When my kids surrendered — actually, fled — the back yard in early adolescence, I replaced them with perennials. At first, anything that survived and flowered became my favorite. Then I demanded plants that grow, which led to some dangerous relationships with vines; I thought "aggressive" was an asset. • Today, my go-to perennials have attention-grabbing flowers or foliage. They don't whine, bully other plants or demand my attention. The best of the best are also so unusual, they make visitors say, "Wow! What is that?" • Here are five that meet all those criteria. You might find some at nurseries, but plant festivals, garden club sales and seed and cuttings swaps are other good sources.
Gloriosa lily vine (Gloriosa superba)
The gloriosa's flower petals start out green and curve downward. As the bloom matures, the petals curve upward and backward, forming a cuplike shape, and become a brilliant crimson and yellow. They're about 3 inches across, so you can't miss them.
They grow on vines that sprout from tubers, with leaves that twine and climb. The vines grow when it's warm, then bloom, die back and later reappear. They go dormant in winter.
This plant needs something to climb on, but a trellis won't do unless you're okay with it being bare for part of the year. Some gardeners plant it in hedges, where its exotic flowers transform pedestrian shrubs.
It does well in full to part sunlight and rich, well-drained (sandy but amended) soil throughout the Tampa Bay area, including coastal areas. While some people recommend fertilizing, my gloriosa vines don't get fed and don't complain.
Old Florida amaryllis (Hippeastrum striatum and Hippeastrum vittatum hybrids)
I received a fat amaryllis bulb at a plant swap in February. I was told to set it on the ground — not to dig it in. Less than three months later, I had beautiful pale red and white blooms!
I thought it was St. Joseph's lily, an Old Florida amaryllis. To confirm, I sent a photo to an expert, who passed it around until he found Alani Davis, an ecologist and botanist at Ecological Resource Consultants in Tallahassee and longtime gardener. (Thank you, Allen Boatman!)
My plant isn't St. Joseph's lily, whose red is more scarlet, Alani wrote.
"There are lots of variations of this and related hybrids, especially in old gardens in Florida," he wrote. "I have tried for years to pin down a name."
He's pretty certain they're hybrids of Hippeastrum striatum and Hippeastrum vittatum amaryllis, which are difficult to find commercially.
"They are best gotten as pass-along garden plants" from other gardeners, he says.
Amaryllis like light shade to full sun and amended soil. The bulbs proliferate, so you could soon have a big display — and plenty to share.
Ground orchid (Epidendrum radicans)
If you can't do orchids, raise your hand. Yup, mine's up.
This one will change that.
Kelly Schubert, a former Brandon master gardener, raves about her "easy peasy" ground orchid, which produces loads of bright orange blooms off and on year-round.
"It has an unruly growing habit, so this is not for the neat freak," she warns.
Ground orchids like well-drained soil. In sandy beds, they need some organic amendments, such as peat and compost, Kelly says.
It's a Zone 10 plant, meaning it can't tolerate the lowest temperatures we experience throughout most of Tampa Bay. Kelly suggests planting in a container that can be moved or in a protected area that never freezes.
It likes partial shade and a weekly water if there's no rain, she says.
Pitcher plant (Nepenthes)
I think we love carnivorous plants because it's so cool to see a food chain underdog win. "Yeah — I bite back."
Florida is home to six species of native pitcher plants, according to the University of Florida. Each has a distinctive look, but all have pitcher cups that trap and digest bugs attracted by the plants' nectar.
Brad Ward of Brandon, whose fascination with insect life led to a fun new grade-schooler book, A Pilgrimage of Pests, says the non-native nepenthes pitcher plant for hanging baskets is easy to grow if you follow some simple steps.
Plant it in a well-drained, non-soil medium such as organic peat moss and perlite, he says. It likes shade or dappled light and should be brought inside when temperatures drop into the 50s.
"Keep them very moist, preferably with rainwater," Brad says. "Do not fertilize! Ever! Except to maybe drop a pesky caterpillar or two into a pitcher."
(A Pilgrimage of Pests by Bradford P. Ward is available for Kindle at Amazon.com.)
Tampa vervain (Glandularia tampensis)
Florida-based native plant grower Dave Barnard of Cypress Acres Nursery in Land O'Lakes loves this knee-high shrub, also known as Tampa verbena, for its dark lavender blooms and ability to survive freezes.
"It's a great butterfly attractor," he says.
Plant in full sun for more flowers, in soil that's well-drained but amended with organic matter such as cow manure compost. It does well both inland and in coastal areas. Once established, Tampa vervain is drought tolerant.
Look for blooms in the fall through spring, Dave says.
He'll be at the Butterfly, Herb & Native Plant Fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens, 12210 USF Pine Drive, Tampa. Admission is $5. Reach him at (813) 388-3111 or [email protected]
Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Read more Tampa Bay gardening on her blog, wwwdigginfladirt; visit her on Facebook, DigginFloridaDirt; and follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.