Cool Season Annuals for Spring and Fall

Snapdragons are classic cool-season annuals that make glorious cut flowers.

Annuals aren’t just a summer thing.  True, many popular annuals – such as marigolds, zinnias, castor beans, portulacas, and celosias – are unabashed heat-lovers, languishing in chilly conditions and hitting full stride during the long sultry days of July and August. Among the most valuable annuals, however, are those that thrive in cool weather. They’re especially useful for filling the floral doldrums that tend to haunt gardens in late spring and fall.

Most cool-season annuals germinate reliably in relatively chilly soil (below 45 degrees F) and tolerate a goodly amount of frost. Sow them outdoors in late winter or early spring (depending on your locale), and they’ll be up and flowering well before the summer annuals get going. Or for extra-early bloom, start plants indoors and transplant them to the garden several weeks before the last frost date. Cool-season annuals take center stage again in the fall. Sow them 3 months before the first frost date for a late floral display, or plant out store-bought plants in late summer.

Great Cold-Hardy Annuals

Some especially cold-hardy annuals – including all of those described below – will even overwinter as seed or seedlings into USDA hardiness zone 6/7 (or colder, in some cases), arising in spring to bloom weeks before spring-sown plants. These can be planted in the garden in the fall as seeds or young transplants, or existing plantings can be allowed to self-sow. If you’re starting plants indoors, be sure to give them lots of light and a good potting mix such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

Pansies and smaller-flowered Violas are cool-season musts for the garden.

Pansies (Viola × wittrockiana) are among the most popular cool-season annuals – and for good reason. Not only do they flower continuously in fall and early spring (and beyond), but they also throw some blooms during mild winter spells in USDA zones 6 and warmer. Sold by the thousands in garden centers and other venues in fall and spring, they come in all colors, usually with a signature deep-purple “face” at the flower’s center. Violas – hybrids of Viola cornuta – are close relatives of pansies that also flower prolifically during the cool seasons, as well as in winter warm spells. Short-lived perennials typically bear smaller flowers than those of the pansy tribe, with streaking rather than “faces” at their centers. Both pansies and violas do well with either early-spring or late-summer sowing and planting. The Victorian Posy Pansy mix is an excellent choice for those who start their own flowers from seeds.

Snapdragons can make a grand statement in the spring garden.

Like pansies, snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) overwinter outdoors throughout much of the U.S., making them ideal candidates for late-season planting into USDA zone 5. Overwintered seedlings bloom early in the season, lifting their colorful spires to the sun in late spring. In USDA zones 5a and colder, start seed indoors in late winter, a few weeks before the last-frost date. Early-blooming snapdragon varieties such as those in the Potomac, Chantilly, and Costa series provide an additional head-start on the flowering season, blooming days to weeks earlier than other varieties. They flower in the full range of snapdragon colors, including white, yellow, pink, red, and purple.

Large-flowered gloriosa daisies are ideal cool-season annuals for the fall.

Also ideal for fall planting are gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), which are exceptionally winter-hardy (to USDA zone 3). Overwintered plants open their bright yellow to burgundy “black-eyed Susan” flowers in late spring or early summer, repeating until frost. Varieties include ‘Indian Summer’, with classic bright yellow “black-eyed Susan” flowers on 3-foot stems; ‘Cherokee Sunset’, whose double blooms on 30-inch stems come in various tones and combinations of yellow, bronze, and maroon; and the green-coned, tawny-eyed ‘Prairie Sun’. If seedlings don’t survive winter in your area, try sowing seed in the garden in fall, for early germination next spring. Plants will readily self-sow if you don’t deadhead them. Of course, late winter or early spring sowing works too, either indoors or out.

Classic blue cornflowers can be sown in the fall for spring.

Other classic candidates for fall planting or sowing for spring are Larkspurs (Consolida ajacis) and cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). They bring an abundance of blue to the late spring garden, in two different forms. Larkspurs produce quantities of dainty butterfly-shaped blooms on 30- to 50-inch spikes. Cornflowers, in contrast, bear frilly pompons atop wiry 3- to 4-foot stalks. In addition to classic blue varieties such as ‘Blue Spire’, larkspurs come in an assortment of other colors including white, pink, lavender, and combinations thereof. Cornflowers, too, are available in a wide color range, from blue (e.g., ‘Blue Diadem’) to pink to red to maroon.

Lesser-Known Cool-Season Annuals

The ranks of cool-season annuals that do well with spring or fall planting or sowing include a number of relatively little-known but highly ornamental species that deserve much wider use:

Blue woodruff is rarely grown and deserves more garden attention. Expect some self-sowing.

 Blue woodruff (Asperula orientalis) throws airy sprays of little sky-blue flowers on low, typically lax stems. It’s especially lovely in containers, making a lacy understudy for bigger, bolder leaved annuals such as flowering tobaccos and amaranths.

Also flowering in blue is Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). The clusters of rounded, bright blue blooms do indeed recall those of standard forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), but they occur on much more durable plants that blossom in late spring and repeat in summer and fall. The pink-flowered variety ‘Mystery Rose’ is equally ornamental.

Toadflax just grows in the cool season, but it is so delicate and pretty.

A perky little thing with spikes of bright blooms that resemble snapdragons, Moroccan toadflax (Linaria maroccana) is perfect for massing in garden beds and containers, in forms such as the pastel assortment ‘Fairy Bouquet’ or bright purple ‘Licilia Violet’.

The poppy tribe contains several cool-season treasures, none better than Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), with its numerous pastel (such as ‘Mother of Pearl’ and the Falling in Love mix) and red (e.g., ‘American Legion’) forms; and Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum), a cheerful orange-flowered thing that’s especially winning in its double-flowered form, ‘Flore Pleno’ or ‘Tangerine Gem’.

‘Tangerine Gem’ is a very easy Spanish poppy to grow.

Although not quite as cold-hardy as most of the above, Green-gold (Bupleurum griffithii) weathers winters to USDA Zone 7, and is amenable to late winter and early spring planting in colder zones. Its large flat-headed clusters of chartreuse blooms on 3-foot stems make splendid accents for cut flower arrangements.

Ancient Tomatoes for Modern Gardens

Tiny currant tomatoes are one of several ancient tomato species worth growing.

Tomatoes have made an epic evolutionary journey from the currant-sized fruit of their wild ancestor to the beefsteak behemoths of modern times. That gain has come at a price, though – the loss of numerous genes conferring flavor, disease resistance, and other valuable traits.

Currant Tomatoes

The ancestor, Solanum pimpinellifolium (known to tomato aficionados as “pimp”), is native to Ecuador and Peru, where it has long been harvested from the wild. Inhabitants of that region also brought the wild species into gardens, selecting plants that produced the largest and tastiest fruits.  Eventually, some of these selections found their way to Mexico, where they were further domesticated and upsized to become the tomato as we know it today (which goes by the botanical name Solanum lycopersicum).

More than a dozen close relatives of Solanum pimpinellifolium occur in various habitats in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands. They, too, possess genes and adaptability not found in the high-bred tomatoes of today. Some are also notable for their toothsome fruit.

