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California Native Caterpillars & Their Host Plants

21 Mar

Earl Nickel,
The Curious Plantsman

As conscientious gardeners, many of us have added plants that attract pollinators to our corners of paradise. This includes butterflies of many kinds, including the well-known Monarch, Painted Lady and Anise Swallowtail. But there is even a more surefire way to attract particular butterflies and moths to your garden and that is by planting host plants for these winged pollinators. As we know, when butterflies first lay eggs on the leaves of their preferred host plant, those eggs hatch to become caterpillars, who then have a ready-made supply of nutritious leaves on which to grow and fatten. And surprisingly, these caterpillars can sometimes be as colorful and beautiful as the butterflies they eventually become. Today we take a closer look at this stage of our favorite California native butterfly life cycle.


Easily our most famous Bay Area resident butterfly, Monarchs also have one of the most beautiful caterpillars. Large and long, they are immediately recognizable by their yellow, black and white striping. And where do you find them? Why on ‘milkweeds.’ Most famously, they lay their eggs on the ‘Butterfly weed’ (Asclepias species). The various Asclepias species contain a toxin called glycosides and Monarch caterpillars have adapted to be able to eat these toxic leaves. This toxin discourages creatures from making the Monarch caterpillar its lunch. Adult monarchs retain the toxins and if a bird tries eating one it is likely to have an unpleasant reaction, thus learning to avoid this butterfly.

Annie’s carries four native milkweeds – Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa and A. speciosa ‘Davis’), as well as the Narrow-Leafed milkweed (A. fascicularis) and the curious Nodding milkweed (A. glaucescens). Easy to grow and vigorous, milkweeds love the sun, good drainage and bloom all summer. This native is also a nectar source for a number of local butterflies

Pipevine Swallowtail

Perhaps the most beautiful butterfly in our region, this butterfly has dusky dark outer portions and iridescent blue inner portions. As its common name suggests, this guy prefers only one plant as its host – the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) or California Dutchman’s-pipe. Though this native vine isn’t widespread, it is very easily grown in our gardens but does grow quite large and sprawling. This Swallowtail is prolific in laying eggs, which hatch to distinctive, chunky black caterpillars dotted dramatically with orange spots. They protect themselves by sequestering acids from the plants they feed on. The adults will feed on the nectar of a variety of local flowers. California pipevine is also a highly prized decorative vine, with small Dutchman’s pipe flowers that are oh so fun to look at.

Anise Swallowtail.

This beautiful yellow and black butterfly is very common in our area. Its caterpillar form is just as striking, a bright green with distinctive yellow spots framed by black borders. It has several host plants, including our native Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum). You can also have great success, as I have, with the common fennel plant.

And we at Annie’s offer both the cow parsnip and a lovely variety of fennel called ‘Zefa Fino’ in the nursery. . Adult butterflies will seek out a great number of native flowers for food. It is one of the easiest and most reliable butterflies in our area. As to the host plants, they are extremely vigorous and more or less take care of themselves. They each get big, so you will have to ‘hunt’ for the tiny eggs when they appear.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady is one of the most familiar butterflies in our Bay Area gardens. A gorgeous orange, with black and orange banding on its upper wings and rows of small black markings on the lower wings, its caterpillar is no less striking. Completely black, with regularly spaced, narrow bands of yellow, black and white, this caterpillar’s unique appearance includes prickly black, branching spikes growing out of each of its body segments

. The main host plant for this gal is our wonderful California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica). This xeriscape plant needs almost no summer water and offers the most shimmering silvery foliage on 3-4′ H&W bushes. Though the flowers are small and indistinctive, this sagebrush still attracts plenty of ‘Ladies.’

California Tortoiseshell

This lovely smaller-sized butterfly has an appearance similar to the Painted Lady. Its black banding is however only along the upper margins of its wings and it possesses no lower black spots. Its caterpillar has a subtle charm, being a patterned gray, with small yellow blotches and less obvious yellow bristles than those on the Painted Lady.

These beautiful butterflies like to lay their eggs on our local California lilacs (Ceanothus) and Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos). That includes the prolific blooming Ceanothus thyrsiflorus and the taller C. ‘Ray Hartman’, though this butterfly likes all Ceanothus species. And Ceanothus species are one of the great native shrubs to add to your garden. A variety of bees and butterflies feed on the flowers’ nectar and songbirds will feed on the seeds that form in the late fall.

Mormon Metalmark

This beautiful butterfly displays a most intriguing pattern, with a chocolate brown body dramatically dotted with white spots. This area is contrasted by bright orange on the upper wings next to the head. Dramatic is an apt description. The caterpillar is also striking in its own right, displaying a purple body and rows of paired yellow spots around the circumference of its body.

You’ll find this beauty munching on the leaves of our native Seaside buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium). Many of you know that California buckwheats are one of the great pollinator plants to add to our gardens. Visited it seems by every bee, butterfly, hummer, beneficial fly & wasp, this prolific bloomer also provides copious fall seed for songbirds. Very durable and easy to grow, Seaside buckwheat is the gift that keeps on giving.

