Share this article

print logo

Sally Cunningham: A primer on this summer’s popular plants

As I visit gardens this season, I am not just looking. I am listening to the other visitors. People are asking, “What’s that plant?” I will name and explain some of them here, with notes for beginners and casual lookers. Even non-gardeners can have fun peeking into other people’s yards and they, too, want to know.

Let’s begin with some popular July-blooming perennials people have been seeing on weekend garden walks and tours, Open Gardens viewings on Thursdays and Fridays and elsewhere:

• Hostas: Perhaps the most-viewed plant in area gardens, hostas are a shade-garden staple here, and you can see vast collections in some featured gardens in Holland, Hamburg and Eden. Beginners: Don’t judge them by the old familiar green ones (or old green with white edges); hostas are a huge plant specialty, with thousands of cultivars and international societies formed to judge and study them. Look at the differences in texture, shapes, patterns and shades. Consider joining the Western New York or American Hosta societies.

• Day Lilies (Hemerocallis): Again, don’t think the skinny old ditch lilies are what they’re really like. A garden without hybrid day lilies is, well, quite barren in July. See the textures, colors, buds per stem and stems per plant. One new Open Garden in Lockport offers a showcase, and we have successful hybridizers in the region. Seek out the Buffalo Area Daylily Society. When you shop, you won’t necessarily find the same one your host gardener kindly labeled – there are thousands – but choose a named day lily and keep your label.

• Crocosmia: The most-asked-for perennial after garden tour weekends is this one, with long strappy leaves and orange-red dangling flowers. Toronto tour bus guests were impressed that it comes back here, since they have some trouble with it. Provide sun and good drainage.

• Echinacea (Coneflowers): A solid presence in sunny gardens, these now offer many colors and shapes. They do not tolerate wet feet, a reason some succumbed last month.

• Monarda (Bee balm): Common, effective, forming large clumps; makes the pollinators happy. Some powdery mildew is common but not fatal.

• Ornamental grasses: Three points of common confusion: When you shop early in the season, these are short and unimpressive and only now look great. They really need sunshine. Most are perennial, but probably not the really red or pink ones you see in containers.

• Acanthus (Bears’ breeches, several species): Seen in several popular gardens – noteworthy ones in Hamburg and Orchard Park – it’s a dramatic, structural shade plant.

• Verbascum (Mullein): I love that several gardeners have integrated mullein, common milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace into their borders. Welcome some “volunteer” plants!

Others in shade: Study how the shade gardeners vary the textures and shapes, using Solomon’s Seal, Hakone grass (Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), ferns and Astilbes.

Colorful annuals

• Coleus: From suburbs to city, I’m seeing coleus of all colors and sizes. Some gardeners said the coleus had a tough start – too much water – but they are exuberant now.

• Begonias: Especially ‘Dragon Wing,’ but many other begonias fill baskets, pots and shady beds. I saw a great expanse of “Crackling Fire,” too.

• Elephant Ears (Colocasia, Alocasia), Bananas and Cannas: These upright, tropical-looking plants are all fairly tender bulbs. People usually take them inside for the winter although one or two huge ones overwinter in Buffalo under mountains of mulch. Ask your hosts how they do it.

• Amaranthus: Is it wildly striped (Joseph’s coat) and huge, with giant, dangling mostly red flowers? It’s probably an annual amaranth – easy to grow from seed in one season, and a food source in parts of the world.

• Dahlias: Seen at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, on Lancaster Avenue in Buffalo and in many other stylish pots, dahlias are a summer staple for those who know how to grow them (dormant in the basement for the winter).

• Strobilanthes dyerianus (Persian Shield): This was last year’s most-questioned plant – pointy indigo/purple leaves; it doesn’t like blazing sun.

Why are others better than yours? You will see hanging baskets and container plants, similar to those you bought, and some will look much better. Find out why. Sometimes it’s the cultivar of the petunias, sweet potato vines, begonias, verbenas, etc. Sometimes it’s the potting mix, where they bought it, where they placed it or how they care for it – cutting back and fertilizing. Or the gardeners are in their garden 24/7, and you’re out visiting!

Shrubs, trees, vines

Look at the large plants that frame the flowers, and you’ll find woody ornamentals you don’t recognize – viburnums, Clethra, Sorbaria, Chamaecyparis and fine dwarf conifers. Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) and Japanese maples abound. Trumpet vines and Dutchman’s pipe are showing off mightily.

As usual, hydrangeas take starring roles, and you’re seeing the repeat-blooming (2- to 4-foot) cultivars (pink or blue, round or lace-cap), the grand oak leaf species and the taller panicle types. We can spend the next month discussing why some don’t bloom, why theirs look better than yours, and how to turn yours blue or pink.

A final note: Vegetables are showing up in many gardens across the region, with some woven into ornamental gardens – not just tucked off in a back bed. Check them out.

It’s a great gardening season in Buffalo/Niagara. Go forth and see gardens, and then savor your own, whether it’s a private joy or itself a showcase.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.