Tomato hybridizers are hard at work incorporating some of these long-lost genes back into modern hybrids to enhance their flavor and their pest- and disease-resistance. But the most direct way to take advantage of these desirable traits is to grow these ancestral tomatoes in your garden. They also make great conversation pieces. Seed is available from several mail-order catalogs specializing in tomatoes or heirloom vegetables. (Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is a good place to start.)

Growing Ancient Tomatoes

Like domesticated tomatoes, ancestral tomatoes flourish in sun and humus-rich, well-drained soil. Most will take a lot less, often succeeding in iffy soil, drought, heat, and cold that would make compost out of most latter-day hybrids. Nevertheless, you might want to pamper your pimps by incorporating some Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost into excessively sandy or heavy soil. Ample space for the long, clambering, vine-like stems of most varieties is a must.

More Ancient Tomato Species

White currant tomatoes are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

A good place to begin your pimp collection is with the species that started it all. Borne prolifically in large grape-like bunches, the tasty red mini-tomatoes (about a third-inch in diameter) are best eaten fresh, perhaps scattered over a salad or a stew. Its Galapagos cousin Solanum cheesmaniae produces slightly larger but somewhat less flavorful tomatoes that ripen yellow, on plants that withstand 110-degree heat waves. Sara’s Galapagos – a cultivated variety from those same islands – yields half-inch wide, intensely sweet red fruits. For yet another taste of the islands, try a hybrid of Solanum galapagense such as Galapagos Minor or Improved Wild Galapagos. You’ll get tangy-sweet, orange-fleshed, cherry-sized tomatoes on fuzzy, relatively compact plants.

Mainland pimp relatives available for the growing include Solanum peruvianum, which is represented in seed catalogs by strains selected for their sweet tomato-flavored fruits. About the size of a Galapagos tomato, they differ from the norm in their greenish-white, purple-flushed coloration. Seed from hybrids involving this species and other close relatives such as Solanum habrochaites is also becoming increasingly available. Many show exceptional disease and pest resistance, as well as heat and cold tolerance. Large yellow blossoms suitable for the flower border are a bonus feature of many of these pimp relatives and hybrids.

Tomatoes originate from the Americas where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

You can also shop for seed of ancient cultivated tomatoes that show the influence of Solanum pimpinellifolium – including some that escaped cultivation and returned to the wild. Most orginate from areas far to the north of pimp’s natural range.

Florida Everglades is an escapee discovered on a remote island in the swamp for which it is named. Its small red fruits are deliciously sweet with a tart edge. Also bearing small, intensely flavorful fruits are a number of wildling varieties from Mexico including Matt’s Wild Cherry and Chiapas Wild. As with most pimp selections and hybrids, they bear abundant crops on rangy vine-like plants that are less fussy than those of modern tomatoes. If you love carefree tomatoes and aren’t cramped for space, they should be near the top of the list of varieties for your garden.

Native Trees and Shrubs for Oceanside Gardens

Bearberry is a low-growing evergreen shrub for salty ground.

An oceanside garden poses special challenges for plants. The wind-whipped salt-laden air and sandy soil typical of such sites is inhospitable to many sensitive garden favorites, such as border phlox (Phlox paniculata), primroses (Primula spp.), and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). When faced with these challenging conditions, some gardeners go full denial, erecting barriers to the wind and adding truckloads of humus to the thirsty soil to grow the ungrowable. Such efforts usually end with the realization that defying nature is not a viable gardening strategy.

A more successful approach is to embrace the many rewarding plants that naturally inhabit coastal regions or a streetside garden where winter salt is common. Many of these seaside natives are still not seen in gardens nearly as much as they might be, even in places near the ocean’s roar. They’re also ideally adapted for inland gardens where salt and drought are problems. If sandy soil and salt-happy road crews pose challenges for your garden, coastal natives are among the best answers.

American persimmon fruits are beautiful and delicious when allowed to ripen and added to baked goods.

Trees, shrubs, and shrubby ground covers form the core of any garden, coastal or otherwise. Here we highlight 11 of the best such plants that hail from North American seaside habitats. Most offer the added bonus of being favorites of pollinators and other wildlife. As you’d expect, all are happiest in full sun but will tolerate light shade in some cases. Sandy or otherwise well-drained soil is best, with a light mulch of Fafard Organic Compost to help buffer the soil from extreme conditions.

Salt-Tolerant Native Shrubs

Nantucket Serviceberry (Amelanchier nantucketensis)

The spring flowers of Amelanchier nantucketensis develop into edible summer fruits.
The spring flowers of Nantucket serviceberry develop into edible summer fruits.

Most gardeners know serviceberries as small trees, but this rare East Coast native is a suckering 4-foot-tall shrub. As with most of its tribe, the Nantucket species (Zones 4-8) produces white early-spring flowers followed by edible dark blueish berries that ripen in late spring and early summer. Its close cousin running serviceberry (Amelanchier stolonifera) will also do in a pinch. Both can be hard to find in nurseries. Look for native plants in coastal regions from Nova Scotia to Virginia.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Bearberry is evergreen and covers the ground in emerald. (Image by Russell Stafford)

Spreading tufted mats of small rounded evergreen leaves give rise to pinkish urn-shaped flowers in spring, evolving to ornamental red berries in late summer. Even in the poor sandy soils bearberry (USDA Hardiness Zones 2-7) prefers, the groundcover shrub can take a while to settle in, so it’s not for gardeners in a hurry. The natural distribution of the shrub includes the upper latitudes of North America and Eurasia.

Groundsel Bush (Baccharis halimifolia)

Groundsel bush has impressive silvery white seedheads in the fall.

Most hardy members of the aster family are herbaceous perennials, dying back to the ground every winter. Groundsel bush (Zones 5-10) is anything but, forming an upright medium to large shrub – up to 15 feet tall and wide in moist fertile soil. Its growth is relatively restrained in dry sandy conditions. Clad in attractive shiny bright-green foliage from spring until late fall, Baccharis halimifolia takes center stage in late summer, engulfing itself in clouds of small white flowers. Female plants go a step further, producing downy silvery seedheads that glisten in the slanting late-season sunlight. The seeds drift away in late fall, often producing a large crop of progeny – so you and your neighbors will need to be on the lookout for possible unwanted seedlings. The shrub’s native distribution is from Massachusetts to Texas.

Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Inkberry is a reliable evergreen native shrub. Many good cultivated varieties are offered.

Inkberry (Zones 4-9) has become a staple evergreen shrub for sunny and lightly shaded gardens throughout much of the US. This is largely thanks to the introduction of compact varieties such as ‘Shamrock’, ‘Green Billow’, and ‘Forever Emerald’, which maintain a dense compact habit rather than becoming sparse and rangy like the straight species. The glossy spineless dark-green leaves are joined by small white flowers in spring, and on female plants by little black berries in fall. The cultivar ‘Ivory Queen’ is showier in fruit, bearing pearly white fruit. The native distribution is from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.

Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)

Rug Juniper is a classic landscape shrub for sea or oceanside landscapes.

Even the most casual gardener is likely to be familiar with this garden workhorse, whose prostrate scaly-leaved evergreen branches provide ground cover in many a sunny garden niche. Plants often turn bronze-green in winter. Numerous varieties of creeping juniper (Zones 3-8) are available, including vigorous blue-tinged ‘Wiltonii’ (commonly known as blue rug juniper), and ground-hugging, fine-textured ‘Bar Harbor’. The native distribution is across temperate North America.