Silvery Blue Butterfly

There may be no prettier butterfly in our Bay Area than the quixotic Silver Blue Butterfly. A gorgeous sky blue throughout, with delicate white veining and a dramatic black border, this elusive butterfly can sometimes be a bit hard to find. And given that its caterpillar is a plain green oblong creature, it seems like this butterfly is the proverbial ugly-duckling-into-a-swan in the world of butterflies.

Its favorite host plant is the native Yellow Coastal Bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus). Forget what you know about little hybrid lupines. This vigorous herbaceous lupine gets to a robust 4’x4′ and in late spring is smothered in cheerful yellow flowers displayed on tall spikes. A magnet for bees as well as a number of local butterflies, this native provides lots of leaves for Silvery Blue caterpillars. Just give it sun and good drainage.

Orange Sulphur moth

The Orange Sulphur’s appearance may not be dramatic but its soft colors are no less alluring. It displays pale yellow wings with an orange aura, bordered by a ribbed, soft brown color. Sublime. It too has a green caterpillar that is meant to ‘hide’ against the green background of the lupine leaves it prefers.

That would be the lovely Silver Bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons). It too forms a voluminous bush (42” x 42”) and produces soft green foliage with a shimmering silvery cast. It produces 8-12” high spikes of fragrant purple flowers throughout the late spring and summer that attract a variety of pollinators. Give it sun, good drainage and deadhead the flowers for prolonged blooming.

Variable Checkerspot

You might think of this black-winged native butterfly as the ‘goth’ member of the family. Black-as-night wings are generously dotted with rows of white spots, with just a few orange spots on the top wings for a touch of color. That color scheme is carried over to the caterpillar.

Black, with rows of orange spots, it is an eating machine on its favorite host plant – the Sticky Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus). For those of you that hike our north bay regions, you have no doubt come across patches of this hardy sub-shrub. Both its orange-flowering straight species and its yellow, pink and red hybrids are magnets for a variety of local pollinators, while our goth friend will happily munch down on this drought tolerant perennial.

Planting & Caring for Host Plants

Virtually  all of the plants mentioned here are sun-loving (the Cow Parsnip is part shade) so give them lots of light. And generally speaking, they want good drainage. That’s especially important for the Lupines. Within the above group, only the Lupines and the California pipevine are deciduous, though the Cow parsnip and fennel may shed some leaves. Other than providing healthy plants, there are no special care instructions for attracting the butterflies to lay eggs. It is when the caterpillars appear that one needs to pay attention. First off, you don’t want to remove the caterpillars you are hoping to host. And one has to live with the fact that they will be eating a certain amount of the plant’s leaves. When they are fat enough, they will spin a cocoon and gestate until it’s time for the adult butterfly to emerge.

It is worth mentioning that one should not, under any circumstances, use a pesticide, organic or chemical, on your host plants (or any nearby plants). If there are unwanted bugs on your host plant, you can gently pick them off. On this note, Annie’s does not spray its plants with the Bt caterpillar insecticide, meaning it is safe to grow our plants as host plants. However, Annie’s strongly advises that plants you intend to use as host plants, be thoroughly rinsed with water and quarantined for at least one week before setting out into your garden.  In addition, they recommend the plant be allowed to grow for at least one year, so that it has time to grow enough leaves to sustain a hungry caterpillar before allowing it to become a host plant. See more details here.

If birds are eating your caterpillars, you might consider putting a fine netting around the plant. Use stakes and make a little house, making sure not to just drape the netting over the plant as the bird beak can squeeze through the net’s grid and grab a juicy caterpillar. The netting will still let light through and let you watch the progress from egg to caterpillar to butterfly.

A little research on the butterfly you hope to attract and lay eggs will let you know the plants they often seek out for nectar. These plants may first attract adult butterflies, who then spot that host plant you’ve provided for them. That in turn may tempt them to lay eggs there.  Adding nectar-rich plants may also attract other butterflies to your garden too!


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. Some of the plant varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA. This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular plant does not ship well. A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

Romantic Plants

1 Feb

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

Through the ages, flowers have played a pivotal place in the history of romance. Whether given as an open gift of love, slipped surreptitiously to a lover or simply kept as a cut flower bouquet to keep one’s romance kindled, flowers of all manner have been a potent signal of romance. While many flowers are used in florist’s arrangements, there are three ways that flowers have traditionally invoked an air of romance. Firstly, there are flowers that have traditionally been used to signal one’s affections. That extends far beyond modern day roses and flowers such as gardenias, carnations and mums used in corsages. A little research into the history of flowers leads you to the Language of Flowers. In that ‘language’, certain flowers have a specific meaning. These flowers were often used as a message to be given to a secret love.

