By Irene Virag
July is here, and it’s hotter than, well, you know what. Around my way we’ve already had a spell when the garden felt like a fire pit. But you can chill out and find calm and comfort with heat-loving plants.
They’re like my husband. He adores hot weather. Not I. Give me a crisp fall day anytime. I’d rather wear a sweater than a bathing suit. But as a gardener I love plants that like it hot. And there are lots of them.
But there’s a caveat. They all need water. Some need lots of water. Cannas, for instance, don’t mind baking in the heat as long as they have enough moisture.
Melampodium is a trouble-free tough guy with daisylike yellow flowers that laugh at heat and sun, but don’t let it get too thirsty. Even drought-tolerant heat lovers need an occasional sip, especially when they’re newly planted.
Portulaca, also called moss rose, is a true sun worshipper. It practically survives on neglect. It’s my choice for the four iron urns that sit atop the corner posts of my garden fence. (See top photo). One reason is the pots are hard to reach for watering, so I don’t even have to try. The other reason is the large, cup-shape flowers that close up on cloudy or rainy days. Single- and double-flower varieties come in near-neon shades of red, orange, pink, and pastels, and bicolors. But if you’re a dog or cat lover, be careful because portulaca is toxic to pets.
Sun-loving, fast-growing, and resilient, lantana is a summer wonder that hits a high point when it comes to low maintenance. With pretty flowers in yellow, pink, red, orange, purple, and multiple colors, it shines in pots or in the perennial border, or as an edging plant. In Hawaii lantana is considered an invasive weed. But in our parts it’s something to hula about: a drought-tolerant annual that soaks up sun and blooms its pretty little head off till frost.
The only thing you can do to hurt lantana is water it too much. It tolerates salt spray so it’s a winner for seaside gardens. Deer and most pests don’t like it, but butterflies and hummingbirds do. Again be careful—the leaves can cause a rash, and the berries are toxic, so keep pets and children away. Look for sterile cultivars that don’t produce berries such as ‘Samantha’ and ‘New Gold.’ Lantana’s cousin, verbena, is another hot solar-powered number.
Yarrow is a sun lover that’s as good as gold, especially ‘Coronation Gold’, which grows 3 ft high. Yarrow’s frilly flower heads dry to mustard yellow as they age, and if you deadhead them, they come again. The fernlike foliage adds to their graceful demeanor, and they stand up to drought, which I think of as heat’s evil sibling.
Other plants that bask in the sun and require minimum water include: Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), with orange, orange-red, or yellow blooms; and Gaura, with 1-in white to pink flowers hanging on 4-ft-tall wiry stems.
There’s self-sowing gaillardia, which is also called blanket flower because it creates a colorful tapestry. And my beloved mandevilla vine, whose pink and red flowers symbolized life for me years ago, when I fought breast cancer.
Nor can I forget Russian sage, with long-lasting blue flowers atop slender 3- to 5-ft stems that perform a ballet through the season. Or drought-tolerant Agastache, which doesn’t miss a beat in the heat. Plant ‘Tutti Frutti’ for a shot of hot pink.
Try purple coneflower (Echinacea, pictured). It delights with slightly drooping rosy petals around cone-shape centers. It’s a prairie native that is amazingly drought tolerant once established, thanks to deep taproots.
Passionflower vines thrive on heat, so put them in your warmest microclimate. Give it moist, well-drained soil and let it dry out a bit between waterings. Its sturdy tendrils are fast-growing -- given enough heat a vine can grow to 30 ft in a single season -- coiling around just about anything it can grab onto. The flowers come in purple, lavender, blue, and scarlet, and look like miracles, with 10 petals and sepals forming a ring around an inner circle of needlelike filaments. Showy stigmas and anthers pop from the center.
And finally let’s have a fanfare for brugmansia, also known as angel’s trumpet. It offers lemon-scented flowers shaped like dangling trumpets. The nightly perfume attracts pollinators. I keep mine in pots and overwinter them in a friend’s greenhouse because brugmansia is not hardy on Long Island. It needs lots of water and lets you know when it’s thirsty. As is often the case with great beauties, it’s not without danger: Brugmansia is poisonous if ingested.
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