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The Kitchen Gardener
Experts share their best choices for annuals and perennials

Sunday, April 21, 2002

One of the greatest things about gardening is always finding something new. When a gardener discovers a new plant, it can lead to a lifelong obsession. One thing for sure, we love to tell everyone about our favorites. They might be easy to find or obscure, but once you've found something beautiful and fun to grow, its time to tell the world.

I've made a list of the plants you MUST grow and asked a few of my friends to do the same. I think you'll find something interesting to fall in love with, as we have with our favorite plants.

Douglass Oster
Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CORYDALIS: Most of my favorites are easy to find and grow. But the first will take some hunting to find. I've become completely obsessed with corydalis, a perennial that thrives in dry shade. The variety that introduced me to the species is 'Lutea' and blooms from April until November. It sports delicate foliage and clusters of soft yellow blooms. It will self-seed but not become invasive. Other varieties come in red, pink, white, blue and purple and everything in between. When I bought 'Corydalis Lutea', the tag said yellow bleeding heart. It's a good description of what the plant looks like, but they're not really bleeding hearts.

TITHONIA: Also called Mexican sunflower, this is a great annual that loves full sun and will take some shade. The variety 'Torch' grows 6 feet tall and is loaded with 4-inch orange blossoms all summer. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love this plant.

SALVIA: Salvia can be either perennial or annual. It thrives in full sun but will continue to bloom with some shade. I'm particular to an annual named 'Cherry Blossom' for its nice pink flowers. The leaves of the perennial 'May Night' are slightly blue-gray in color; its flowers are indigo with purple bracts. When mature, this plant will be 1 to 2 1/2 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet across. The main flowering time is May and June, but it can be extended into July by deadheading.

SUNGOLD TOMATO: Sungold is by far the favorite with my family. This little orange cherry is as sweet as candy and rarely gets back into the house. It's a prolific grower and producer that should be staked or better yet, caged.

Sandy Feather
Penn State Cooperative Extension Consumer Horticulture Agent

ANNUALS FOR FULL SUN:

ANGELONIA ANGUSTIFOLIA: The Mexican native's flowers remind me of orchids. Angelonia comes in shades of purple, pink, white, and a white and purple bicolor. It has been a standout in our demo gardens for the past five years and I have also grown it in containers at home. It seems to tolerate heat and drought as well as torrential rains and we have never had any kind of insect or disease problem with it. Angelonia blooms all summer and does not have to be deadheaded constantly. It's best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Technically, angelonia is a tender perennial, which means that it is grown as an annual in our climate.

ZINNIA X HYBRIDA 'PROFUSION' SERIES (Cherry, Orange and White): These zinnias bloom all summer with little or no deadheading, and are resistant to bacterial leaf spot and powdery mildew. They tolerate hot, dry weather well. The 'Profusion' series zinnias are the result of a cross between Zinnia elegans and Zinnia angustifolia. All of the 'Profusion' series are All America Selections Gold Medal winners

HELIOTROPE (Heliotropium arborescens): Although we have had deer damage on heliotrope in our demonstration gardens, this plant is spectacular. Masses of fragrant purple flowers contrast beautifully with the rugged, dark green foliage. I have grown it in containers with great success. This native of Peru is an old-fashioned favorite from the days of Victorian bedding designs. I have always heard that spider mites can be a problem but have never seen them bother heliotrope enough to do anything about them. There is a white-flowered form, which seems to be more fragrant.

LANTANA CAMARA: This is another tender perennial that we grow as an annual in our climate. Native to the Caribbean where it grows as a shrub, Lantana blooms all summer with a little deadheading. The fruits ripen from green to blue and add an ornamental flair of their own. I have grown it in containers as well and been quite pleased with its performance. Lantana is an excellent butterfly plant and is also attractive to small parasitic wasps (good guys!) and hummingbirds. It has escaped from cultivation in Florida and become a weed, but that is unlikely here since it is very frost-sensitive.