Secondly, flowers that give off an intoxicating fragrance have long been used to signal affection. Roses, gardenias, carnations, sweet violets, lilacs and butterfly bush flowers remain popular to this day to stimulate the senses. Lastly, there are flowers that add texture and beauty to any cut flower arrangement and so have been used by florists to beautify a bouquet. Baby’s breath, ornamental grasses and Peruvian lilies are popular choices.

The Romance in Flowers

As Valentine’s Day approaches, Annie’s has a number of flowers sure to invoke an air of romance. Many of our most romantic flowers herald back to England. Annie’s grows a number of these cottage garden gems. Corn Cockle (Agrostemma) is one of the most charming of English flowers. Whether it’s the rosy red ‘Milas’ or the alabaster white ‘Ocean Pearls’, these tall and floriferous flowers are the embodiment of sweet affection. They love the sun and though they are annuals, they are known to self-seed.

Also ‘tall, dark & handsome’ are a wealth of Hollyhocks (Alcea). We love this stately & gorgeous flower at Annie’s and grow a bunch of ’em. Single or double; white, pink, red or black, hollyhocks’ beauty can make one swoon. This cottage garden stalwart is for when you want to go big and brassy in the flower arrangement. They love the sun and the heat.

For an unexpected pleasure, add some Avens (Geum) to your bouquet. A member of the rose family, the brightly colored, long blooming Avens adds a dashing splash of bold color to any arrangement. Whether it’s the ‘Totally Tangerine’ the orange ‘Koi’ or the ‘Blazing Sunset’ red, Avens flowers add a certain pizzazz to any bouquet. They too love the sun.

There’s a reason they named one of our favorite Pincushion flowers ‘Florist’s Pink.’ This ‘pretty-in-pink’ Scabiosa flower just oozes romantic feelings. Rising on tall stems, it’s perfect for a bouquet or for a vase arrangement. In the garden, this sun lover is a magnet for bees and butterflies, making it a valuable addition to any pollinator garden.

No mention of romantic flowers would be complete without three flowers we love here at Annie’s. The curiously named Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas ‘Pandora’) has frilly multi-colored purple to red flowers that will make any heart swoon. And though the frilly and papery blooms are short-lived, this beauty is a prolific bloomer, so there’s plenty of flowers to be had. Grow it anywhere in a sun to part sun bed and watch the steady parade of bees that will come a-calling

And you know when a plant has the common name of Cupid’s Dart that it’s a romantic must-have. Early Greeks and Romans used this Mediterranean native to make love potions, leading to its common name. Catananche caerulea possesses exceptionally pretty overlapping rows of bluish-purple petals and is a surprisingly drought tolerant plant. This low grower loves the sun and when cut back in the fall, will return fresh in the spring.

And what is more of a sign of love everlasting than Water Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis palustris)? Featuring flowers blue as a loved one’s eyes, this taller and perennial version of the common bedding Forget-Me-Not is a sure sign of one’s intentions. The taller stems mean you can flowering stems to any bouquet, to bring a bit of the blue sky to any arrangement.

Heavenly Fragrance

Perhaps no sense can spark our imaginations as evocatively as the sense of smell. Flowers possess many scents but sweetly fragrant flowers hold a special place in our hearts. And there are few flowers that evoke warm memories more than Sweet peas  (Lathyrus). From subtle to overpowering, sweet pea flowers are surely a piece of floral heaven sent to earth. Even better, their early spring blooming precedes most every other flower. And they are prolific, sporting a nearly endless profusion of flowers. So beautiful and fragrant are sweet peas that you really don’t need to combine them with anything else to have a sensational bouquet. And now (February) is the time to plant them, as they prefer cool sun.

If it’s volume, form AND scent all rolled into one flower that you want, you can’t miss with Butterfly bush (Buddleja). Forming fat, 6-10” long cones, butterfly bush flowers are an eye-popping addition to any vase or bouquet. The cones are made up of hundreds of tiny flowers and come in white, light pink, a rich maroon or glowing purple, giving you just the right color to add to a mixed bouquet. Their profusion of flowers make them a focal point in any sunny bed.

For those seeking a pure white flower and one with a distinctive fragrance, Pale Evening Primrose (Oenothera pallida) offers a large, snow white bloom, one that smells of sweet almonds! This perennial primrose is native to the western United States and can be grown as a sun-loving ground cover.

Sometimes it’s easier to take your sweetheart TO the flowers rather than vice versa. That’s especially true for the gregarious Sweet Autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata). Come fall, it smothers its dense foliage in small, white, star-shaped flowers that smell sweetly of vanilla. Talk about making a great first impression! Easy to grow and just as tough as it is beautiful, it’s a long-lasting vine that you’ll want to make room for. Give it full or part sun and the occasional deep watering and it’ll be as happy as a clam.