Northern Bayberry (Morella caroliniensis)

In the spring, northern bayberry has inconspicuous flowers followed by waxy bayberries later in the season. (Image by Russell Stafford)

Long prized for its glossy aromatic semi-evergreen foliage and its winter berries, northern bayberry (Zones 3-7) spreads gradually into somewhat sparse 6- to 8-foot thickets that work well as informal hedging. Cedar waxwings, yellow-rumped warblers, and other birds hungrily harvest the berries in late winter. Both male and female plants are required to produce the fruits, which were traditionally used to scent bayberry candles. The shrub exists from Newfoundland to North Carolina.

Beach Plum (Prunus maritima)

Beach plums are delicious and the tough little shrubs make good specimen plants.

The tart, grape-sized fruits of Prunus maritima (Zones 4-8) excel in preserves, syrups, vinegars, and jams. Beach plum fanciers typically harvest them from the wilds of the Atlantic coast when they ripen in late summer. Plant a few female beach plums along with a pollenizing male, and you’ll have a harvest right outside your door. Although a rather scraggly 3- to 5-foot thing in its native dune habitats, beach plum forms a dense, attractive 6- to 10-foot shrub under garden conditions. Swarms of snowy white flowers in spring are a further ornamental feature. Most plants bear irregularly from year to year, so look for selections – such as ‘Snow’ and ‘Jersey Beach Plum’ – that are more consistent producers. Cultivars ‘Nana’ and ‘Ecos’ bear reliable annual crops on more compact 3- to 5-foot-tall plants. You can further enhance beach plum’s productivity and habit by thinning out old, unproductive branches in early spring. Beaches from Maine to Virginia are home to the shrubby plum.

Dwarf Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila)

The bright green foliage of dwarf sand cherry brightens summer landscapes. (Image by Russell Stafford)

Edible fruits are also a feature of the outstanding 2-foot tall ground cover cherry (Zones 3-8), which will quickly cover a sandy bank with its sprawling stems. The summer-ripening fruits are preceded by white flowers in spring. Dwarf sand cherry can be found along coasts from Ontario to Virginia.

Salt-Tolerant Native Trees

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

American Persimmon flowers are urn-shaped and appear in spring.

A must for the edible coastal garden, this Connecticut-to-Texas native does indeed bear tasty persimmons (Zones 5-10). Ripening orange in fall, the squat, tennis-ball-sized fruits mellow from astringent to tartly flavorful as they soften. A tree in full fruit gives the appearance of being laden with miniature pumpkins. You’ll need both male and female trees – or a self-pollinating selection such as ‘Meador’ – to get fruit. American persimmon matures into a large picturesque open-branched tree with handsome, plated, charcoal-gray bark and bold, oval, deciduous leaves. Few trees can match it as a four-season ornamental.

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

The fruits of female American holly trees are just as pretty as those of European holly.

If you’re looking for a classic spiny-leaved, conical, tree-sized holly (Zones 5-9), here’s the native for you. Growing slowly to 20 feet or more, it maintains a dense, fully branched habit in sunny sites. Partially shaded specimens are sparser and lankier. With its signature shape and its red berries from fall into winter, American holly makes an arresting feature plant. It also works well as an impenetrable barrier hedge. Selections that depart from the norm in size, fruit or leaf color, or other characteristics are also available. Look for the holly in native lands from Massachusetts to Texas.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

Mature pitch pines develop artful, windswept branches.

The signature species of pine barrens and other sandy habitats in eastern North America, Pinus rigida (Zone 3 to 8) typically grows as a somewhat gnarled small to medium-sized tree. It can attain considerable height in more fertile habitats. Best for gardens is ‘Sherman Eddy’, a superior dwarf cultivar, which forms a rounded, 12- to 15-foot specimen with densely needled, bottlebrush-like branchlets. Even more dwarf is ‘Sand Beach’, a mounding prostrate selection. Look for the tree from Maine to Georgia.

Perfect Pie Apples



Some apple varieties are just made for baking into pies. All good pie apples share several characteristics. Perhaps most crucial is a crisp firm texture that holds up well in the oven rather than melting into mush. A good baking apple also needs robust flavor that can compete with the spices and lemon zest and other flavorings that make for classic apple pie. Finally, first-rate baking apples are good “keepers”, maintaining their flavor and texture after they come home from the market.

Some apple fanciers grow their own rather than buying them at the market. Dwarf (8- to 12-feet tall) or semi-dwarf (12 to 16 feet) apple trees make the best fit for backyard orchards, as opposed to 20-foot-plus full-sizers. Apple trees of whatever variety or size thrive in full sun and deep, well-drained, humus-rich soil (apply a half-inch mulch of Fafard Organic Compost in spring to make your trees extra-happy). Most varieties also need well over 500 hours of sub-45-degree temperatures per year to produce a good crop. Some varieties bear well each year; others in alternate years.

Store apples in a cool, airy place after harvesting or purchasing.

Baldwin Apple

One of the most popular apples in American for some 150 years after its introduction in the late eighteenth century, Baldwin is still unsurpassed as a pie apple. Its firm yellowish flesh carries a full spicy sweet-tart flavor that excels in ciders and preserves as well. Baldwin also makes a good eating apple, and a large one at that. Saplings of this heirloom variety are still widely available. An alternate-year-bearer, it grows vigorously to 30-feet or more unless grafted on dwarfing rootstock.

‘Baldwin’ is one of the best pie apples. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)


Evercrisp and Honeycrisp Apples

‘Honeycrisp’ is one of the most popular eating apples, but the variety makes good pie, too.

These two apple varieties exhibit many similarities – which is not surprising, given that Evercrisp is a hybrid of Honeycrisp. Both produce large, sweet, juicy, densely fleshed apples, with a bit of tartness thrown in. Best known as eating apples, they hold their own quite nicely in pies and other baked goods. They also hold well in storage, for 3 months or more. Honeycrisp is a popular backyard tree, available in all sizes, dwarf to full-size. It typically bears in alternate years. Cultivation of Evercrisp is limited to members of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, which introduced it.

Ginger Gold Apple

For an early-season pie, few apples can match Ginger Gold. A chance seedling of Golden Delicious, it ripens its greenish-yellow, white-fleshed, salmon-tinged fruits in August, weeks before most other varieties. It departs from most other early apples by storing well. Medium-sized, crisp, and spicy-sweet, it’s yummy eaten out of hand, sliced into salads, or cooked in any number of ways. Ginger Gold is excellent for home orchards, not least because it produces annual crops at an early age – typically within 3 years of planting.

Golden Delicious Apple

Golden Delicious apples are mild and delicious.

This nineteenth-century heirloom variety still warrants growing (and eating and baking). The medium to large fruits ripen late in the apple season, their yellow flesh turning crisp and sweetly pear-flavored as they skins turns from green to pink-flushed gold. They keep their flavor for many weeks thereafter. Golden Delicious trees are easy if somewhat disease-susceptible growers, with substantial harvests beginning within a few years of planting. Crops are heavier in alternate years.

