Florida is known for many things, however sweeping vistas of hillsides covered in the orange, red, and yellow foliage of fall is not one of them. Our long, hot summers and short, cool (not cold) winters, and lack of anything of substance resembling a season in between, precludes the fall color show our neighbors to the north enjoy. Don’t settle for synthetic Halloween decorations or faux painted leaves to add festivity to the autumn landscape design. When football season kicks off and summer blooming annuals begin to fade, it’s time to reach into the horticultural toolbox and pull out a couple fall-y Florida Friendly annual foliage species, perfect for the balmy Panhandle “autumn”: ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton.
‘Alabama Sunset’ Coleus in mixed container – Photo Courtesy Andrea Schnapp
The first plant to consider when looking for outstanding heat tolerant foliage is the common coleus (Solenostemon scuttellarioides), particularly the cultivar ‘Alabama Sunset’. As the name indicates, ‘Alabama Sunset’ offers leaves in shades of red and yellow, perfect for designing fall containers or mixing into planting beds. This popular summer annual is known for its ability to add interesting color and texture to shady areas.
Recently with the arrival of the ‘sun coleus’ series (to which ‘Alabama Sunset’ belongs), coleus is permissible in situations with greater sunlight. Coleus is incredibly easy to grow and easy to find since nearly every nursery stocks at least a few cultivars. What’s more, these plants are generally free of pests and disease problems! Even sun coleus does appreciate a little protection from the hot afternoon sun and occasional deadheading of flowers.
‘Petra’ Croton. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
The second plant in the fall foliage arsenal is ‘Petra croton’ (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’). Primarily known as a tropical foliage or indoor houseplant, Petra croton is criminally underused in fall landscape and container design. Petra croton sports bold magnolia-sized leaves striped with colors of yellow, red, orange, and black. A great Halloween plant to complement those front-porch Jack-O-Lanterns!
Like coleus, Petra croton is extremely easy to grow either in a container or in the ground. It should be located in either in full sun or partial shade and watered through establishment. Otherwise, this species is quite drought tolerant and can be killed with kindness if watered too frequently!
Although croton is a perennial shrub in the tropics, in Northwest Florida it may be killed by frost and best treated as an annual. Croton can be expected to reach 30-36” in height in a single season, its size and the boldly colored foliage make it a true focal point in the autumn landscape!
Appalachian-grade fall color may be unattainable in the Panhandle in the literal sense, but with these novel plant selections the autumn mood may be present even as the emerald waves hit the sugar white sand. By using annual foliage plants that possess traditional fall colors throughout their life cycle, anyone can add a splash of Autumn to their mixed containers or landscape beds. ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Petra’ croton are the perfect match for this time of year, pairing ease of culture with bold, seasonal color. Plant a couple today!
Too often, would be gardeners travel to exotic locales, become intoxicated with the beautiful floral display of Plumeria, Jatropha, Bird of Paradise and Bougainvillea, and come home with visions of homemade leis picked from the garden dancing in their heads. As anyone who has attempted to grow any of the aforementioned plants in the Panhandle will tell you though, fulfilling those visions in the landscape are easier said than done! However, not all is lost for the gardener wanting to bring the tropics home. A tropical feel in the landscape can be achieved, you just have to look beyond the aforementioned flowering plants that will have long since succumbed to winter frost by the time they mature and begin flowering and instead to tropical foliage plants that can be enjoyed for a season and easily (cheaply too!) replaced the following spring. Of all the tropical foliage options available for Panhandle landscapes, my favorite is the Ti Plant, sometimes called Hawaiian Ti.
Ti Plant foliage
Even if you have never heard of Ti, you have probably seen it. The strap like, 12-18” long, purple and pink striped leaves are hard to miss and add an unmistakable tropical flair in the landscape! Ti Plants grow generally in single, unbranched stalks, though most commercial growers combine several plants into a single pot to give a bushy, multi trunked appearance that looks more appealing on a retail nursery bench. These plants will easily reach 4-6’ in height in a single warm season, providing a powerful punch of pink/purple all summer long. In addition to its considerable attractiveness, Ti boasts a cosmopolitan constitution, as it will grow in sun or shade, outside or inside. Of course, some cultural do’s apply to Ti broadly, regardless of where it is grown, as well as a few don’ts.