That Extra Wow

When you’re making your own Valentine’s bouquet or vase arrangement, you’ll want to add bit of fullness and texture to achieve the right balance. Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria) are one of the best ways to add instant floral appeal, while adding some fullness. One of the most prolific and long blooming plants you will ever grow, your stand of Peruvian lilies will give you nonstop flowers from spring through late fall. They blend in nicely with just about any arrangement. Linaria ‘Flamenco’ offers both charm and texture and is super easy to grow. It tops wispy foliage with one-of-a-kind, vivid maroon and gold flowers. They add a pop of color and are a great vertical element. They will grow just about anywhere in your garden and you can tuck them into tight spaces. Though they are an annual, they give you plenty of flowers in one season and have been known to reseed.

Finally, many a florist likes to use a texture plant that has ferny foliage and one of the very best is Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella ‘Miss Jekyll‘). You’ll love everything about this plant, from the wispy delicate green foliage to the robins-egg blue flowers and finally the interesting seedpods. And it helps that Love-in-a-Mist self-seeds prolifically! You usually only need plant it once and then you have plenty to pick from in future years. Easy to grow and surprisingly drought tolerant, Love-in-a-Mist is the perfect complement for any bouquet or vase arrangement!

Whether you are fashioning a romantic bouquet for your beau or invoking the beauty of flowers in your kitchen or living room, these and other flowers bring a bit of garden romance into your life.

The Importance of Fall Planting and What to Plant Now.

15 Sep

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

As summer blooms start to wind down and the days gradually get shorter, many gardeners tend to step back from their gardens. But actually fall is one of the very best times to be active and planting in the garden. Perennials, be they shrubs or smaller plants, need a bit of time to get their roots firmly established before they fashion a new growth spurt. Getting shrubs, other perennials and early blooming CA native annuals started in the fall offers several advantages. Most importantly, the cooler weather and winter rains provide the perfect conditions for them to get established. Not only will that lead to more successful blooming in the spring or summer but it will often mean that they will bloom earlier than if planted in early spring.

Planting shrubs or other larger perennials in the fall also helps you with your garden layout. Once these ‘foundation’ plants are situated, it is easier, come spring, to plant smaller perennials or annuals in coordination with these shrubs. Fall is also an excellent time to add bark mulch to your planting beds, be that to established plots or to newly planted beds. This mulch will limit the growth of weeds, help to retain moisture and for frost tender shrubs, help to insulate the roots. We can roughly divide fall flower planting into 5 categories – shrubs for sun; shrubs for shade; grasses; ground covers and vines. I’ll give examples of each below.

Shrubs for Sun

There are a great many sun-loving shrubs that benefit from being planted in the fall. Buddlejas are one of my favorites. Known as butterfly bushes, they produce 10-14” long cones densely packed with tiny nectar-rich flowers. You can find four fabulous varieties at Annie’s. These include the compact ‘Ellen’s Blue’ and ‘Hot Raspberry’. These 3-4 high and wide shrubs attract an endless parade of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, with the former displaying purplish-violet flowers and the latter showcasing vivid magenta blooms.

Davidii ‘White Profusion’ is a full-size bush, 6-8′ H & W. The flowers are a pure white, making this plant a perfect addition to a Moon (white) Garden.

Three other shrubs benefit from being planted in the fall. California lilac (Ceanothus) can be a bit slow to establish so starting this California native evergreen in the fall has its benefits. You’ll find nearly a dozen varieties at Annie’s, with flower colors ranging from the palest lavender (‘Gloire de Versailles’) all the way to vivid purples (Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’ or ‘Dark Star’). At home in sun or light shade, these Ceanothus are great foundation shrubs.

If pretty foliage is your goal, Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense ‘Plum Delight’) is a great way to add rich burgundy tones to your garden. Reaching 4′ high and spreading to 7′ wide, this durable evergreen produces unique, pink finger-like flowers in the late spring.

If on the other hand it’s flowers, and in particular exceptionally pretty blue flowers, are your thing, Blue Glory Bower (Clerodendrum ugandense) may be just the ticket for adding something unique to your garden. Sporting the palest blue butterfly-shaped flowers, each with a central vivid blue petal, this African native is quick to establish and equally fast to bloom. Easily reaching 7′ tall, with arching branches, it is a standout in any garden.

You can plant it as decorative meadow grass or use it next to a pond, since it likes some moisture. Where this Carex’s color is subtle, Orange New Zealand Sedge displays vivid coppery-orange foliage in the colder winter months. That color is best seen when this 2′ high grass is planted in sun but even in some shade, it is a great way to add contrasting foliage color to the greens and creams around it.

Shrubs for Shade

Two colorful shrubs for shade lead this group. We have available two species of Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia) – the slender golden trumpets of B. sanguinea ‘Inca Princess’ and the fatter, more classic bells of the white blooming B. ‘Wedding Bells.’ The latter’s blooms are an amazing 7” in diameter, with glossy yellow ribs. ‘Inca Priness’ loads up with 7” long cheerful golden blooms and when in full bloom, puts on a dazzling show.

