This Spring as I was cleaning out my garden and imagining what I would plant where I realized that I have certain annuals I always put in the same spots. Why is it that I only grow geraniums on my front porch, my hanging baskets are always boston ferns, and my back patio planters are almost exclusively wave petunias? Annuals that are considered mainstays are great because you know they'll work, but planting those same annuals over and over can become habit. This year, mix it up and explore some unusual and exotic annuals you've never planted before.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) - Purslane is one of the most underused annuals for hot dry conditions.
One of the hardest things in the heat of summer is keeping your annuals from wilting. Sometimes they need to be watered twice a day! Purslane is related to portulaca and can thrive in times of drought. It is perfect for sandy soils or rock gardens. Purslane has gem-green succulent foliage that spreads and cascades, making it ideal for containers or hanging baskets. Its cactus-like flowers come in bright pink, yellow, peach, white, and orange. The blooms close at night and re-open at first light. Water heavily in weeks with less than 1 inch of rain for a profusion of flowers all summer long. Fun Fact - Purslane is also edible! Makes a very pretty addition to salads.
Heliotrope (Heliotropium) - Heliotrope is a triple-whammy annual. It has attractive foliage, an incredible flower, and a strong perfumey scent.
Even when its not in bloom Heliotrope's velvet purple leaves and stems are elegant and unusual. It flowers reliably all summer and the flowers are absolutely stunning. Big hydrangea-like balls of deep purple fold open slowly. Sometimes the flowers become so big and heavy the plant actually bends under their weight. It's hard to say though which is more striking, the plant's appearance or its scent. The flowers are used widely in Southern Europe as an ingredient for perfume. Plant on a balcony or patio and enjoy the wonderful fragrance all season. In heavy heat, water deeply every few days for optimum blooming.
Angelonia - Some annuals sport beautiful flowers that are so tiny or low to the ground they can't really be appreciated. Angelonia is not one of those annuals.
Willowy spires covered in flashy blooms spike up over a foot tall and wave and bend in the summer wind. Colors range from deep purple to lavender, raspberry, and a creamy white. The insides of the blooms are decorated with markings that almost seem like leopard spots. By themselves or planted in the middle of a mixed planting, angelonia makes an elegant statement. Water twice a week and fertilize with a bloom booster once a month.
Popcorn Cassia (Senna didymobotrya) - Native to Africa, this legume is one of the oddest annuals on the market today.
I had heard about it, but saw it for sale for the very first time in a local nursery last year. Seeds are easily purchased online and germinated at home if you cannot find a plant. Although the cassia seedlings for sale may start small, the plant will grow like a weed and in hot weather can shoot up to 4 feet or more over one growing season. The foliage has a pretty tropical look and large clusters of deep yellow flowers are showy and unique. What's really unusual about this annual shrub is its fragrance. Cassia flowers and foliage have a strong scent that smells distinctly like buttered popcorn. If you smelled it with your eyes closed you'd swear you were at the movie theater. This annual is both a showpiece and a conversation starter. Water twice a week.
Torenia (Torenia fournieri) - Torenia is a wonderful annual because it is one of the only shade loving annuals that cascades.
This makes it a beautiful hanging basket plant for a shaded patio or porch. Medium sized trumpet-shaped flowers come in dark blue, pink, violet, and even a yellow and purple variegation that is very striking. They have a long blooming season, from late May all the way to November. Deadheading the dead flowers from the plant every few weeks will help keep it looking neat and blooming well. Water once a week and fertilize with a bloom booster twice a month.
Mona Lavender (Plectranthus) - Mona Lavender is my all time favorite shade annual. It has an elegant shape and character that makes it great for container gardens and even centerpieces.
Its fuzzy foliage is green on top and a dark purple on the leaf undersides and stems. Spires of lavender flowers float atop the dense foliage and have a ethereal look. When flower spikes fade, cut them off at the base of the plant to encourage new flowers. Before first frost you can actually bring this plant indoors and it will flourish near a bright window. Water when dry, do not overwater.
Tuberous Begonia (Begonia tuberhybrida) - I know you must be wondering how a begonia could possibly make it on a list of exotic annuals. But trust me, you've never seen a begonia like this before.
The waxy begonia foliage ranges in color from light green to a dark purpley brown. But, the flowers are really what makes this begonia special. Almost rose-like, the large blooms have rows on rows of bright waxy petals that makes the flower full and ruffly. They come in almost any color and thrive in partial shade. Keep the soil on the dry side for best results. Some flowers may get so big and heavy that staking those branches up with small bamboo stakes and dental floss or twist ties can keep the plant from breaking. At the end of the season, the tubers can be dug up and stored in a cool dry place over the winter.
Fuchsia (Fuchsia hybrida) - The annual Fuchsia sports a flower so interesting that it doesn't look real.
And, it flowers so profusely that it does best in hanging baskets because the flower-laden branches tend to dip downwards under their weight. Decorative pendulous blooms sport a two-toned color; the outer petals a red or white and the inner ruffled petals a pink, purple, red, or yellow. Fuchsia enjoy cooler temperatures and need plenty of water and shade during the heat of the summer. Fertilize once every two weeks with a bloom boost formula.
Most homeowners don't think about planting annual bulbs. But, annual bulbs are a wonderful option for finding unusual varieties that may not be sold in another form. Plant summer annual bulbs in the early Spring and wait. By May you'll notice the bulbs starting to emerge and flowering bulbs will begin to bloom in the early summer. At the end of the growing season, once the plants have died back, you can dig up the annual bulbs and store them in a cool dry place over the winter to be replanted next Spring!
Elephant Ear (Alocasia or Colocasia) - This easy to grow bulb is known for its stunning tropical foliage.
Huge leaves atop fleshy stalks fill out and flourish in full sun to partial shade and almost any soil type. There are over 50 varieties of elephant ear and they vary widely when it comes to color and size. "Black Magic" sports dark almost black leaves, "Cranberry" has electric red veins and stems, "Giant" can grow to 9 feet with leaves as big as wheelbarrows. Larger varieties make a great privacy screen on decks and patios. Keep moist, especially in the full sun. You can either dig up the bulbs at the end of the season or bring the plant indoors where it will continue to grow in bright indirect light and moist conditions.
Florist Dahlia - Dahlias are a beautiful annual, but have you ever noticed that the ones sold in nurseries are smaller than the ones you see as cut flowers? That's because florist dahlias are grown from a special bulb.
And they do not disappoint. Grown in a container or a garden bed, florist dahlias need full sun and plenty of water. They sprout quickly up to three feet tall and and have massive flowers, so intricately folded and puckered that they look like origami. Flowers get so big that you'll need to stake up the stalks to support them. Store bulbs in paper bags in your garage and sprinkle them with water once a month.
Crown Imperial Fritillaria (Fritillaria imperialis) - This bulb is commonly found in formal garden plantings but very rarely in the homeowner's landscape and that's a shame.
A perennial in USDA zones 5 through 8, fritillaria is in the lily family and is known for the unusual checkered pattern of its flower. Flowers range in color from deep red to purple, orange, and bright yellow. Large and bell like, the flowers cluster up two feet from the ground. They can take full sun to light shade and moderate water. Flowers do have a slightly musky scent so keep away from entertaining areas.
Don't let all of the new annual varieties intimidate you into choosing the same mainstays year after year. Experiment with something new this year and surprise yourself with how easy it is to find a unique annual you can't live without.