FAN FLOWER (SCAEVOLA AEMULA): We have grown the cultivars 'Fancy' and 'New Wonder' at the demo gardens for the past five years. This plant has been stereotyped as a hanging basket plant, but it is just great as a bedding plant. It is good in containers and spectacular trailing down over a wall. It tolerates heat and drought without flinching. We never deadhead it and it just blooms its heart out until frost.

COLEUS (SOLENOSTEMON SPP.): The new generation of coleus has moved out of the shade and into the sun. A wide range of foliage colors mixes well with many flowers. They are tough and durable, and work well in the border as well as in containers. All the new coleus have performed well in the demo gardens for the past five years. Some of my favorites include 'Alabama Sunset,' 'Black Dragon' and 'Penny.'

DAHLBERG DAISY (THYMOPHYLLA TENUILOBA): This plant's fine, feathery foliage has a wonderful citrusy fragrance and it works well as an edging plant or in containers. Tough, drought-tolerant and insect- and disease-resistant, it blooms all summer. When it slows down in late August, we shear it back and it comes back and blooms well right up until frost.

CASTOR BEAN (RICINUS COMMUNIS): An old Victorian favorite, castor bean makes a striking focal point in the border. Cultivars 'Carmencita Pink' and 'Carmencita Bright Red' easily grow to 6 or 7 feet tall with leaves 1 1/2 feet across. Exquisite! Seeds of this plant are poisonous.

TEXAS SAGE (SALVIA COCCINEA 'LADY IN RED'): This All-America Selections winner attracts hummingbirds and butterflies with its scarlet flowers. Unlike the familiar bedding plant scarlet sage, Texas sage has more of a wildflower appeal. The flowers seem delicate, but this plant tolerates heat and drought and blooms right up until frost with a little deadheading.

PERENNIALS FOR SUN:

RUSSIAN SAGE (PEROVSKIA ATRIPLICIFOLIA): This 1995 Perennial Plant of the Year attracts butterflies with soft lavender blooms in late summer. Its gray-green foliage has a spicy fragrance. It tolerates heat and drought and is insect- and disease-resistant. It grows 4 to 5 feet tall.

'BECKY' SHASTA DAISY (LEUCANTHEMUM X SUPERBUM) : Shasta daisies bring an old-fashioned charm to the garden and 'Becky' is the best one to date. Clean, dark green foliage provides the perfect foil for masses of white flowers from July until frost. Though it grows 36 to 40 inches tall, its strong stems hold the flowers nicely without staking.

'FIREWORKS' GOLDENROD (SOLIDAGO RUGOSA): This cultivar of our native goldenrod really lives up to its name, exploding into a fountain of golden flowers in August and blooming until late fall. 'Fireworks' prefers full sun to part shade. It spreads slowly by rhizomes but never tries to swallow everything else in its path. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall with a slightly greater spread.

PERENNIALS FOR SHADE:

FOAMFLOWER (TIARELLA SPP.): Tiarella cordifolia is a running form of foamflower that makes a superb groundcover in the woodland garden. There is a wide variety of foliage color and form available in cultivars such as 'Running Tapestry' and 'Slickrock.' Tiarella wherryi is clump forming and includes cultivars such as 'Spring Symphony' and 'Oakleaf' that send up spikes of white or pink flowers in spring. The red mottling on the foliage adds interest through the rest of the season.

ALUMROOT (HEUCHERA AMERICANA): Some of my favorite cultivars of this native woodland flower are 'Amethyst Mist,' 'Pewter Veil,' 'Montrose Ruby' and 'Pewter Veil.' Grown for their striking foliage (shades of maroon and silver) more than their flowers, they do best in part shade.

CARDINAL FLOWER (LOBELIA CARDENALIS): This woodland native is at home along stream banks, where it gets plenty of moisture and half sun and half shade. The clearest red flower I can think of, cardinal flower lights up the shade like no other flower. It's attractive to hummingbirds.

Denise Schreiber
Horticulture/design manager for Allegheny County Parks

ANNUALS:

WAVE PETUNIAS: You can't beat them for performance, whether in containers, beds or large hanging baskets.

PERSIAN SHIELD (STROBILANTHES DYERANUS): A heat lover with purple-silver new growth, this is an outstanding plant and always a show-stopper. One of my favorite all-time plants.