Meanwhile, two white-blooming Hydrangeas offer part sun delights. H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ produces huge heads (8-12” across!) of pure white flowers in spring. 4’x4′ mature plants are so prolific, you barely see the green foliage.

Dwarf Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’) gets to a similar size, with panicles of alabaster white flowers, offset by highly attractive, oak-shaped mint green leaves. Even when not in bloom, this hydrangea is a standout for a shady to part sun location.

Two outstanding shrubs for shade offer enticing scents. Heliotropium arborescens and H. arborescens ‘Alba’ each produce clusters of heady, vanilla-scented flowers, the former with purple and white flowers and the latter with all white flowers. Smaller shrubs, they each top out at 3’x3′.

Meanwhile, Mock Orange (Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’) offers clusters of pure white flowers that smell intoxicatingly of ripe oranges!


Fall is an excellent time to start ornamental grasses. Pink Muhly grass sounds like an odd common name but Muhlenbergia capillaris is one the showiest grasses you will ever grow.

Its calling card is its vivid pink seedheads, which completely smother the plant in late summer. Forming an upright 3’x3′ mound of narrow, brownish-green leaves before its flowering, this drought tolerant, durable grass is also a valuable source of seed for local songbirds.

Two other Muhlies are worth exploring – the southwest native M. dubia and M. reverchonii ‘Undaunted.’ The latter features reddish-mauve seedheads and is likewise cold hardy, very drought tolerant and long-lived.

And how about growing the state grass of California?! That would be Purple Needlegrass (Stipa pulchra). Widespread, it forms 18” high clumps whose seedheads start out purple then age to a silvery color. Nodding Needle grass (Stipa cernua) is another durable native that reaches 2′ tall and produces unique ‘bending’ seedheads.

For great foliage color, there’s no beating New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa arundinacea). Much sought after by west coast gardeners for its golden-ginger blades, it reaches 3-4′ in height. It looks fabulous when massed and equally showy when featured in a container. A real statement plant!


Vines occupy a particular place in a fall planting scheme as many actually bloom in the autumn. That shouldn’t preclude you from planting them now and one of my favorites is Passion Flower vine (Passiflora). Whether it is an edible type (P. edulis “Frederick’) or one of many ornamentals, this vine produces some of the most unique and colorful flowers in the floral kingdom.

Annie’s selections divide themselves roughly into two groups – those with pronounced filaments (P. actinia, P. ‘Blue Horizon’ and P. loefgrenii x caerulea) and those whose parentage includes P. manicata (‘Susan Brigham’ and ‘Oaklandii’) or P. parritae (‘Cocktail Orange’ andMission Dolores’).The latter passifloras showcase large orange, coral or red flowers, with few or no filaments. Whichever you choose, the flowers are bold, eye-catching and known to attract butterflies.

Several other vines offer their own treats, be that the fragrant flowers of Pink Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum ‘Pepita’), the vivid purple flowers of Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ or the blazing red fall foliage of Roger’s Red grape (Vitis californica x vinifera ‘Roger’s Red).

Ground Covers

While ground covers are often overlooked when it comes to fall planting, they too can benefit from a head start. African daisies (Osteospermum) are a great example, getting a head start on spring blooming when planted in the fall. We have 3 colorful varieties, ‘3D Double Purple’, ‘Compact White’ and ‘Zion Copper Amethyst.’ The 3D Double Purple is noteworthy for its flowers not closing at night, as is the case with most Osteos.

Our California native Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium) particularly benefits from a fall planting, leading to not only an earlier flowering but a more robust one as well. S. hybrid ‘Devon Skies’ not only flaunts the bluest flowers but some of the largest ones in the genus. S. bellum ‘North Coast’ has slightly smaller and more purple blooms while S. californicum offers cheerful yellow flowers.

Lastly, the curiously named Golden Pennywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) is a fabulous ground cover that can either spread out on level ground or cascade over a low wall. It benefits from a bit of shade and even though it loses a few leaves in winter, it fills out a gloriously gold come spring.

To Conclude

“The beauty of planting shrubs and other perennials in the fall is that you are rewarded with its benefits no matter what climate you live in, which particular plants you add or the plants being of a large size or small. So, time to get out that shovel and get going!”


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. Some of the plant varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA. This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular plant does not ship well. A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

Planting a Bird Garden

18 Aug

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

If you’re a birder and a gardener, you may have thought to yourself ‘Is there a way I can attract more birds to my garden?’ And the short answer is yes. Providing birds what they need – food, shelter and water – is easy, but some thought as to the way you plant your garden will increase both the frequency and variety of avian visitors. You will be attracting three kinds of birds – seed-eating songbirds such as juncos, warblers, wrens, sparrows and chickadees; birds that are primarily after fruit such as cedar waxwings, robins, mockingbirds, Western bluebirds and thrushes and lastly hummingbirds, which are fond of tubular flowers.