In general, Ti will be more colorful in brighter light. Though it grows well in shade, its leaves tend to lose their luster and fade to a dull purple in full shade. Similarly, though it will survive in full, all day sun, Ti’s foliage tends to bleach a bit in these conditions and can turn a whitish gray. It is best to shoot for somewhere in the middle for the most vivid foliage color. If growing indoors, give Ti as much light as you can. If growing outdoors, full sun through midafternoon is appropriate, as is bright shade throughout the day. Be sure to give Ti plants consistent moisture, as they will readily wilt down under prolonged drought conditions. As with watering, Ti prefers a consistently fertile soil and will appreciate a topdressing of a complete, slow release fertilizer (made by Osmocote, Harrell’s and others) at planting, with a follow up application 60-90 days later (possibly more frequently depending on temperature and frequency of watering).
Ti plant in a mixed container – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard
Though Ti performs well planted in the ground in Northwest Florida as an annual specimen to brighten a border (think of it like a supersized Coleus), it really gets to shine in large, mixed containers. Ti’s upright growth habit and traffic stopping color make it the perfect thriller in the widely used “thriller, filler, spiller” container design. Because Ti can grow quite large relative to other common container plants, a large 20-45 gallon container is necessary to facilitate optimum root growth and plant development. If a smaller container is chosen, water management will become an issue as the Ti plant’s root mass will quickly crowd the container. I prefer glazed ceramic or concrete containers as these are often painted in bright colors that complement Ti’s foliage, do not allow as much air exchange as terra cotta planters (soil in terra cotta containers dry very quickly in hot, dry weather), and are heavy enough that tall Ti plants won’t cause them to blow over in windy conditions. Mix smaller, mounding filler plants and trailing spiller plants under and around Ti in containers. For a striking contrast in color, choose companion plants in white, yellow, orange or chartreuse (remember, plants don’t have to flower to be colorful, vivid foliage plants like coleus or caladium work too!).
Regardless of how you use Ti Plant, you’ll find it to be one of the most high value color plants in the landscape. Plant one today and happy gardening!
Each time I travel to central and south Florida and observe the wonderfully flamboyant tropical flora, I am reminded of the unique and frustrating climatic characteristics of Northwest Florida. Our weather is tropical enough through the summer to sustain virtually everything our friends to the south grow, but winters north of the Big Bend are just cold enough to prevent long-term success with most tropical species. However, the genus that is maybe most synonymous with tropical color, the Hibiscus (it even has its own texting emoji!), contains several species that are hardy through our winters. The best landscape plant of these hardy Hibiscus species is creatively (sarcasm) called Hardy Hibiscus or Giant Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and is an absolute star in the Panhandle, bringing the beauty of the tropics to your yard!
Hibiscus ‘Starry Starry Night’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
Rose Mallow is a native perennial species that occurs in sunny wetlands across the eastern U.S. This species can grow 7-8’ in height in its natural, unimproved state and possesses the largest flowers of any hardy perennial, some varieties easily eclipse 12” in diameter. Rose Mallows bloom through the heat of our long summers and return reliably each winter unfazed by frost. The flowers also happen to be a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds and bring beneficial wildlife to the landscape. These characteristics and the trend towards the use of pollinator friendly, low-maintenance native perennials in landscapes quickly made Rose Mallow a jewel for plant breeders and now virtually all major horticultural brands have a line of Hardy Hibiscus available at garden centers, in varying sizes, flower color and leaf color/form. Recent breeding efforts have focused on introducing plants with enormous, richly colored flowers held on compact plants with attractive foliage. The results have yielded two series and three individual cultivars that I consider superior selections and are more than worthy of inclusion in your garden:
- Summerific® Series by Proven Winners. This series is comprised of four robust (up to 5’ in height) cultivars, ‘Cherry Cheesecake’ (bicolor magenta and white flowers), ‘Berry Awesome’ (purplish lavender flowers), ‘Cranberry Crush’ (a red you really have to see to believe), and ‘Perfect Storm’ (notable for its deep purple foliage).
