The gardener's year begins with a number of seed catalogs arriving in the mail. When placing your seed orders this year, add something different and fun: an annual that will have garden visitors asking, "What is THAT?" These plants among the perennials and zinnias make a garden different and memorable (perhaps a bit enviable).
First, we must understand the definition of an annual. For many of us, an annual grows during the warmer or cooler months, dying when the plant can no longer survive our climate. When the temperatures turn cool, many of the tropical plants grown in this country as annuals die. The same plant we consider an annual may be grown in Southern California or as a houseplant for many years. Annuals add months of color to the landscape as focal points, container plants or as filler between maturing shrubs.
Spaces for annuals also offer flexibility, allowing the gardener to change color schemes or even the overall feeling of a garden each year: one year tropical, the next old-fashioned cottage, the next bold color masses. Annuals allow for mood swings in the landscape among longer lived perennials and shrubs.
The first two fun annuals are both tropical plants native to South Africa, both in the succulent Euphorbia family and purchased as plants.
Euphorbias, which include poinsettias and spurge, are a large group of fascinating plants with sculptural blooms and varied, often colorful, foliage. Euphorbias are known to be drought and deer tolerant. These two are also poisonous and have sap that can irritate the skin, so keep them away from children and pets. Although variegated tapioca is popular and easy to find in Texas, where it seems to actually enjoy the intense heat and sun, for many of us, these plants probably will have to be mail-ordered. Neither are hardy below 32 degrees.
Sticks on fire euphorbia (Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' ) is a colorful cultivar of the green pencil cactus grown as a houseplant; it probably could move to a sunny spot indoors during the winter. Tiny foliage appears on new growth and quickly falls off, leaving red stems and giving it its memorable name. As an annual expect a three to four foot tall specimen, as an overwintered container plant perhaps four to eight feet.
With bright red petioles and bold splashes of cream, chartreuse and greens on each leaf, variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta 'Variegata') commands attention. This plant adds tropical foliage interest to a garden all summer long. Expect it to reach four to six feet tall and wide in a growing season.
The next three annuals can be grown from budget-friendly seed and shared with gardening friends.
Salvia is another large, diverse, deer-resistant family and is usually grown for red or blue summer blooms. But one salvia growing in the Park Seed display garden last year looked just like a lambs ear on steroids, with fuzzy gray leaves that could get as large as eight by six inches each. Considered a tender perennial, silver sage (Salvia argemtea Salvia Artemis) grows well as an annual in Northern gardens and as a heat and drought tolerant perennial in the South. Bold rosettes three foot high and two feet wide add contrasting color and texture to a garden and look dramatic en masse.
The deep black, glossy foliage and fruit of black pearl ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum Black Pearl) would contrast dramatically with silver sage. With rich, dark leaves and small round fruits that mature from black to red, this 2006 AAS Selection has won many awards in Europe and the U.S. and works well as a container plant. The fruits are edible but unbearably hot.
If ever a plant matched its fun name, it would be dreadlocks amaranthus (Amaranthus caudatus Dreadlocks), which has tight clusters of pink blooms on weeping stems. These colorful dreadlocks hang on this three-foot plant from mid to late summer and are impossible for a garden visitor to miss.
While placing orders for the faithful performers of your summer vegetable and flower garden, venture to try something a little distracting, a little different. You may discover a new favorite for your garden.
Sources for These Fun Annuals
Glasshouse Works (sticks on fire euphorbia and variegated tapioca plants)
P.O. Box 97, Stewart, Ohio 45778-0097 Phone: 740-662-2142 www.glasshouseworks.com
Park Seed Company (dreadlocks amaranthus, silver sage and black pearl ornamental pepper seeds)
1 Parkton Ave., Greenwood, SC 29647 Phone: 800-213-0076 www.parkseed.com