For Seed Eaters

Seed eaters harvest this nutritious food in three ways – directly from shrubs and trees, from a variety of grasses and from seed that has fallen on the ground. Two excellent shrubs to plant for seeds are a variety of California lilac (Ceanothus) and Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii).

Both bloom prolifically, then produce copious amounts of seed that are harvested by a wide variety of songbirds. Buddlejas typically produce their seed in the early fall, while the many varieties of Ceanothus ‘seed up’ in the late fall, providing songbirds with valuable late-in-the-year nutrition. Most Ceanothus can take sun or shade, providing a welcome versatility, while Buddlejas want sun.

Another sturdy shrub beloved by seed eaters are Echiums. Whether it’s the Pride of Madeira (Echium fastuosum) or the ‘Tower of Jewels’ (Echium wildpretti), these profuse bloomers are great sources of seed from late summer through late fall. E. fastuosum forms a 4’x4′ bush, with purple flowers, while E. wildpretti forms a 2’x4′ basal clump, then sends up 4-8′ high towers filled with tiny pink flowers.

Two lower growing plants are excellent choices for seed-eaters. Pincushion plant (Scabiosa) is a charming and long blooming perennial that produces lots of seed in the fall. Whether it’s one of the many S. atropurpurea varieties (‘Florist’s Blue’, ‘Florist’s Pink’, ‘Scarlet’ or ‘Snowmaiden’) or the S. caucasica ‘Fama Blue’ or ‘Perfecta Alba’, these powerhouse bloomers provide lots of much sought after seed. Though they go deciduous, they return in the spring.

Three species of our native Lupine are also recommended for seed-eaters. Yellow Coastal Bush Lupine (L. arboreus) offers 6-8” stands of brilliant yellow flowers on sturdy 4’x4′ bushes in summer, attracting bees and hummers. Very similar, only with lavender fading to pale lilac flowers, Blue Bush Lupine (L. propinquus) offers more subtle flowers on 3’x3′ shrubs. Finally, two forms of the native Arroyo Lupine (L. succulentus) offer color-rich blooms and nutritious seed. Whether it’s the vibrant purple flowers of the straight species or the evocative two tone pink flowers of ‘Rodeo Rose’, this lupine is a must have for the bird garden.

Two ornamental grasses are excellent additions to a bird garden. California Field Sedge (Carex praegracilis) is a handsome 3′ high, clump-forming grass that can handle sun or shade. In the fall, it forms handsome seedheads that certain songbirds will enthusiastically graze. Or add a bit of warm autumn colors with New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa arundinacea). It’s orangy-bronze blades make for a colorful stand, then come fall and winter it produces nutritious seed.


While it is well known that hummingbirds love Salvias and we at Annie’s have many wonderful choices, there are many other flowers that attract our colorful winged friends. Start with the aptly named Hummingbird Mint (Agastache). There are purple-flowering varieties such as ‘Black Adder’, ‘Blue Boa’ and ‘Heronswood Mist’, as well as pink blooming selections such as ‘Sangria’ and ‘Ambrosia.’

All are magnets for both hummers and bees and bloom over a long period in early summer and fall. Easy to grow and adaptable to different soils, they are one of the best ways to add low color to a bird garden.

Two small shrubs top the list for attracting hummers. Cupheas offer the nectar-rich tubular flowers that hummers seek out and Annie’s has four of the small tubular varieties affectionately known as Cigar plants. The aptly named ‘Hummingbird’s Lunch’ leads the way with its reddish-pink blooms, each tipped in burgundy. Forming a compact 2’x3′ shrub, come summer it’s bursting with countless flowers.

Likewise, ‘Blackberry Sparkler’ forms a dense compact shrub, soon filled with whitish flowers with dark purple throats. The inch and a half long ‘cigars’ seem to explode at all angles, putting on quite the show for us humans as well. The Cuphea hybrid ‘Starfire Pink’ makes a bigger bush (3’x3′) but with more petite all pink flowers. And when Cuphea ‘Strybing Sunset’ is back in stock, it features blazing orange tubular flowers, with tiny purple bat’s ears. All are hummingbird magnets.

Verbena lilacina ‘De la Mina’ is a California native that always seems to be in bloom. Quickly forming a 3’x3′ shrub, come spring it bursts into bloom, offering an endless supply of lavender-colored flowers. We love this shrub for its versatility, the fact that it’s a native and just how popular it is with bees, butterflies, hummers and, when seed forms, smaller songbirds.

You wouldn’t think at first that flowering maples (Abutilon) would be a hummingbird plant but in truth, they are one of the best. We see them harvesting nectar all the time from our nursery selections. These include the pure yellow ‘Canary Bird’, the lovely peachy-orange flowering ‘Victor Reiter’, the popular ‘Apricot’ and the heavily veined selection called ‘Redvein Indian Mallow.’ Abutilons are easy to grow – fast, reliable, long blooming and beautiful.

