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Towering plants add high class to the garden

there's nothing like a living wall of color behind a butterfly garden, or spires of vibrant color aimed skyward to make a landscape look right. Many flat, open landscapes dominated by horizontal themes can be given a classy, restrained visual drama by growing a single tall specimen plant behind a birdbath or attracting the eye with a garden sculpture. So let's check out some reliable perennials with height.

Eye-catching torches

Hummingbirds love the glowing red spears of nectar-laden blooms borne year-round by Fire Spike, known botanically as Odontonema strictum. This hassle-free, 6- to 8-foot perennial is available in garden shops in 1- to 3-gallon pots, especially in summer.

Don't be fooled by its petite size when you buy it. In decent soil it can easily grow to 5 or 6 feet tall within a year, spanning 4 feet in width. Very drought-tolerant once established, yet fond of the summer rainy season, Fire Spike has large, shiny, tropical-looking leaves that would look right at home in Jurassic Park. A landscaper's dream, it performs beautifully in full sun to light shade, and is remarkably free of bug and disease problems.

Throughout the year the thick, sturdy stalks erupt into a living fireworks show, the fire-engine-red flower spikes signaling both butterflies and hummingbirds. It makes a lovely background for an informal butterfly or landscape garden.

But Fire Spike isn't perfect. The blooms have little if any scent and last just a day or two in bouquets. A hard frost can zap the plant back down to the soil line. But spring recovery and regrowth are vigorous and rapid. It grows so fast, it makes little sense to buy large plants. Look for 1-gallon pots for $4 to $5.

The sun worshippers

Nothing beats the sudden satisfaction of giant sunflowers. Just plant the seeds in rich, moist soil in full sun, water deeply weekly, and watch them leap for the sun. They provide a short-term solution where you need height and color while you decide which perennials you wish to use.

Added bonuses are using sunflowers in stunning bouquets for special occasions, and seeing birds feast on the massive seed heads that form after the petals drop. I love to plant the fancy types purchased from seed displays and those in birdseed mixes, for some lovely surprises. Many people are astonished the first time they sniff a newly opened bloom and discover a rich, sweet, honeylike perfume.

A trumpet fanfare, please

If you have the room, the various hybrid brugmansias provide bold pillars of sultry green, dripping with regal trumpets of snow white, pastel and deep yellow, plus many shades of apricot and pink. Sunset coaxes all of them to send out sensuous drifts of sweet perfumes; the huge trumpets, 8 to 10 inches long, close at midday. Despite their lush appearance, they are tough and undemanding throughout the year, and they root very easily from woody cuttings 10 to 12 inches long. Once rare, they show up more and more often in garden centers. Logee's offers named hybrids.

A study in lavender

Say you have enough red in your gardens, yet still want statuesque, bold color. Plant the lavender cousin to Fire Spike, called Odontonema callistachyum. The leaves are similar, but with a richer texture, and the flower spikes themselves are slightly more feminine and tapered, in a rich shade of lavender tinged with pink and purple. It tolerates sun and shade. This is a rare gem. Look for it on sale at the USF Botanical Gardens plant sales, or order one from the trustworthy mail order source, Logee's Greenhouses, at, or call toll-free 1-888-330-8038.

Tropical orange pizazz

I generally find orange a harsh and uninviting color, but I have gone crazy over the vivid tangerine spires borne aloft by the rare tropical plant called Justicia spicigera 'Sidicara.' Even though I deep-water my front garden just six times a year, this species of Justicia overperforms there all year long. No bug or disease problems affect mine, and the blooms look lovely for days in arrangements. Each blossom cluster — 1 to 7 feet above the ground — is wonderfully sculptural in form, both in the bud stage and when fully open, glowing in the sun and transposed against a clear blue sky. I hope Florida growers begin offering this tangerine dream to us as word of its reliable beauty spreads, but in the meantime, look for it at Logee's too.

A hovering heavenly host

If you have a shady, moist yard, the taller-growing angel-wing begonias can bring dazzling seashell-pink tones, even reds and oranges, to the gloom. Many have stems and leaves in warm colors and exotic patterns that sometimes seem almost metallic. The tall bamboolike stems can reach 3 to 6 feet and their arching forms add grace reminiscent of a Chinese watercolor. The blooms are usually scentless and short-lived in arrangements, but they offer welcome, colorful height that makes a glorious backdrop to beds of low-growing begonias, such as the rex and wax species. I see them now and then in local garden shops. Named hybrids can be purchased from Logee's.

No need to settle for ground-level color when you can invite these friendly giants into your landscape.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at

Towering plants add high class to the garden 06/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:57pm]
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