AFRICAN DAISY (ARCTOTIS VENUSTA): The straight species is white with a blue eye and gray-green foliage. Two newer cultivars, 'Wine' and 'Flame,' have green foliage. There are many plants named African daisy. Be sure you check the botanical name.

ALSTROMERIA JAZZ SERIES: This is a new plant in the marketplace and looks just like the florist crop of Alstromeria. It comes in many different colors and looks great in a container.

GIANT CARDOON (CYNARA CARDUNCULUS): I love the weird and unusual, and this qualifies. It has silvery gray, toothed leaves and grows to about 5 feet tall, looking particularly good in a moon or evening garden. The stems are edible.

CLEOME SPARKLER SERIES: A new introduction of a shorter cleome, these plants grow only 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall as opposed to the 3- to 4-footer species.

HIBISCUS 'RED SHIELD': This has small, single, rose-colored flowers and dark red foliage that is a great foil for anything bright like yellows, pinks and whites. Use this one in the ground or a very large container.

LOUISIANA COPPERLEAF (ACALYPHA WILKESIANA): There are several varieties of this one; take any one you can find. It tolerates drought and heat with orange, copper, brown and red leaves all on one plant. Its tiny red fuzzy spike flower is reminiscent of the houseplant Red Hot Cattail, which is a relative. A perennial in the South but annual here, it grows to 2 to 3 feet high and 1 foot wide in ideal conditions. I've been growing this for about five years now at home. You will see it growing in the South Park this summer.

COSMOS BIPINNATUS 'CANDY STRIPE': Butterflies love cosmos and this is a pretty one with a picotee rosy edge.

DAHLIA BISHOP'S CHILDREN: A descendant of the Dahlia Bishop of Llandalf, these dahlias can be grown from seed. It has dark, almost black foliage with brightly colored flowers.

HYACINTH BEAN 'RUBY MOON' (DOLICHOS LABLAB): A great climbing vine with dark green foliage and beautiful fragrant, rosy-colored, pealike flowers with long purple pods. With adequate water, this vine will grow 12 to 15 feet on an arbor or fence. No flimsy trellises. Hummingbirds like this one.

NICOTIANA DOMINO SERIES: These are very fragrant and carefree plants. Their fragrance carries in the evening air.

GERANIUM (PELARGONIUM) BLACK MAGIC ROSE: A new hybrid with dark, almost black foliage and pink flowers, this would look outstanding combined with Dusty miller in a bed or container.

PANSY 'MORPHO': A smaller pansy named after the Morpho butterfly. An outstanding award-winner, it looks like a larger Johnny jump-up.

SALVIA GUARANITICA: This has beautiful indigo flowers much larger than the regular salvias. The flower color is so rich that it looks almost royal. It's a perennial in the South but unfortunately an annual here.

VIOLA 'VIOLET FLARE': One of the Penny series of violas, it is a light and dark blue with a bright gold eye. Fragrant, too. This one will be in my garden from now on.

ORNAMENTAL PEPPER 'MEDUSA': With twisted fruits spiraling upward, this has red, yellow and orange peppers all on one plant. A safe and non-burning form of ornamental pepper, it's even safe around children.

ZEA MAYS 'QUADRICOLOR': This ornamental corn is a new one for me. I found it in Thompson and Morgan. The foliage is streaked green, white and reddish pink on the leaves. I think this will look great in a large container mixed with the smaller sunflowers, dahlias and Rose wave petunias.

PERENNIALS:

ARUNDO DONAX 'VARIEGATA': This giant reed grass grows 8 to 10 feet tall and has green and white striped foliage with bamboo-like segmented stems. This is a zone 6 plant so if you live further north, I would suggest additional mulching. Mine has overwintered two winters here so far with normal mulching.

COREOPSIS 'MOONBEAM': A Perennial Plant of the Year winner, this has soft yellow flowers covering ferny foliage all summer long. I like to give it a light haircut around the Fourth of July and it just keeps going until frost. I've had no problems with pests of any kind with it. It's a very well-behaved plant.