There are a number of vines that attract hummers and one of the best is Passiflora ‘Blue Horizon.’ There are many passion flower vines that will attract hummers but this one is especially vigorous and a real favorite for our hummer friends. A prolific bloomer, with lovely purplish-blue flowers, you can grow it on a fence, over an arbor or even on the side of a house if given support.

Treats for Berry Eaters
If you’re lucky, your garden will be visited by a variety of berry-eating songbirds. These include Cedar Waxwings, American robins, Hermit Thrushes, Western bluebirds, Northern Flickers and Mockingbirds. To encourage such visits, consider planting one or more berry-producing shrubs. Elderberry (Sambucus) is a favorite source for dark, late fall berries and our S. nigra ‘Thundercloud’ is an excellent choice for fruit. A fast growing shrub to 6-8′ tall, it also features nearly black foliage and lovely pink flowers. Another excellent choice is Roger’s Red grape (Vitis californica x vinifera ‘Roger’s Red’). Though the fall grapes it produces are less ideal as a table grape, our berry eating birds will gobble them up. It’s an easy vine to grow and offers blazing red foliage in the fall.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is one of the very best plants for attracting songbirds. A California native found throughout Northern California, come winter it produces heavy loads of tasty, bright red berries. Nearly every berry eater loves these fruits and trees produce a seemingly endless supply of them. Evergreen, very drought tolerant once established and easy to grow, this 8-10′ high shrub/tree is a valuable addition to any bird garden.

One dual purpose plant to consider adding to attract birds is one of the many varieties of our California native Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum). Whether it’s the popular pink-flowering ‘Claremont’, the slightly redder ‘King Edward VII’ or the soft pink-flowering R. sanguineum glutinosum, these plants’ flowers attract hummers while the berries attract a variety of the afoementioned berry eaters. Ribes like shade and some regular water, so they’re a good choice for a morning sun or bright shade location.
Now, you may ask, why can’t I simply put out a tray of berries for these birds? And the answer is, the birds only recognize them as part of their diet if they’re hanging from the bush or tree.
Though these selections are not yet in stock, please check back for their availability or add them to your Annie’s Wishlist and then we will email you as soon as they become available.

Final Tips
It is worth noting that planting shrubs for various songbirds also provides cover for these and other birds. This is important, as it will allow our avian friends to feel more protected. And I sometimes am asked “Is it bad to hang a hummingbird feeder for hummers (or a seed feeder stocked with seed) when I want my backyard birds to get their nutrition from my plants?” The short answer is no. Birds instinctively seek out nutrition from plants. Having one or more feeders as a supplement can only be a good thing, especially in winter, when fewer plants are in bloom.


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. Some of the plant varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA. This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular plant does not ship well. A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

Low Growing Succulents

14 Jul

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

The world of succulents is immense and varied but one of the most popular uses for these drought tolerant denizens is as a low ground cover. Whether they are used as a low growing plant to cover a sunny bed, as a sturdy and beautiful plant to spill over a low terraced bed or even to fill in empty spaces between paving stones, there are choices that cover the spectrum of color, texture and form. This blog focuses on three genera for such uses – Sedums, Delospermas and Lampranthus, with one Aeonium added for spice. They are all available right now, giving you a wealth of choices for that bed you have in mind.

Stonecrops (Sedums)

Sedums offer an astonishing variety of form and color for use as a low, spreading succulent. Corsican Stonecrop (S. dasyphyllum major) features tightly packed little nubbins that are typically a bluish-green.

Growing to no more than 2-6” high by up to 15” across, it erupts in a froth of delicate star-shaped white blooms summer through fall. Dark tones appear in winter. Low and dense, it’s perfect for a dry garden or for colonizing areas between pavers.

Gray stonecrop (S. pachyclados). From a distance this versatile sedum resembles masses of tiny green scalloped flowers frosted with blue powder. Likewise low (2-4” tall) and spreading to 12” wide, this attractive sedum looks great scrambling between rocks, cascading from a crack in a wall or filling out a low water mixed container planting. In summer, white star-shaped flowers emerge, their ephemeral form creating a stunning contrast to the bold architectural leaves. Deciduous in colder areas, it returns reinvigorated in the spring.

If dark tones are your thing, the velvety plum-purple foliage of ‘Plum Dazzled’ stonecrop (S. rupestre ‘Plum Dazzled’) is the cat’s meow. The glossy, lotus-like clusters give an eye-popping charm to any sunny bed. Dainty raspberry-pink, star-shaped flowers add to this stonecrop’s allure. Use this dark beauty anywhere you want to add contrast to more subtle surrounding colors. As with nearly all sedums, this stonecrop is stingy on water use. It stays low (2-6” high) but spreads up to 18”.

On the other hand, Tricolor stonecrop (Sedum spurium ‘Tricolor’) offers the loveliest subtle blend of greens and whites on spreading or cascading stems. But wait! In colder months, the small rosettes acquire a hot pink border, pumping up its dramatic appeal. Small, bright-pink flower clusters rise up above the foliage on short stalks for a showy summer display, perfect for attracting bees, butterflies & hummers! Give this and other stonecrops good drainage and a bit of occasional water for best results.