Granny Smith Apple

An ideal backyard tree for warmer climates, Granny Smith needs only about 500 chilling hours and thrives in long hot summers. This is not surprising, given its Australian origins (circa 1868). Where happy, this heirloom variety yields medium-sized apples with green-yellow, pink-tinged, chewy skin and firm, white, tart flesh. They keep forever and are good fresh or cooked. Small in stature and reliably annual-bearing, Granny Smith trees are a good fit for home orchards, especially in the Southeast and Pacific Coast regions.

The tart, crisp ‘Granny Smith’ makes delicious pies.

Kanzi Apple

This recent introduction from Europe has all the qualities of a classic pie and dessert apple. The fruits are tartly sweet, crunchy, juicy, and long-keeping. Their attractive orange-red and yellow-green skin yields easily when eaten out of hand. Unfortunately, this trademarked variety is not available for backyard growing.

‘Kanzi’ is a newer apple with good baked flavor. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Mutsu (Crispin) Apple

‘Crispin’ apples are delicious all around. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

A larger-, spicier-, juicier-fruited offspring of Golden Delicious, this all-purpose apple originated in Japan nearly 100 years ago. Among its other virtues are a long shelf life and a low 500 chilling-hours requirement to bear fruit. At their largest, the pink-blushed, yellow-skinned, creamy-fleshed fruits are a meal in themselves. Mutsu trees produce annual crops at an early age and are of vigorous growth.

Northern Spy Apple

Northern Spy is a classic pie apple still popular in orchards each season.

Some apple aficionados consider this big bodacious heirloom to be unsurpassed as an eating, baking, and cider apple, more than 200 years after it originated in a Connecticut orchard. Underneath the pale-red skin is a crunchy, juicy, yellowish interior with an intense sweet flavor balanced by tart acidic undertones. The apples maintain their taste and texture for several months after picking. Northern Spy trees may take 10 years or more to produce a good crop – and then only biennially – which limits their suitability for commercial growing. Consider yourself blessed if you can find them – or better yet grow them yourself.


Rhode Island Greening Apple

The Rhode Island Greening apple is a very old American baking apple.

Long before there was a Granny Smith, there was the Rhode Island Greening, a supreme apple for cooking, baking, and drying. Ironically, this green-skinned apple entered horticulture thanks to one Mr. Green, a seventeenth-century innkeeper in Green’s End, Rhode Island. Firm and fine-grained, the greenish-white flesh of this medium to large apple is refreshingly tart. It ripens very late in the season, sweetening as temperatures turn chillier in October. Rhode Island Greening trees tend to be biennially bearing and long-lived. They’re also typically large and wide-spreading, necessitating the use of dwarf or semi-dwarf specimens where space is limited.

Haunted Black-Flowered Plants

Halloween is over, except for a few stray candy bars and other remains. So why not get a jump on next year’s grotesquerie! Maybe what you need is a haunted perennial border, populated by plants with connections to the dark side. Plant some of the following, and you’ll have Halloween things happening in your garden from spring to October 31, and beyond.


Any haunted border worth its arsenic salt has black flowers. Lots of them. Not that any flowers are truly dead-on black. But some come close, sporting witchy shades of chocolatey midnight-brown that go deep into near-black territory. Mass them together in a goth border, or accent them with other haunted perennials in contrasting shades such as Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ and white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea f. alba). And then enjoy, in a macabre sort of way.


Black hollyhock

Black hollyhocks are summer bloomers with the darkest purple blooms.

The large saucer- or pompon-shaped flowers of the beloved hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) typically come in cheerful shades of pink, red, and purple (with some whites and pale yellows thrown in). Not so in the case of ‘Nigra’, which broods over the border with its black-maroon blooms on 5-foot-tall stems. As with all forms of Alcea rosea, it’s a short-lived perennial that typically persists by seeding itself around. All hollyhocks are classic cottage garden plants, thriving in sunny, open locations. They like good drainage, so if your soil is compacted or heavy you’ll want to work in some organic matter such as Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

Green Columbine

The petite flowers of the deceptively named green columbine (Aquilegia viridiflora) actually have deep chocolate-brown petals that verge on black, accented by silver-green sepals and spurs. They also depart from the Aquilegia norm in their early-spring bloom period and their fruity fragrance. Like black hollyhock, green columbine is a willing self-sower that favors moist, well-drained soil and looks well in cottage gardens and other informal plantings. At only 6 inches tall or so, it’s best in the foreground. Part to full sun in USDA in hardiness zones 4 to 8 work best.


Black Barlow Columbine

Black Barlow columbine is a late spring bloomer with the most delicate dark flowers.

Black Barlow columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris var. stellata ‘Black Barlow’) is the dark star of the columbine tribe (the varietal name “stellata” means “starry”). Spurless blooms with ruffs of numerous whorled petals appear in late spring on 30-inch stems. Full to part sun and just about any decent soil will do, in zones 3 to 9. Like most columbines, ‘Black Barlow’ peters out after 2 or 3 years, but typically produces seedlings – which in its case are often true to form.

Dragon Arum

The almost tropical-looking dragon arum has truly unusual flowers.

This is just the thing if you want to dial the “sinister” to level 11.  The thick snake-skin stems of Dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) arise to 2 feet or more from a large underground tuber in late spring, unfurling huge dragon-claw leaves. Topping each stem is a large triangular leaf-like “spathe”, colored green outside and deep maroon inside. It cowls a long sooty-black truncheon-shaped “spadix”, which takes the bizarre even further by emitting a potent carrion-like scent. Although tropical in appearance, this long-lived perennial is hardy to USDA Zone 5. It accepts full sun, but often does best with some shade, particularly in areas with hot summers.

Black Widow Geranium

The hardy ‘Black Widow’ geranium flowers in early summer with its clusters of dark flowers.

What better to haunt your garden than a black widow (Geranium phaeum)? Deep purple flowers with backswept petals nod broodingly over hummocks of five-lobed leaves in mid-spring, on 18-inch stems. In the variety ‘Samobor’ the dark shades also invade the leaves, which have large black-maroon blotches. Naturally, black widow prefers quite a bit of shade. Hardiness is from zones 4 to 8.

Lenten Rose

Winter Jewels® Black Diamond Hellebore is almost true black. (Image thanks to Monrovia)

Correction, Robert Frost. Nature’s first green is black, if we’re talking the late-winter flowers of ‘Dark and Handsome’, Winter Jewels® Black Diamond Hellebore, or any of the several other Lenten rose (Helleborus × hybridus) cultivars that have gone over to the dark side. The central boss of pale golden stamens only adds to the spookiness. The flowers arise as early as February on 18-inch stems clad with bold, fingered, near-evergreen leaves. These shade-lovers will take quite a bit of sun if the soil is reasonably moist, and they’ll endure a wide range of temperatures (zones 4 to 9), given the right niche.

Black Rampion

Black rampion flowers are black and spidery.

Black and spidery pretty much sums up the look of the frizzy conical flower heads of the European native, Black Rampion (Phyteuma nigrum). They are individually borne on 10-inch stems in late spring and early summer, over rosettes of arrow-shaped leaves. All parts of the plant are edible and have been traditionally used as such across much of their native range. Black rampion does best in full to part sun and well-drained soil in zones 5 to 9. It often self-sows.

Dwarf Black False Hellebore

Dwarf black false hellebore has unusually dark flower spikes appearing in early summer.

