pastels mix very well with rich, darker colors, particularly purple. Use it with the new petunia ‘Black Velvet’ for dramatic contrast.
‘Pink Crystals’ Ruby Grass
(Melinis nerviglumis ‘Pink Crystals’)

The flowers arrive in late summer and last right up through frost. You can see how the lovely fluffy pink flowers wave softly in the breeze and combine splendidly with other annuals such as Verbena bonariensis and Asclepias curassavica. The only drawback of this grass is that it is not perennial for us.

‘Fireworks’ Variegated Purple Fountain Grass 
(Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’)

For years, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Atropurpureum’ and ‘Rubrum’ served us well as dependable, robust, fast-growing purple-leaved annual grasses that tolerated harsh conditions and prospered in containers. They made it better! I feel this has been one of the most exciting recent annual releases and have used it every year since its release. The multi-colored variegated foliage is stunning and this grass should be used where you want a pop of color.

Painted Tongue
(Salpiglossis sinuata)

These tall, flowering plants provide striking background color and choice cuttings for arrangements. Petunia-like flowers come in unusual shades including cream, mahogany and brown as well as yellows, oranges, reds, violets and blues. Contrasting veins and marbled patterns accent the petals. If you pinch them, it will force more branching and flowers. They may have to be deadheaded to induce best flowering, but these flashy specimens are worth it. (Pictured ‘Royal Chocolate’ and ‘Royal Blue Purple Bicolor’)

From State-by-State Gardening November/December 2012. Photos by Edward Lyon.


Posted: 02/13/13   RSS | Print


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