|By Steven Chamblee
Nothing ignites a Texas garden like vibrant color — the bolder, the better. For shade gardens, caladiums, coleus and begonias are great choices. For full sun, lantana, periwinkles, pentas and salvias are popular selections — and there are plenty more. Let’s check out a few killer color plants that are often overlooked.
Cosmos is famous for being one of the easiest plants to grow from seed, and it also puts on quite a show. Rich reds, super-bright pinks and satiny whites are the trademarks of Cosmos bipinnatus, one of two species commonly grown in Texas gardens. The other, C. sulphureus, produces yellow, golden or orange flowers. Both species are native to Mexico, prefer average soil, no fertilizer, hot weather, full sun and (unlike so many other flowers) actually thrive in straight western exposure. Lots of colors and color mixes are available, and all seem to do well in Texas, though those irresistible “seashell” varieties with the tubular, fluted petals seem less robust. Make sure to read the fine print on the label about the height of your particular variety, as they range from a diminutive 18 inches to over 10 feet tall!
Ornamental amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor) is a new twist on an old plant. Grown worldwide as a food crop for more than 8,000 years, many varieties offer fiery foliar colors that erupt on serpentine columns of slender leaves, creating a geyser effect, as well as some inspired names for particular varieties, such as ‘Flaming Fountain’ and ‘Molten Fire’. For foodie gardeners, the grain amaranths produce protein-packed seeds with a nearly perfect amino-acid profile. These tiny seeds are tucked away in strikingly beautiful inflorescences of green, orange, red or purple, depending upon variety. These flower spikes vary wildly in structure, from feathery to stringy, knobby to gnarly, inspiring names such as ‘Golden Giant’, ‘Love Lies Bleeding’, ‘Elephant’ and ‘Dreadlocks’. Perhaps the best quality of amaranth is that it performs superbly in full sun, hot summers and average garden soils.
Hibiscuses are hot! Huge blossoms bring a boldness to the garden like nothing else. Texas star hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus) is a large perennial, often reaching eight feet tall and sporting bright red, six-inch-wide flowers. The petals on this hibiscus do not overlap, creating the distinct star-shaped blossoms. ‘Moy Grande’, a hybridized hibiscus, features flowers that reach an impressive 12” in diameter. Other excellent hibiscus hybrids include ‘Flare’ and ‘Lord Baltimore’ (both red), and ‘Lady Baltimore’ (pink). Chinese hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis) is a tropical plant that flowers heavily all summer. It comes in a seemingly endless variety of flower colors, including some with four distinct, radiating colors on the same blossom.
Zinnias are old-fashioned heirloom favorites that never really went out of style. The huge blossoms on Zinnia elegans (arguably grandmother’s favorite flower) can grow up to six inches wide and vary through the most startling range of colors — primaries, pastels and almost every shade of each. New generations of zinnia (the Profusion and the Zahara series) have been hybridized, resulting in smaller but more numerous flowers, compact growth habits and disease resistance, primarily to powdery mildew. Super tough and easy to grow, zinnias add zing to any Texas garden.
Coral beans (Erythrina spp.) flower in long (24”+), rocketing spears of screaming red blossoms that resemble camera-flash-frozen aerial fireworks. Tropical and subtropical trees that can be grown in some parts of Texas, these beauties bring an exotic flavor to the garden. Hardy coral bean (E. herbacea) is winter hardy as far north as McKinney, where it behaves like an herbaceous perennial (cut it to the ground mid-winter). Cockspur coral tree (E. crista-galli) is a small accent tree for the warmer regions of Texas (Houston and southward). Shrub coral tree (E. x bidwillii) is a hybrid between the two, acquiring hardiness from one parent and larger inflorescences from the other. I have seen it as far north as the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway, near Waco. But it is particularly popular in Austin and San Antonio, where it tends to become a large shrub, but can be trained to tree form.
Light the fuse on some screaming hot hues sure to propel your drab garden to new heights in a crescendo of color!