Frothy 18-inch flower spikes in early summer and tussocks of grassy basal leaves make for a far different look than that of the “true” hellebores described above (to which they’re not related). One thing they do share is the dark pigmentation of their blooms (of course). Although native to Taiwan, Veratrum formosanum is remarkably cold-hardy, to USDA zone 4. Plants do best with a bit of shade and soil that’s not too dry or soggy. Volunteer seedlings often happen, if you don’t deadhead the spent flowers.

Bowle’s Black Viola

Black-flowered variants occur quite often in the Viola tribe and Viola ‘Bowle’s Black’ is one of the best. This heirloom variety is one of the best, continuously producing dainty velvety black, yellow-eyed flowers. Although short-lived, it persists by seeding itself, not prolifically but more than adequately.

Native “Burning Bushes” for Bright Fall Color


Black chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a native shrub with dark, edible fall fruits and brilliant fall color.

The five-alarm fall color of burning bush (Euonymus alatus) has won it a prominent place in gardens and landscape plantings throughout much of the U.S. since its introduction more than a century ago.  Unfortunately, this large exotic shrub has also bullied its way into numerous natural areas, sometimes crowding out native vegetation. Its fiery, attention-grabbing fall color not only appeals to human eyes – it also signals to birds that the its berries are ripe. They come, they eat, and the next thing you know, seed dispersal happens. A lot of it.

Far better, than, to plant one (or more) of the many native shrubs that turn sunset shades in fall. You have many colorful natives to choose from.

Chokeberries (Aronia spp.)

These splendid shrubs from central and eastern North America all go aflame in fall. Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) contributes to the garden in multiple ways. Attractive white flowers in spring give rise to edible black berries in summer, which work well in jellies, preserves, pies, and the like. Then comes the fall color, which features not only searing red shades that rival those of any burning bush, but also vibrant orange and smoldering wine-red accents. All this happens on 3- to 5-foot-tall plants that take a wide range of conditions in sun or light shade. If you need a more compact shrub, there is 2-foot-tall ‘Low Scape Mound’ and 1-foot-tall ‘Ground Hug’. The larger but equally flamboyant red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is an ideal choice if you need a largeish shrub for a moist to damp niche. Its white flower clusters in spring (similar to those of black chokeberry) give rise to berries that ripen to a zappy lipstick-red in late summer. Although they are useful in jellies and other concoctions, you may want to keep them on the plant so they can show off. Hybrids between black and red chokeberry constitute a third Aronia species, A. prunifolia. Similar in flower and fall color to the above, it produces purple fruit. All chokeberries are very cold-hardy, from USDA zones 3-9. In sandier sites, mulch red chokeberry heavily with Fafard® Garden Manure Blend to retain soil moisture.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is beautiful and has edible fruit.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Another native shrub with multi-seasonal interest, summersweet is best known for its fragrant bottlebrush spikes of white or pink flowers, produced for several weeks in summer. However, it is also noteworthy for its arresting pumpkin-yellow fall color. The lustrous, oblong, serrated leaves are handsome even before they turn, particularly in garden niches that somewhat mimic the moist, partly shaded habitats that summersweet calls home. Typically forming spreading 5- to 7-foot-tall clumps, this Maine to Texas native is also available in smaller forms such as ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’. Pink-flowered varieties include the popular ‘Ruby Spice’. Hardiness is from USDA zones 3 to 9.

Summersweet is a fragrant summer bloomer for pollinators, especially hummingbirds!


American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

American witch-hazel is a fall bloomer, unlike the more common winter bloomers. It’s fall color is also impressive.

Here is a shrub that lives for fall. Not that it is not a presence in other seasons, its 10- to 15-foot-tall stems clad with beaked seed capsules in winter and handsome wavy-edged leaves during the growing season. Those leaves take on added presence in autumn, however, as they morph from green to gold. They then give way to another golden display of crinkly ribbon-petaled flowers that open along the bare branches. The more sun, the showier the bloom, particularly on larger-flowered varieties such as ‘Harvest Moon’. The variety ‘Little Suzie’ does all the above on pint-size, 5-foot-tall plants. Native to woodlands and woodland edges throughout central and eastern North America, Hamamelis virginiana is hardy from zones 3 to 9. Narrower in range is Ozark witch-hazel, found only in a few states in the south-central U.S. A dense, upright, comparatively compact shrub, it has orange fall leaves and yellow to maroon, winter-borne flowers.

Yet another large native shrub that is yellow in bloom and in autumn is spicebush, Lindera benzoin. The flowers open in earliest spring, before the fruity-scented leaves unfold. Native to moist woodlands across central and eastern North America, it handles full sun in cultivation, providing the soil does not dry out. It is especially sun-tolerant in the northern portions of its zone 3 to 9 hardiness range.


Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Itea has beautiful spring flowers and brilliant red fall color.

Arching, suckering clumps rather sparsely set with oval leaves produce drooping tail-like clusters of white flowers in summer, the whole somewhat resembling a dwarf weeping summersweet – until the leaves go deep-red in fall. Variety ‘Fizzy Mizzy’ has upright inflorescences. All forms of the species prefer relatively moist soil and a bit of shade, much like summersweet. It’s native from Pennsylvania to Texas, and hardy from zones 4 to 9.


Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Oakleaf hydrangea has leaves whose late-season color is often red to glowing purple-red.

Are you keen on the burgundy autumn hues of sweetspire? Then you’ll also probably like oakleaf hydrangea, whose late-season color is of a similar glowing purple-red. Otherwise, it is a bolder plant than sweetspire, with steeples of large white flower bracts in summer and broad deeply lobed leaves that have the look of a steroidal oak. Full-sized varieties such as ‘Snow Queen’ reach 5 or 6 feet in height, while ‘Ruby Slippers’ and other compact forms top out at around half that size. All oakleaf hydrangeas sucker into thickets. Most are hardy to around zone 5 – not bad for a Southeast U.S. native.

Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)

Sumacs of all types have some of the best fall leaf color.

Represented in gardens primarily by the 2-foot-tall, ground-covering variety ‘Gro Lo’, this useful shrub is more than presentable but less than spectacular for most of the year. Then comes fall, when its three-parted leaves go sizzling shades of orange and red. Tolerant of most types of soil in sun or part shade, it’s rock-hardy from zones 2 to 9 – reflecting its Quebec to Texas native range.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)

White urn-shaped flowers in spring, succulent deep-blue fruits in summer, and brilliant color in fall. What more could you ask of this Northeast North American native? Other North Americans from the vaccinium tribe – including lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), rabbit-eye blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum), and cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) – do much the same thing.

Blueberry leaves light up in fall!


Witherrod (Viburnum nudum)


Brilliant fruits and red fall leaves make witherod a choice native shrub for fall color.

Although the blue berries of witherrod are not edible, they are more dramatic than those of the blueberries, ripening in fall as the leaves make their way from glossy green to garnet-red. The flat white flower heads in late spring are all male on some plants and all female on others, so you will need one of each sex to get fruit. Viburnum nudum is yet another native with an extensive natural and hardiness range – from Quebec to Texas and from zones 2 to 9. It is happy in just about any not-too-dry soil in sun or light shade.



Native Shrubs for Hummingsbirds


Every hummingbird garden could use a native shrub or two (or more!). Here are seven of the best hummingbird-pollinated shrubs from central and eastern North America.


New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

How the Garden State was credited with this wide-ranging U.S. native is anyone’s guess. In any case, New Jersey should be flattered. Give Ceanothus americanus a sunny site and well-drained soil, and it will give you a knockout display of fragrant conical white flower clusters from late spring into summer. At around 3 feet tall and wide, it is a great fit for mixed borders, entry plantings, and of course wildflower gardens. Western U.S. gardeners can choose from Ceanothus native to their region, including the wealth of species and hybrids known collectively as California lilacs. One of the great joys of Pacific Coast gardening, their flowers open over a long season and come in several colors including white, blue, and pink.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Occurring in wetlands over much of the North American continent, buttonbush does just fine in any moisture-retentive garden soil – although it may need occasional watering during prolonged droughts. If your soil is on the sandy side, amend it with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Where happy, buttonbush produces numerous fuzzy spheres of white flowers in early summer on rounded 6- to 10-foot plants. If that is too big, you can give plants a severe pruning in early spring (plants will flower on the resulting new stems), or use a compact selection such as ‘Sugar Shack’. When not in flower, buttonbush features large, handsome, glossy rich-green leaves, which turn muted yellow and pink shades in fall.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Another moisture-loving shrub, summersweet forms thicketing clumps of upright 4- to 6-foot stems that terminate in bottlebrush columns of small white or pink flowers in summer. The flowers carry a pleasant, somewhat root-beer-like fragrance. Also of ornamental interest are the shiny, oval, mid-green leaves, which turn a butter-yellow in fall. Found in damp semi-shaded habitats across its Nova Scotia to Texas natural range, summersweet will also do fine in full sun if the soil is consistently moist. Red spider mites and other pests and diseases can be a problem in overly dry sites. Available varieties include deep pink flowered ‘Ruby Spice’, and 3-foot-tall, white-flowered ‘Sixteen Candles’.

Southeastern gardeners have another outstanding native Clethra for the garden, cinnamon bark pepperbush (Clethra auminata). Its steepled white summer blooms occur on 10- to 15-foot plants with attractive peeling cinnamon-brown bark. This large shrub or small tree is hardy as far north as USDA Zone 6.

Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla spp.)

If you are looking for native shrubs for dryish shade, you will want to consider these handsome suckering cliff dwellers from wooded uplands of eastern and central North America. Close relatives of honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.), they bear yellow funnel-shaped flowers in summer on arching, 2- to 4-foot-tall stems. Diervilla lonicera is native to the northeastern and north-central U.S. and northward into Canada, whereas Diervilla sessilifolia and the much rarer Diervilla rivularis have a more southerly range. All bush honeysuckles have sunset-toned fall foliage, with some selections and hybrids such as ‘Copper’ producing brightly hued new leaves.

Chokecherry  (Prunus virginiana)

A cherry species that is as American as cherry pie, this small tree is found in all of the lower 48 states, as well as in most of lower Canada. Tolerant of heat, bitter cold, drought, salt spray, and other environmental stresses, it makes an ideal street tree for most soil types. Among the best and undoubtedly the most widely planted varieties is ‘Canada Red’, with leaves that open green but mature to maroon in early summer. The white flowers spring flowers and purple summer fruit are ornamentally inconsequential.

Fragrant azaleas (Rhododendron spp.)

All members of the rhododendron tribe attract hummers, but among the best for native gardens are two spicy-flowered species – roseshell azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) and swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). The funnel-shaped blooms of these two eastern and central North American natives carry a far-reaching clove-like scent, which may not attract hummingbirds but certainly draws in humans. Roseshell azalea produces pink flowers in mid-spring, weeks before the white blooms of swamp azalea (with some swamp azaleas such as ‘Pink and Sweet’ producing pink flowers). They do best with moist to average soil and a bit of shade.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

Who doesn’t love our most familiar eastern and central North American species of blueberry? Hummingbirds are certainly in on the love, paying nectar-sipping visits to the white urn-shaped spring flowers of this large shrub. Of course, among the results of these pollinating forays are the tasty blue early-summer fruits. Other Vaccinium species also attract hummers, including the widely cultivated Southeast native rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum), and the Pacific Coast native California huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum).




About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

Cool Summer Blues by Russell Stafford

Midsummer is a hot time in the perennial garden. This is true not only of the weather, but also of the flowers that hold sway at this season. Rudbeckias (featured here last month), sunflowers, coreopsis, heleniums, goldenrods, bee balms, and numerous other large perennials with hot-colored flowers reach their peak from July into September, saturating the garden with their dazzling hues.

Blue-flowered perennials that bloom in summer make a refreshing, cooling contrast to these dominating fiery hues. Their relative rarity has led to near-overuse of several of them including English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), hybrid sage (Salvia x sylvestris), spiked speedwell (Veronica spp.), and Persian catmint (Nepeta racemosa). The ranks of blue-flowered perennials include quite a few other excellent choices, however.


Spark’s and Bicolor monkshoods (Aconitum ‘Spark’s Variety’; Aconitum ‘Bicolor’)

Literally a midsummer standout in full to part sun and rich moist coolish soil, ‘Spark’s Variety’ sends up stately branching clusters of deep violet-blue, helmet-shaped flowers in July and August. The 4- to 5-foot stems sometimes need staking. The variety ‘Bicolor’ owes its name to its two-tone violet-blue and white flowers, borne on 40-inch stems at about the same time as those of ‘Spark’s Variety’.  As with all monkshoods, they do best in areas with relatively moderate summers in USDA Hardiness zones 3 to 9, and suffer in hot humid conditions. Handle monkshood roots and other parts with caution: they contain potent toxins that make them a potential risk, especially in proximity to children, pets, or edible plants.

African lily (Agapanthus spp.)

Some cultivars of these southern African natives are remarkably hardy, wintering in USDA Zone 6 (or even 5) under a thick coarse mulch (such as oak leaves). Among the hardiest are the selections ‘Galaxy Blue’ and ‘Blue Yonder’, which bear rounded clusters of blue trumpet-shaped flowers from early- to mid-summer on upright 3-foot stems. Other hardy cultivars include white-flowered ‘Galaxy White’, as well as a group of blue- and white-flowered variants that go under the collective name ‘Headbourne Hybrids’. The clumps of strap-shaped basal leaves are also ornamental. Hardy species have deciduous foliage, whereas most cold-tender Agapanthus are evergreen, qualifying them as four-season houseplants (or garden subjects, where suitable). Deciduous varieties can be dug and stored bare-root over winter.

Anise hyssop (Agastache spp.)

The eastern U.S. native Agastache foeniculum provides a summer-long display of lavender-blue spikes atop 3- to 4-foot stems. Pollinators of all sorts swarm the flowers.

Its anise-scented and-flavored leaves contribute to the edible garden as well, making a spicy addition to salads and stir-fries. An enthusiastic self-sower, anise hyssop will happily seed itself about the garden, if allowed. Hybrids between anise hyssop and its East Asian relative Agastache rugosa tend to be sterile (no seedlings) and relatively compact; these include ‘Blue Fortune’, ‘Black Adder’, and ‘Blue Boa’. They’re also a bit less hardy than Agastache foeniculum, to USDA Zone 5 rather than 3. All agastaches do best in sunny, well-drained garden niches.

