First, my apologies to all of you who got the new post notification several days ago, only to find an incomplete post or a “page not found” error. Fourteen years of blogging, and I finally made the mistake I’ve been dreading, of hitting “Publish” instead of “Save Draft.” How mortifying. I promise to be more careful in the future!
If you happened to catch the draft post before I deleted it, you got a sneak peek at the first in this group of three neat plants: a glorious annual with a humdinger of a common name: ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’ kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate (Persicaria orientalis, formerly Polygonum orientale). For the sake of convenience, I shall henceforth refer to it here as KMOTGG.
Oh look, it’s KMOTGG with a garden gate! Not a requirement, but it does give you an idea of the scale. This beautiful thing consistently reaches 5 to 6 feet by fall here in my Pennsylvania garden, and I’ve seen it get over 7 feet in very rich soil. Like many other persicarias, it appreciates soil conditions that are on the moist side. Full sun produces the densest growth and best flowering (as in the very first photo in this post, from September 28), but a half-day of sun, either morning or afternoon, can work too. (The photo above, from October 9, shows a plant growing in full sun from about 8 am to around 1 pm.)
The small flowers open randomly along tassels that dangle from the shoot tips. On species plants, the blooms are a rich reddish pink; on ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’, they’re a softer pink. The flowers usually start appearing in mid to late August and continue to frost. (The above photo is from October 9.)
The little ruff that forms at the base of each leaf base–technically known as an ocrea or ochrea–is a cute feature, and the reddish color of the petioles, which extends into the midribs of the leaves, is another bonus.
The best feature, though, is the broad, light green leaves, which are streaked and splashed with paler green to ivory-white. As far as I know, the variegation comes completely true in this strain. I’ve been growing it for over 15 years and don’t recall ever finding any solid-green seedlings. Above is a self-sown seedling, photographed on June 14.
The bold form of the leaves makes a terrific contrast to finer-textured foliage, like that of cut-leaved chaste tree (Vitex negundo ‘Heterophylla’) in the July 28 photo above.
In a site where it’s not crowded, KMOTGG naturally has a fountain-like form, with a narrow base and a wide top, and it makes a striking accent planted among low companions. (The photo above is from August 28.)
To take best advantage of the foliage, form, and fall bloom display, plant ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’ KMOTGG among late-blooming perennials and/or cut-back shrubs, such as purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) or the previously mentioned cut-leaved chaste tree (Vitex negundo ‘Heterophylla’). That way, the KMOTGG will have plenty of light and space to get a vigorous start before the companions start bulking up. In the photo above, this seedling is in front of a ‘Hella Lacy’ New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) on July 25.
Above is the same view of those two plants on September 10, with New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) now visible in the foreground and the cut-leaved chastetree in bloom in the back. The soft pink KMOTGG blooms pair beautifully with pastel to saturated blues and purples. They also look lovely with soft or clear yellows, like those of sunset hibiscus (Abelmoschus manihot) or ‘Lemon Queen’ perennial sunflower (Helianthus).
‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’ also combines nicely with white-flowered companions, echoing the bloom color in its variegation and pairing prettily in flower as well. Above, it’s with ‘Anabelle’ smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) on July 16. Below, it’s with white South African foxglove (Ceratotheca triloba ‘Alba’) on September 6.
If you like breaking design rules, you can place KMOTGG near the front of a planting, which gives you the advantage of being able to play with the tassels as you pass by. Normally, though, you’d put something this tall in the middle or back of a border and plant something in front of it. Consider long-blooming annuals–like the flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana) and ‘Coral Nymph’ hummingbird sage (Salvia coccinea) in the September 5 photo above–or a bushy late-summer or fall perennial, such as purple/blue aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) or peachy pink ‘Sheffield Pink’ or ‘Hillside Pink Sheffield’ mum (Chrysanthemum or Dendranthema).