- Luna Series by Monrovia. This series is notable for its ultra-compact (3’ in height or less) size and characteristically large flowers. It is also composed of four cultivars, ‘Luna Red’ (deep red), ‘Luna Blush’ (white, fading to pink near flower margins), ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ (pictured and my favorite, bicolor swirly flowers), and ‘Luna White’ (white with a red center).
Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard
- ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Walter’s Gardens. (Pictured) This cultivar combines dark purple to black leaves with swirled pale and dark pink flowers. It has performed very well in my landscape and if I could only grow one, this might be it.
- ‘Lord Baltimore.’ The classic, large growing cultivar with bright red flowers that is widely available and easily found. An oldie (introduced in 1955) but a goodie.
- ‘Midnight Marvel’ by Walter’s Gardens. A “hot off the press” new cultivar that is currently difficult to find due to popularity, though some online outlets have them available in small sizes. This one is worth your patience. Sporting deep red blooms on near black foliage, there’s nothing else like it in the landscape.
In addition to being gorgeous plants, Rose Mallows are extremely versatile in the landscape and could not be easier to grow. Because the size varies so greatly (from the diminutive 30” tall ‘Luna’ series to the 8’ tall unimproved species), there really is a place for one in every garden. I like to use the smaller cultivars in large containers to facilitate moving them around where their floral display has the greatest impact or to create a tropical effect where in ground plantings are not an option (pool decks, patios, etc). The larger cultivars make spectacular specimen plantings in perennial and shrub beds and even make a really dense, striking hedge (just know they disappear in the winter). Be sure to give them as much sun as possible, as this will enhance the number of flowers on each plant and darken the foliage on the cultivars with purplish/black leaves. Too little sun will result in fewer flowers and lighter green foliage. As wetland plants, Rose Mallows enjoy regular water, either from rainfall or irrigation; they will let you know when they need it – their large leaves readily wilt under drought stress, somewhat like Hydrangea.
For low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly, cold-hardy tropical color, you need look no further than Rose Mallow. These perennial shrubs come in all sizes and colors and fit any landscape! Look for the above listed series and cultivars at better garden centers and online retailers and enjoy the oohs and ahhs elicited when people first get a glimpse of Hardy Hibiscus in your landscape! Happy Gardening!
Growing in containers can be one of the most versatile ways to add color, texture and mobility to the landscape. However, gardeners generally reach for finicky annuals to fill their pots with pizzazz. The problem with this strategy is that most annuals and perennials need to be watered constantly, fertilized regularly, and changed out with the seasons. That sounds like a little bang for a whole lot of buck! I and most of the real plant people I know fall squarely in the school of lazy gardening and believe there is an easier, less intensive, and ultimately less expensive way to get the same result. This can be accomplished by thinking outside the box and using an alternative class of plants that can fit the same bill of providing color and texture in pots without the headaches and have been sitting on the shelves right in front of us the whole time, the shrubs.
It is beyond me why shrubs aren’t used as container plants more often. Maybe the reason for the lack of use is pure perception; after all, no one with any sense would plant a giant, coarse green meatball or an enormous antebellum azalea in a decorative pot on their front walk. Recent innovations by plant breeders have left this argument moot though as new introductions of old species have revived interest in the entire group. Many of the best of these new cultivars sport traits perfect for container culture (dwarf growth habit, increased flowering, and interesting texture and form) while preserving the ironclad, undemanding nature of their parent plants. The following are a few of my favorite new shrub introductions for container growing!