Calamint (Calamintha nepeta)

Hazy swarms of small pale blue or white flowers hover above low mounded clumps from early summer until frost. The headily mint-scented leaves of this sun-loving perennial flavor many traditional dishes in Italy, where the plant is known as nepitella or mentuccia. Calamint also makes for an excellent mojito. It’s ideal for massing in perennial plantings, or for dressing up vegetable and herb gardens. Plants are hardy from zones 4 to 10.

Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumaginoides)

Few ground covers are as colorful as plumbago. Scatterings of deep sky-blue, rounded flowers spangle its spreading, foot-tall stems beginning in summer. Bloom continues into fall, as the foliage turns showy wine-red hues. Happiest in sunny, well-drained sites in hardiness zones 5 to 10, plumbago also accepts a modicum of shade. Shear plants back in late fall or early spring.

Tube-flowered clematis (Clematis heracleifolia)

A total departure from the large-flowered, vining hybrids by which many gardeners know clematis, this large shrubby perennial produces clusters of fragrant, tubular blue blooms in mid- to late summer.  The 3- to 4-foot stems sprawl rather than climb, typically requiring staking. Selections and hybrids of the subspecies davidiana (including the cultivar ‘Wyevale’) are distinguished by their showy, wide-flaring flowers that appear a bit earlier in the season than those of the straight species. Sun to partial shade, good well-drained soil, and relatively mild zone 3 to 9 summers suit all forms of the species best. Plants will be especially happy if you give them a spring mulching of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Also oxymoronically known as blue cardinal flower, this central and eastern North American native is a close cousin and compatriot of the incandescently red-flowered Lobelia cardinalis. It’s a more adaptable and long-lived garden plant than its scarlet relative, however. Give it a moist to dryish, sunny to partly shaded location and just about any type of soil and it will bring forth its 3-foot candelabra spires of mid-blue flowers in July and August. When not in bloom, it retreats to a low rosette of gently toothed, tongue-shaped leaves. After a year or two, you’re likely to have several more such rosettes and spires, thanks to self-sowing.

Russian sage (Perovskia spp.)

The aromatic grayish-green foliage and slender spires of violet-blue flowers of this shrubby perennial give it something of the feel of an oversized lavender. The individual leaves are broader and more toothed than those of lavender, however, and the flowers come somewhat later in the season, from July to October. Perovskia atriplicifolia – the prototypical Russian sage – ascends (to more than 4 feet tall, but numerous more compact hybrids and varieties are available. These include ‘Blue Spritzer’, which flowers prolifically on 30-inch stems with oval, untoothed leaves; ‘Little Lace’, with relatively deep-hued blooms and finely divided leaves on 32-inch plants; and ‘Denim ’n Lace’, an especially showy 32-inch-tall selection that features deeply toothed leaves and 24-inch spikes of relatively dark-hued purple flowers. Russian sage thrives in sun and lean soil. Plants should be cut back to a few inches from the ground in spring, before leaf-break.

Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus)

Inflated flower buds that do indeed resemble miniature balloons open to cupped 5-pointed flowers in early summer. Typically purple-blue, they also come in white, pink, or a variegated mix of these colors. The buds of a few varieties such as ‘Komachi’ do not open, remaining as balloons. Flowering occurs atop clustered upright 30-inch stalks that arise from tuber-like roots relatively late in spring. Dwarf varieties such as 10-inch-tall ‘Apoyama’ are also available. Balloon flowers make good subjects for well-drained, sunny to partly shaded niches in zones 3 to 10.

Downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana)

This native of dry woodlands and other challenging habitats in the central and eastern U.S. is undoubtedly one of the best and most overlooked blue-flowered perennials for sunny to partly shaded sites in those regions and beyond (zones 3 to 9). Branching clusters of tubular, two-lipped, mid-blue flowers ornament the garden for many weeks starting in early summer, attracting bumblebees and hummingbirds. They occur on erect, 3-foot-tall plants, with self-sowing often occurring.




About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.


Rudbeckias are as American as the Fourth of July. All 20-something species of this sunny-flowered genus call North America home, with most occurring in at least part of the U.S. A familiar sight in meadows, prairies, and gardens, they are commonly known as black-eyed susans or coneflowers – names that allude to the dark-hued central disk that typifies their blossoms. The petals that radiate from this “cone” are usually a bracing bright yellow. The flowers typically continue for many weeks beginning in June or July, starring in the summer (and fall) border. If you want perennials and annuals with a cheerful disposition and prolific summer-long flowers, rudbeckias top the list. For even more prolific bloom, give them a spring topdressing of Fafard® Garden Manure Blend.

They are also easy keepers. Most Rudbeckia (including the following) accept a wide range of soil types, tolerate drought, and resist pests and diseases, with rabbits and deer often sparing their raspy foliage. Their only universal need is abundant sunlight. They do and look well combined with other sun-loving meadow and prairie perennials such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and blazing stars (Liatris spp.).

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

This eastern North American native lifts archetypal gold-petalled, black-coned flowers on 2- to 3-foot stems from late spring until frost, above rosettes of furry tongue-shaped leaves. Numerous garden forms are available, including so-called Gloriosa Daisy types, with especially large blooms that are often heavily stained with maroon. Named cultivars include ‘Cherokee Sunset’, whose huge double blooms carry various shades of burgundy and orange; ‘Prairie Sun’, with yellow, amber-haloed, green-coned blossoms; and ‘Indian Summer’, an enormous golden-yellow form. Compact forms such as ‘Toto’ and ‘Rustic Dwarfs’ fit nicely where space is more limited (including containers). All forms tend to be short-lived, in most cases behaving as biennials or annuals.

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

Also short-lived, this relatively little-known biennial or perennial from central and eastern North America makes a highly rewarding and colorful garden subject in USDA zones 3 to 9. Borne from summer through fall in many-flowered clusters, the blooms resemble miniature black-eyed susans. Some forms such as ‘Prairie Glow’ have red-marked flowers reminiscent of Gloriosa Daisy forms of Rudbeckia hirta. Both of these short-lived species possess exceptional drought tolerance and self-sow freely if allowed.

Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)

Most familiar in the form of cultivar ‘Goldsturm’, orange coneflower spreads by underground rhizomes and by seed to eventually occupy large swaths of garden. Many ‘Goldsturm’ in cultivation are actually imposters, with rangier stems and smaller flowers than the 2-foot-tall original. Whatever the variety, orange coneflowers produce gold-petalled, brown-coned blooms from July until frost, attracting loads of pollinators along the way. Dwarf selections such as foot-tall ‘City Garden’ and 15-inch ‘Little Goldstar’ work well in tighter spaces. All forms of this eastern North American native thrive in moist well-drained soil, but also do fine in drier sites. Winter hardiness is from USDA zones 3-9. Sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) gives the effect of a somewhat taller, lankier, non-running Rudbeckia fulgida, with pure yellow rather than orange-yellow petals. The petals are furled into funnels in the cultivar ‘Henry Eilers’, lending it a novel look. Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) also bears a summer-through-fall bounty of yellow, dark-coned blooms on clumping rather than spreading plants. The densely hairy, relatively slender-leaved, highly drought-tolerant plants top out at around 30 inches and do best in zones 4 to 9.

Cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Here is the rudbeckia to grow if you want to make an architectural statement. Large eye-catching expanses of bold deeply cleft leaves bring forth towering stems crowned with yellow-petalled, green-coned blooms. The young leaves make good eating in stir-fries and other dishes. Flowering occurs from late summer into fall. Plants can spread vigorously underground, so either give them plenty of room or choose a less rambunctious selection or hybrid such as ‘Herbstsonne’. The double-flowered cultivar ‘Goldquelle’ is also relatively well behaved, especially compared to ‘Hortensia’, a rampant double-flowered selection that often goes under the name ‘Golden Glow’. This adaptable species from eastern and central North America does well in USDA zones 3 to 9. Also quite architectural is the south-central U.S. native commonly known as great coneflower, (Rudbeckia maxima). Drawing considerable attention in spring with its immense gray-green cabbage-like basal leaves, it produces flowers with prominent thimble-shaped cones on near-naked 5-foot-plus stems in summer and fall. Happiest in relatively moist, humus-rich soil, it sometimes fails for no discernible reason, even well within its zone 5 to 9 hardiness range.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

Pest-Resistant Natives by Russell Stafford


American gardeners who want to incorporate more native perennials into their plantings often come into conflict with two other native species: white-tailed deer and Eastern cottontail. Unlike many native plants, these vegetation-munching critters find suburban neighborhoods and other domesticated landscapes to be ideal “natural” habitats. This especially goes for one of their favorite suburban microhabitats – perennial plantings. What tastier delicacy than a lush phlox or coreopsis or other perennial favorite?


Rabbits and deer find some perennials to be anything but toothsome, however. Here are some to consider for your nibbler-infested garden. Most will remain largely unscathed even in areas with swarms of pests. The goldenrods are one exception, as they may be on the menu where herbivore pressure is intense.


Bee balm (Monarda spp.)

Deer and rabbits tend to steer clear of plants with strongly aromatic foliage. Consequently, many of the most pest-resistant perennials belong to the mint family – including everything in the genus Monarda. Best known to gardeners in the form of large 3-foot-plus hybrids such as brilliant red-flowered ‘Jacob Cline’ and purple-red ‘Raspberry Wine’, bee balms come in many other colors and sizes. One of the best is the Midwest native Bradbury’s bee balm (Monarda bradburiana). Its lilac-pink flowers open a month before the hybrids bloom, on 15-inch plants that clump rather than romp. The mildew-resistant foliage flushes deep bronze-purple in early spring. Similar in flower color but blooming a month later on 4-foot stems, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) ranges over a wide area of eastern and central North America. It also spreads widely in any good garden soil. All of the above would appreciate a hit of Fafard Organic Compost, especially if your soil has lots of sand or clay. In contrast, horsemint (Monarda punctata) prefers garden conditions more akin to the dry, sandy habitats where it occurs naturally. It’s fascinating pink-collared whorls of yellow flowers attract numerous beneficial pollinators in summer, while its oregano-scented foliage repels herbivores. This spreading, 30-inch-tall, short-lived perennial is native to much of North America, from coast to coast.

Mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) and anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

We profiled these fragrant-leaved mint family members in May in an article on edible natives. Edible for humans, that is; for deer and rabbits, they’re just the opposite. One Agastache we didn’t profile last month – yellow giant hyssop (Agastache nepetoides) – is equally pest-resistant and pollinator-friendly. An architectural 4- to 6-foot perennial from eastern and central North America, it triggers a pollinator feeding frenzy with its summer spikes of small yellow flowers. They evolve to elongated dark-gray seedheads, which make an ornamental statement in fall and winter. Most Agastache are enthusiastic self-sowers, so be on the lookout for volunteer seedlings. Mountain mints also spread widely, by underground rhizomes and sometimes by seed.

Beardtongues (Penstemon spp.)

Beloved by hummingbirds and bumblebees, Penstemon are native exclusively to North America, in a wide range of regions and habitats. Deer and rabbits avoid all 250-plus members of the genus. Most Central and Eastern U.S. beardtongues (such as P. digitalis and P. smallii) produce spires of white or pink/purplish flowers on 2- to 4-foot stems in late spring or early summer. Western species flower in a much wider range of colors, including blue, red, and the occasional yellow. Unfortunately, Westerners are also typically mountain-dwellers that loathe heat and dampness. Exceptions such as violet-blue-flowered Penstemon strictus do just fine in the Eastern lowlands provided the soil isn’t too heavy or damp.


Bluestars (Amsonia spp.)

The handsome lance-shaped foliage of these stalwart perennials is seemingly immune from diseases and pests. Native mostly to the southeastern and central U.S., bluestars owe their common name to their clusters of narrow-petaled flowers that open in late spring or early summer. Until recently, Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) – including its narrow-leaved and compact forms (salicifolia and montana) – was the most commonly grown species. That honor now surely belongs to threadleaf bluestar (A. hubrichtii), prized for its fine-textured, narrow foliage borne on dense 42-inch plants. Also worth growing, are other U.S. native amsonias including shining bluestar (A. illustris) and stiff bluestar (A. rigida). All of them turn eye-catching yellow shades in fall.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp. etc.)

Often dismissed wholesale as rampant weeds, goldenrods offer numerous well-behaved species in a diversity of shapes and sizes. They are also pest-resistant – although you can expect some damage in heavily browsed areas. Perhaps the most pest resistant of the tribe is sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), whose anise-like fragrance and flavor is off-putting to bunnies and deer. Other noteworthy species include stiff goldenrod (S. rigida), which flaunts large, handsome, gray-green basal leaves and domed heads of yellow flowers; and showy goldenrod (S. speciosa), with arrestingly large panicles of golden yellow on statuesque stems. There is even a white-flowered species, silverrod (S. speciosa), also notable for the graceful form of its narrow upright inflorescences on 2-foot stems. These and other goldenrods are essential late-summer bloomers, attracting swarms of bumblebees and other pollinators. And no – they do not cause hay fever.

Bugbane (Actaea spp.)

Formerly known botanically as Cimicifuga, these pollinator favorites make excellent architectural subjects for partial shade. Northeast and Central U.S. native black bugbane (Actaea racemosa) forms large lacy clumps of divided leaves, topped by statuesque spires of frothy white flowers in midsummer. Appalachian bugbane (A. rubifolia) is bolder in texture, later in flower, and somewhat more compact in habit than black bugbane. Its dense white candelabras appear in late summer atop shrubby clumps of large maple-like leaves. Both species do best in good moderately moist soil, but Appalachian bugbane also thrives in somewhat drier sites.

Fernleaf bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.)

One of the few shade-loving perennials with season-long bloom, Dicentra eximia produces flushes of pink flowers from mid-spring through fall. Native to rocky woodland habitats in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast, it’s nearly identical with the Western U.S. native Dicentra formosa. Their charming blooms cluster above low clumps of ferny, often silver-tinged leaves, which are quite attractive in their own right. Hybrids between these species (including ‘Zestful and ‘Luxuriant’) also make outstanding and pest-resistant garden subjects.


About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.