These showy, colorful annuals will celebrate summer in your garden

Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published May 3, 2009
By Valerie Easton, former Plant Life writer

VOGUE EDITOR ANNA WINTOUR recently proclaimed that now is not the time for anything “overly flashy, too glitzy, too Dubai.” Where does that leave the plants we depend on for summer oomph and color? Frothy coleus, tropical banana trees and vivid begonias are the fun of summer; “too Dubai” is the point. Where else to go a little wild and crazy in this most serious of years than with the flash of these freshly introduced and relatively inexpensive annuals?

● Inventively named coleus pop up every spring; a couple worth a second look are the tawny ‘Zesty Zucchini’ and the chartreuse and mango ‘Juicy Lucy’. Both are quintessential coleus, with brightly patterned leaves in colors vivid enough to stand out yet sufficiently muted to blend with other plants in pots and borders.

● Georgia O’Keeffe never had the chance to paint the sultry new calla lily Zantedeschia ‘Edge of Night’. But you can’t help but feel she would have adored its purple-velvet swirls of flowers. Even the white-and-pink spotted leaves are edged in rich purple. ‘Edge of Night’ is supposed to be hardy to Zone 8, but it’s probably safest to enjoy it as an annual and not count on it resprouting next year.

● A new golden elephant ear is so huge and vividly chartreuse, it’ll probably amp up the temperature of the garden at least a few degrees. Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ has great tropical flair, and the impact of its 3-to-4-foot-wide leaves is worth the task of keeping its soil constantly moist.

● Complete the foliar fireworks display with the exotic red banana tree Ensete ‘Tandarra Red’. The contrasting leaf and vein colors on the deep-green and reddish-purple leaves make this an especially showy banana tree.

● A European breakthrough in breeding has led to a variegated cat grass as appealing to humans as it is to felines. This pretty little pale grass (Hordeum vulgare ‘Variegata’) is full of fiber and vitamins for your cat. Grow this appealing springy grass in a sunny window, or stick it outside in a patio pot. Keep it clipped down, or let it grow an ornamental 2 feet high. Feel free to juice and drink this healthful wheatgrass yourself — if your cat leaves you any.

● Long-blooming coreopsis, with sweet daisy flowers and fine foliage, are usually perennial in our climate. But a couple of tender ones are worth growing for their flower color, even if they won’t winter over here. ‘Little Penny’ is a pincushion of a plant, the smallest coreopsis ever — ideal for tucking into pots, where its copper-colored flowers will set off darks or brights. Coreopsis ‘Mango Punch’ has larger flowers in a soft amber color.

● “These aren’t your grandma’s begonias” might be the marketing slogan for a whole slew of annuals with flashy foliage. Begonia ‘River Nile’ has ruffled chartreuse leaves heavily trimmed in black and reddish-brown. The little pink flowers are hardly the point. How about a Goth begonia to give Grandma a start? ‘Black Taffeta’ has pointed leaves in deep, dark ebony. Then there’s the more appealing ‘Curly Fireflush’, with spiraled foliage outlined in red fuzz for the look of a stuffed toy snail.

● Flowers are the point with the new Begonia ‘Million Kisses Elegance’. Because it’s self-cleaning and covered with hundreds of blossoms all summer, this vigorous plant with soft pink and salmon flowers might well replace fuchsias as favored fare for hanging baskets. The similar Begonia boliviensis ‘Bonfire’ was the star bloomer in my garden last season, and I plan to hunt down this softer-colored cousin.

● And what’s summer without annual vines? A dazzling new Italian morning glory (Ipomoea ‘Carnevale Di Venezia’) has surprisingly striped flowers in a mix of deep blue, white and cherry pink. Grow this noninvasive morning glory (it dies with first frost) up a fence, arbor or trellis, where it’ll grow to 8 feet and create a carnival atmosphere all by itself with its months of blooms.