- ‘Purple Pixie’ Loropetalum
Purple Pixie loropetalum is a low-growing shrub that can spill beautifully out of a container. (Photo by MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)
If interesting architecture is what you require in a plant, ‘Purple Pixie’ must be on display in your yard. This dwarf cultivar of the wildly overused purple shrub Loropetalum chinense has taken the horticultural world by storm. The unique combination of true purplish foliage that only greens slightly in the hottest summer sun, ribbon-like pink spring flowers, and a graceful weeping habit make ‘Purple Pixie’ a winner. Give this plant a medium sized container (at least 12” in diameter), water when the soil begins to dry, fertilize infrequently with a slow-release formulation, site in full sun to partial shade, and enjoy for many seasons to come.
This is definitely not your granddaddy’s Ligustrum. Gone are the rampant growth, sickly sweet smelling flowers, and the aggressive nature of ‘Sunshine’s’ parent Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense). ‘Sunshine’ is a sterile cultivar with dwarf characteristics (growing 4-5’ with infrequent light pruning), vivid yellow-chartreuse foliage, and most importantly, no flowers. All ‘Sunshine’ asks of us is plenty of sun, occasional fertilizer and a light haircut once or twice a season! Use this plant to frame a dark flowerbed or in a container as a companion to the previous plant, ‘Purple Pixie’ Loropetalum for an extremely striking combination!
‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum. Photo courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum.
A new take on a landscape standard, ‘Baby Gem’ is an exceptionally compact and slow growing cultivar of Buxus microphylla var japonica. All the same features gardeners love about traditional “full-size” boxwoods remains (tight, formal growth habit, ability to prune into many different shapes and ironclad constitution) but with ‘Baby Gem’ are delivered in a perfect package for a pot. This little “gem” of a plant is perfect for use in a smallish container to frame a formal landscape or to give a sense of order to an informal container garden or border!
So if you’re ready to stop replacing all of your potted plants each and every season, reach for one of these shrubs the next time you are at a garden center. You’ll likely be rewarded with compliments on your creativity, four season interest from the plants themselves, and more time to enjoy being in your garden instead of laboring in it! As always, if you have any questions about this or any other horticultural topics please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office! Happy Gardening!
Impatiens are a very popular annual, bedding plant that provide a nice burst of color in the landscape. The traditional Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana), or touch-me-not, is the one that most gardeners know as needing part shade, but there are also the New Guinea Impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri) that are able to tolerate more sun. In addition to being able to withstand more sunlight, the New Guinea Impatiens also have larger flowers and leaves. Another highlight of the New Guinea impatiens is their increased resistance to downy mildew, a major concern for growers of touch-me-nots, especially in south Florida.
While native to the Old World, Impatiens are not known to invade Florida natural areas but may reproduce by seed. Touch-me-nots are known to spread easily be seed. An interesting fact about Impatiens is their bursting seed pods that can send seeds several feet from the parent plant. This characteristic is what led to the scientific name Impatiens – for impatient – and one of the common names – touch-me-not.
May is a good time to plant Impatiens in north Florida. They prefer slightly acidic soil and should be planted at a 12-18 inch spacing. Impatiens work well as a border planting or in mass plantings. While New Guinea Impatiens tolerate more sun, they still would prefer some afternoon shade. Those growing in full sun will need extra care to ensure they remain well watered. An all-purpose plant food can be applied at monthly intervals for best performance.
Some common varieties of touch-me-nots include ‘Accent’, ‘Blitz’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Dazzler’, ‘Impact’, ‘Impulse’, and ‘Super Elfins’. Common New Guinea Impatiens varieties include ‘Celebration Candy Pink’, ‘Celebration Light Lavender’, ‘Nebulus’, ‘Equinox’, ‘Sunglow’, and ‘Tango’. The newer ‘Sunpatiens’ variety is quite popular and comes in different forms – compact, spreading, and vigorous.
If you have any questions regarding Impatiens, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office or visit our EDIS website at www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu.