It’s been a long while since I’ve picked out a few of my favorite plants to focus on, and the list of candidates is getting rather long. So, it’s high time to pick out three that happen to look particularly good right now, starting with…
Cranberry Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)
Cranberry hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella, a.k.a. H. eetveldianus) has a bunch of other common names, including false roselle, African rose mallow, red-leaf hibiscus, and red shield hibiscus. Like other species of hibiscus, it produces showy flowers–in this case, lovely rosy pink, hollyhock-like blossoms–but it usually doesn’t start until in mid- to late fall, when the days are short: fine in frost-free areas but too late in many parts of the U.S.. Fortunately, it’s primarily prized as an outstanding foliage plant. The dark leaves and stems are a normal feature of the species, and it grows quickly enough to make a good show even in cool areas, so you can raise it from seed each year, if you wish.
The shade and intensity of the leaf color can vary depending on the growing conditions as well as genetic variation, ranging from bronzy red to rich reddish purple to deep burgundy. Leaf shapes can be rather different too. Though “red shield hibiscus” is a common name, you’ll also find seeds and plants sold as ‘Red Shield’, and they tend to have somewhat rounded lobes. Those above are seedlings; the one below is a ‘Red Shield’ that I bought as a plant.
‘Red Shield’ is a beauty, but I like the ones with pointy lobes even better. You’ll often hear cranberry hibiscus compared to Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)…
…and that likeness is particularly noticeable with seeds or plants of ‘Mahogany Splendor’.
The similarity can extend to its general effect as a foliage accent in the garden:
That’s over 12 years of growth on the maple and about 3 months on the hibiscus. Cranberry hibiscus makes an excellent short-term foliage contribution while you’re waiting for an equally dark but slower-growing woody plant, such as Diabolo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Monlo’) or a purple smokebush (Cotinus). In mild climates, it can be a shrub in its own right; it’s reportedly hardy in Zone 8 to 11.
I start my plants by sowing the seed in early March and setting the pot on a heat mat.
They usually germinate in 3 to 5 days. The seedlings are green at first, but some of the reddish color shows up on the first true leaves.
I usually keep them indoors under lights until mid- to late May and plant them out in early June.
Cranberry hibiscus can get quite tall, so I’d suggest setting it more toward the middle or back of the border, if you can give it a spot where it won’t get smothered or shaded for the first month or so. I mostly only have space right along the edge for annuals, so I work with it there.
Cranberry hibiscus responds well to regular pinching (every 2 to 3 weeks in early and midsummer) if you’d like to keep it relatively low and bushy.
If you don’t pinch it at all, it gets very tall (the one below is over 7 feet) and upright: great if you want a tall, fairly narrow accent. But when you grow it that way, it’s prone to toppling over or splitting if it doesn’t have a structure or sturdy companion to lean on. Or, you could stake it, of course. That’s a small price to pay for its big impact.
You can make all kinds of great combinations with the burgundy foliage of cranberry hibiscus.
Use it to repeat the dark parts of companions, or as a contrast to white or bright yellow.
It’s also quite nice with red-flowered companions.
It’s pretty with silver and pink, too, though I end up putting all of my seedlings with the bright colors out front, so I’ve never gotten around to making any silver- or pink-and-burgundy combinations with it.
If you can, site it where it will be backlit in the morning or evening; the leaves glow like stained glass.
I treat my plants as annuals, but as reader Niren J. noted in a comment on my last post, it roots easily if you put a cutting in a glass of water at the end of the season, so you could keep a bit of it indoors for the winter to get a jump-start next spring.
…as well as ‘Haight Ashbury’, with trippy pink splashing on the leaves. It’s interesting, but you have to watch that it doesn’t revert to the plain burgundy form. I do not recommend putting it next to a companion that also has pink-spotted leaves, as I did below. Oh well.
Besides looking beautiful, cranberry hibiscus is edible: mostly the flowers, buds, and leaves are used. I must admit that I’d never attempted to sample it before writing this. I tried nibbling on a leaf, and it wasn’t bad: a bit sour, rather like sorrel. I suppose it would look pretty in a salad. For more information about its edible uses, see Hibiscus acetosella.
A few sources that carry plants and seeds (as of September 30, 2014) include…
- ‘Mahogany Splendor’ seeds: Outside Pride, Summer Hill Seeds, William Dam Seeds (Canada)
- ‘Red Shield’ plants: Avant Gardens, Almost Eden
- ‘Panama Red’ plants: Santa Rosa Gardens
Yoke-leaved Amicia (Amicia zygomeris)
Gee, doesn’t that name make you want to rush out and buy this plant? No? Well, take a look and see if that changes your mind.
Isn’t that cool? It’s certainly distinctive, anyway: something that you’ll never confuse with another plant. A member of the legume family, yoke-leaved amicia is native to Mexico. (For more historical information and a detailed botanical description, see Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume 69 .)
Yoke-leaved amicia is reportedly root hardy into Zone 7 and fully hardy in Zone 9 and south. In cooler areas, you can treat it as an annual or try to overwinter it indoors. I haven’t found much information about how to do that, but I’m planning to dig it up and keep it in the basement this winter, as I do with my dahlias and cannas.
Where it does overwinter, it produces an upright, multi-stemmed plant that can reach about 7 feet tall. I started with a 6-inch-tall mail-order plant in June, and it’s now well over 5 feet, with a single stem. Even one stem is good, but the more stems it has, the more you get to enjoy its best feature: its rounded, purple-stained stipules.