KMOTGG is one of those annuals that can be challenging to get started, but once you have it, it’s likely to self-sow. If you want to save the seeds, tickle the tassels with your fingers in October and the seeds will drop into your hand. Each one will be covered with a papery husk, which I like to rub off with my fingers before planting so I can easily identify the best (plump, black) seeds to keep.
If you’re trying to get KMOTGG going for the first time, I highly recommend getting the seeds in October to February and sowing them outdoors, either directly or in a pot. Above is a pot of seeds I sowed outside in mid January, just beginning to sprout in early April. If you live where you can still get a month or so of night frosts, you can probably sow outdoors even through March. Otherwise, you could try giving the seeds a moist-and-cold period in your refrigerator, either on paper towels or in a small pot enclosed in a plastic bag, for about a month before moving them to a warmer place. I’ve seen a few references suggest scarifying the seeds on sandpaper before sowing to improve germination rates, but I haven’t tried that myself.
Below are some self-sown seedlings on June 1. They’re very distinctive, so you can identify them readily. It’s easy to pull out the ones you don’t want or transplant them elsewhere.
If you’re interested in giving this one a try, I have seeds available here: Persicaria orientalis ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’ at Hayefield. Chiltern Seeds sells them too, under a slightly different name: ‘Shiro-Gane-Nishi’ at Chiltern Seeds.
For our next neat plant, one possible annual companion for KMOTGG that I mentioned earlier: Abelmoschus manihot, formerly Hibiscus manihot. It’s commonly known as sunset hibiscus, sunset muskmallow, aibika, edible hibiscus, or sweet hibiscus.
I have always adored hollyhocks (Alcea), but every time I’ve tried to grow them, they’ve gotten ruined by hollyhock rust before they could bloom. Now that I have sunset hibiscus, I can get my hollyhock fix without the angst. Granted, it’s only in one color, but what a beautiful color it is!
The rich green, deeply lobed leaves are attractive, for sure, but not especially interesting, particularly compared to the large (5- to 6-inch-wide), dark-eyed blooms. There are usually only one or two blooms open on a given day, but there are many buds, and they keep forming as the stem rises, so the plants are in flower for several months. Here in southeastern PA, my indoor-started plants begin flowering around mid August–the photo above is from August 8; the one below is August 23–and continue to frost.
Unlike hollyhocks, which tend to take up a fair amount of ground space with their foliage before flowering, sunset hibiscus generally produces one main, strongly upright stem when grown as an annual. Scattered through the middle to back of a border, the plants are terrific vertical accents among shrubs, tall grasses, perennials, and annual companions. Above is sunset hibiscus with panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) on September 9. Imagine it paired with rich purple ironweeds (Vernonia) or the blue foliage and pink-tinged plumes of ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum) for interesting color effects. Some excellent annual or tender companions include tall salvias, like cobalt blue anise-scented sage (Salvia guaranitica), bright orange Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), purple Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis), rich red ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth (Amaranthus), and dahlias of all shapes and colors.
Sunset hibiscus is reportedly perennial in Zones 7 or 8 to 10, where it grows as a multi-stemmed clump to about 3 feet across. If you’d like to create that more-substantial effect in northern gardens, as in the August 27 photo above, set out three to five plants spaced about 8 inches apart. The resulting clump is still rather narrow at the base, so there’s plenty of room for bushy companions.
Lovely as an ornamental, sunset hibiscus can have a place in your vegetable garden too. Its other common name–edible hibiscus–points to the many practical uses of its various parts, from its young leaves to its flowers to its seeds. I haven’t yet tried them myself, so I will direct you to another resource that covers its edible qualities: Marvelous Mallows – Abelmoschus Manihot.
Sunset hibiscus plants thrive in full sun and average soil (some extra water during dry spells is appreciated), and they love hot weather. As the stems rise–ultimately to about 6 feet in most conditions–and the flowers do their thing, the blossoms are quickly followed by pointed, green pods. When the pods turn brown and start to split, clip them off and you can easily remove the seeds. I recommend wearing gloves while doing this.