DIANTHUS 'BATH'S PINK': This one has been around a while, but its clovelike scent drifting on the evening breeze makes it a longtime favorite of mine. It has single-flowered carnations on silver-blue evergreen foliage that mounds. A plant and forget perennial, it blooms for about three weeks continuously.

GAURA 'SISKYOU PINK': I just love this plant to death. It has nice compact green foliage with tons of pink flowers that fly about like little pink garden fairies from June until frost. Flowers are borne along 15-inch flower stalk, so you may have as many as eight flowers on one stalk. When a flower stalk is done blooming, remove it and you'll get more flowers. I know there are many cultivars of this plant but this is my favorite. An added bonus: The deer have ignored it so far and so have my two mortal enemies, the groundhog and rabbit.

HIBISCUS 'KOPPER KING': Another hibiscus with dark red foliage that is a perennial here. I grow it for the foliage because the flower is small and not very showy. I have mine in a mixed border of shrubs and trees. Anything gray-green is a nice mix. Or if you want something hot, mix it with orange and yellows.

CREEPING JENNY (LYSIMACHIA NUMMULARIA 'AUREA'): This little pale chartreuse ground cover will spread underneath trees and shrubs. If you don't like where it grew, just pick it up and put it somewhere else. It likes partial shade and looks wonderful under azaleas and rhododendrons.

PAEONIA LACTICFLORA 'PINK HAWAIIAN CORAL': I know everyone complains about peonies and how old-fashioned they are. But in the late spring/early summer, they are just filled with a wonderful fragrance. They're easy to care for, don't attract animals and are great as a cut flower. This one was awarded the Gold Medal from the American Peony Society in 2000. It is a fragrant, double coral with petals that form a rose-like flower with yellow stamens. This is one of the first true coral-colored peonies.

Margie Radebaugh
Head of education, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

NIEREMBERGIA: A great low-growing annual to use at the front of a bed or in containers, it has delicate white or purple flowers and ferny foliage.

HELLEBORES ORIENTALIS: Its blooms in shades of white and pink appear in later winter and last for a long time. This perennial has bold, leathery foliage.

LOBELIA HYBRIDA: A great perennial for part shade to full sun, it has bold flower spikes and likes average to wet soils; The cultivar 'Ruby Slippers' has ruby-red flowers; 'Flamingo' has soft pink flowers. Lots of other colors are available.

GERANIUM SP.: I love the perennial geraniums for their ease of care, spreading habits and variety of attractive flowers. They fill in spaces nicely in the perennial garden.

Farah Mosley
Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

ANNUALS:

VERBENA BONARIENSIS: I like this plant because it is tall for an annual plant (3 to 4 feet), which makes it ideal for a background plant in an annual display. Each plant has several light blue to lavender flowers, each approximately the size of a golf ball. It looks best if planted in masses with 18-inch spacing. The foliage of a mass planting is thick enough that weeds cannot grow in its dense shade. It regenerates so easily and quickly from seed that it can be utilized as a perennial.

BLUE THROATWORT (TRACHELIUM CAERULEUM): The Devotion series has compact plants of blue, green-tinted white and purple flower clusters. This is a great plant because of its unusual flower head and wide variety of colors. It grows well in containers but may need staking when planted into the garden. It blooms all summer and does well as a cut flower.

PENTAS LANCELOTA: The pentas are great for attracting butterflies and work well as container plants or in hanging baskets. The colors -- red and clear pink -- are just lovely to see and the plants are heat- and drought-tolerant. The flowers are made up of many tiny five-petal florets.

PERENNIALS:

BASKET OF GOLD (AURINIA SAXATILIS): This has great early spring color and does well in poor to average, well-drained soils. Great in rock gardens, it has soft green foliage with a silver tint.

BAPTISIA AUSTRALIS: A long blooming perennial with beautiful blue--green foliage and 12-inch-tall flower spikes of blue-tinted indigo. Once the flowers fade, the foliage looks great until the frost. Excellent as a cut flower, this makes a fine background plant for shorter perennials and/or annuals. If you have room, plant it in a mass.

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