They’re evident at the nodes closest to the tips of new shoots; below that, they eventually drop off.
The foliage of yoke-leaved amicia is a glaucous green, with loosely heart-shaped leaflets.
It has an interesting trait that’s shared by several other members of the legume family: nyctitropism, or the tendency for the foliage to fold up at night. Yoke-leaved amicia leaves droop some on cloudy days, as well, but not as noticeably as they do at night.
Yoke-leaved amicia does flower, with yellow blossoms, but it has never done that for me, so I can’t speak to the exact timing. I’ve read reports ranging from all summer and fall to late summer and fall to fall and winter. I guess it must not set much seed, because I couldn’t find any sources; it’s usually propagated by cuttings. Two sources that have plants for sale as of September 30, 2014, are Plant Delights and Accents for Home and Garden (Pepper’s Greenhouses).
Oh my, oh my…there’s an incredibly fantastic-looking variegated version too, called ‘John’s Big Splash’, with irregular, light yellow to cream markings. Sadly, I can’t find a current source, but if you can bear being taunted, feel free to take a look at its listing at Plant Delights.
Bitter Panic Grass (Panicum amarum)
Last up, another plant that could really use a good PR agent, because the common name “bitter panic grass” certainly isn’t going to have folks clamoring to buy it. Maybe something like “blue lace grass” would be more appealing; it’s certainly more appropriate.
Well, for now, it’s still bitter panic grass (or coastal panic grass, if you prefer). Native to the East Coast and Gulf Coast states, it usually grows in full sun and dry, sandy sites; in fact, it’s often used in dune stabilization projects. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I first considered trying it, because I wouldn’t have even attempted to grow it in my somewhat heavy and sometimes very wet soil. It certainly hasn’t minded my growing conditions. Over the last 10 years, it has become one of my favorite ornamental grasses.
In leaf (above), bitter panic grass looks much like some of the blue-leaved switch grasses (Panicum virgatum), such as ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Prairie Sky’.
This warm-season grass is very distinctive later in the season, though, as its wispy, gracefully arching flowerheads form and then mature into seedheads.
The flowerheads and developing seedheads are silvery and soft, inviting you to run your fingers through them.
The seedheads eventually turn tan in mid- to late fall.
Compared to switch grasses, the fall color of bitter panic grass isn’t spectacular: kind of a dull yellow to peachy yellow.
Still, it’s pretty enough to be welcome in an autumn border.
As the season progresses, the plants dry to light tan.
Its winter presence is outstanding, with stout, sturdy stems and seedheads that hold up well in snow and ice.
Bitter panic grass is best suited to larger gardens, because it can get quite large over time. It’s basically a clump-former but expands gradually by short rhizomes. Its height is often given as around 4 feet, but I imagine that must be in its native habitat, because here it easily reaches about 6 feet when the flowers are forming.
As the seeds develop, the plumes begin to cascade. In a crowded border, surrounded by shrubs and sturdy perennial companions, it stays fairly upright and close to 6 feet. In a more open setting, it develops a wide, fountain-shaped form. The 5-year-old clump below, for example, is about 16 inches across at the base but about 7 feet from side to side at the widest point, with a height of about 5 feet.
Younger plants seem to be more upright, so if that’s too sprawly-looking for you, you could try lifting and dividing it, or maybe just root pruning it, every 3 years or so. I’ve gotten to really like the arching effect, and since the stems don’t keel over completely even when wet, I’m very happy to leave them undisturbed.
Despite the name, the leaves must not taste bitter, because the boys enjoy nibbling on it. The deer have never bothered it, though.
There aren’t many selections of this species. ‘Atlantic’ is a seed strain that was released in 1981 by the Cape May Plant Materials Center in Cape May, New Jersey. Its original genetic material came from Virginia Beach, Virginia. (For more information, see ‘Atlantic’ Coastal Panicgrass.)
If you want to buy Panicum amarum for your garden, you’re far more likely to find the cultivar ‘Dewey Blue’, selected by Rick Darke from a particularly blue plant growing in Dewey, Delaware.
It *is* a lovely color, but as I’ve never seen a native stand of the grass, I don’t know how different it is from the usual hue. I do know that the few offspring of my one original plant of ‘Dewey Blue’, which is now around 10 years old, all look pretty much the same. (Of the pictures in this post, the ones labeled simply “bitter panic grass” are those seedlings.)
Plants of ‘Dewey Blue’ aren’t too hard to find through mail-order nurseries, such as Digging Dog and Plant Delights. (I swear I don’t have any affiliation with Plant Delights, or any of the other sources I give for seeds or plants; they just happen to be a source of some really neat things.) Santa Rosa Gardens–a place I did order from this year and was very pleased with–also carries ‘Dewey Blue’ plants, and they’re currently (as of September 30, 2014) on sale for just $2.99: Panicum amarum ‘Dewey Blue’.
I also found one place that sells seed of the species in packets, rather than by the pound: Roundstone Native Seed.
Reported hardiness zones for bitter panic grass range from Zone 2 to 9 to Zone 5 to 9. I know it’s fully hardy here in Zone 6, but I couldn’t find much first-hand reporting on its performance in colder areas. If you want to see its native range to judge for yourself, you can find a map at Panicum amarum.