Aren’t the seeds interesting? They are easy to handle for sowing; just remember that they love heat. I like to start them indoors, ideally in early to mid-March, on a heat mat to make sure they are plenty warm. I got a bit of a late start last year: sowed on April 9 and they began sprouting on April 13. My notes say I soaked them for 36 hours first, which could be why they sprouted so quickly; I remember them taking longer (up to several weeks) in previous years. Nicking instead of, or along with, soaking could be worth trying.
Last up. a sadly underused annual (or Zone 10-ish perennial): Centratherum intermedium, formerly C. punctatum and commonly known as Brazilian bachelor’s button, Brazilian buttonflower, lark daisy, Manaus [or Manaos] beauty, or porcupine flower.
It’s charming, it’s colorful, it’s long-flowering, it’s adaptable, it’s easy from seed–and it’s almost impossible to find the seeds for sale. Why? Beats me. I’ve seen highly marketed annuals that have less to offer than this cutie, but it doesn’t get the love. A while back, someone started selling it with the name ‘Pineapple Sangria’ to make it more enticing, but I guess it didn’t work. You’ll sometimes see the name ‘Button Beauty’ too, but again, it’s not significantly different from the species, as far as I can tell.
Brazilian bachelor’s button grows in broad mounds that reach 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Its distinctly toothed leaves–medium to olive green, sometimes with a thin maroon edge–are handsome in their own right. They also release a light but pleasing pineapple scent when you brush against them or rub them with your fingers (hence the ‘Pineapple Sangria’ moniker). The photo above is from August 6.
Flowering usually begins in June from an indoor early- to mid-April sowing and keeps going until frost.
The tight buds open gradually into brushy tufts. The base of each floret is white, producing a two-toned effect when you look at the blooms up close, but the lavender-purple petals tend to cover that up as they age and elongate.
The sadly out-of-focus honeybee in the above photo give you a sense of scale: the blooms are about 1 to 1 1/2 inches across when fully open. Many kinds of bees visit the flowers, and so do a variety of butterflies. Last year, the ground below my container-grown plants was littered with swallowtail wings, which I finally realized was due to several praying mantises that had taken up residence in the clumps. I relocated them to another part of the garden so the butterflies could again feed in peace and not end up in pieces.
Brazilian bachelor’s button is marvelous as a filler for the front-to-middle part of a border, in a mass planting as a single-season groundcover, or as a fragrant and flowery edging along a path or walkway. It’s terrific for covering the base of perennials and shrubs that tend to drop their lower leaves, such as summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and roses. The July 31 photo above shows it growing in, and spilling over the edge of, a raised bed with tall larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum, not yet in bloom) and South African foxglove (Ceratotheca triloba). The photo below was from October 4.
Deadheading isn’t really necessary for neatness, because the stems keep branching and the developing seedheads aren’t very prominent, but it may help promote more flowering if your plants are producing fewer new buds. It’s easy to collect the seeds, though there’s a bit of a trick to it.
Normally, you’d think a seedhead as green as this was far from ripe. But if you slip your fingers around the base of the bloom and brush the head with your thumb, the seeds that are ready will fall off into your hand.
If you wait until the head turns brown, as in the photo above, it’s likely most or all of the seeds will have already dropped off, but you may still be able to get a few from it. (The dropped seeds are likely to produce some self-sown seedlings the following year, particularly in tropical climates.)
To get them started the first time, you could sow in late winter to early spring for an early start, or even into June if you need filler plants for border gaps in mid to late summer. I usually sow in late March to early April and set the pot on a heat mat under lights. Last year, I sowed on April 7 and started seeing growth on April 16.
Full sun to light shade, in a site with average garden soil, is just fine for this little charmer. Besides adding months of color to the garden, the cut blooms are good for small arrangements too, and handling the plants as you harvest them releases the fruity scent for a extra treat.
I have seeds available for this one too: Centratherum intermedium at Hayefield. You can also find them through Special Plants. If you give Brazilian bachelor’s button a try, please consider sharing the seeds with friends and/or seed exchanges, so more people can enjoy it!