If quixotic charm appeals to you, then Jelly Beans stonecrop (S. rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’) is the perfect choice. They owe this common name to their charming plump and shiny leaves. An almost translucent lime green with rosy-red tips, they form tiny (4-8”) vertical clusters.

They are the perfect choice for covering a good-sized area, allowing the dazzling variation in color to create a pastiche of greens, pinks and reds. Tiny yellow summer flowers attract pollinators. It is easily propagated, readily growing roots from both stem cuttings and leaves.

Coppertone stonecrop (S. nussbaumerianum) offers bold coppery-orange foliage, its stubby fingers a bit larger than the other sedums mentioned here. It gets a bit taller (to 8”) and can spread out to two feet. It is best suited for spilling over a terraced bed or from a hanging basket. Its color is both striking and yet somehow soothing, perfect for adding contrast to nearby greens and grayish-blues. Clusters of lightly fragrant white flowers appear in spring. This hardy long lived perennial is also perfect for adding substance to any location and can be trained to spread out on flat ground or spill over an slightly elevated spot. It stays dense, making its vivid color all the more striking. Easily cut back to the desired size.

Ice Plants (Delospermas & Lampranthus)

There are a number of low growing succulents that have been given the common name ‘Ice plant’ but the two genera that are the most populous are Delosperma and Lampranthus.  Hot Pink ice plant (Delosperma ‘Hot Pink Wonder’) features wildly brilliant 1.25” flowers all summer. These rayed flowers display yellow centers surrounded by red petals tipped in magenta.

Easy, evergreen and very drought tolerant, this low grower (3-4” tall) makes the perfect ground cover or filler between paving stones. It gradually spreads to 2′ wide but is not invasive. Can be trimmed to use as edging too.

Love this plant but prefer red to pink? Delosperma ‘Red Mountain Flame’ produces a seemingly endless display of  2” daisy-like, intense scarlet red flowers, each with yellow centers and fringed in yellow. They perch atop a 2” high mat of gray-green, weed-suppressing foliage. Drought tolerant once established and virtually maintenance free, it can take heat, cold, salt spray, and attracts butterflies and bees!

The two Lampranthus selections we sell both offer brilliant color, from the incandescent orange of L. aureus ‘Orange Form’ to the blazing pink of L. species ‘Pink Kaboom.’ This ice plant is a bit taller (to 12”) but also spreads to as much as 2′. The spring into early summer flowers are even larger than those of Delosperma – a full 2.5 inches!

Drought tolerant and deer resistant, these selections are a great way to add eye-popping color to a sunny bed or for use in tumbling over a low rock wall. Its succulent foliage, comprised of slender, deep green ‘fingers’, is tolerant of neglect but you can make it a superstar in well-drained soil and an annual 1” side-dress of compost.

If anything, the ‘Pink Kaboom’ puts on a more dazzling floral show. Our specimen grew quickly into a dense and rounded, 2’x3’ mound, then in spring it exploded into an astounding mass of brightest pink daisies, completely blanketing it. For both selections, a bit of water until they are established is recommended.

One Houseleek

Houseleek may seem an odd name for a succulent but that’s the common name for the wide ranging genus Aeonium. Our Aeonium x ‘Jack Catlin’ (Aeonium tabuliforme x A. arboreum ‘Zwartkop’), offers leaves that are a stunning apple green, ringed with generous amounts of burgundy-red. Extremely vigorous with a higher tolerance for heat and frost than most Aeoniums, its collection of 6-8” wide rosettes eventually spread to form 2′ wide, ground-hugging drifts.

Exceptionally showy planted at the front of a bed, it contrasts beautifully with blue, silver or golden-leaved plants. Mature rosettes produce bee-attracting, conical yellow flower spikes held one foot above the foliage. 

Growing Your Spreading Succulents

Most of the above selections are super easy to care for. The main care comes in the beginning. Give them very well-drained soil and a little regular water. They don’t need much nutrition, though that won’t hurt them if they’re planted next to other plants that do require fertile soil. Once established, all of these selections are very drought tolerant and quite forgiving. They do want a good amount of afternoon sun and a bit of occasional trimming so they look their best but that is pretty much it.


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. In the case of veggies in particular, many of the more unusual varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA.  This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular veggie does not ship well.  A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

Grow Your Own Veggies!

16 Jun

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

There is no sweeter satisfaction than harvesting vegetables you’ve grown in your own garden. Not only do they often taste better than store bought veggies but you have the satisfaction of having nurtured your own edibles from tiny starts through ‘ready to pick’ maturity. Here at Annie’s, we keep adding new and interesting vegetables for you to try, everything from the latest and greatest basil, to one of the sweetest strawberries to rarities such as Itachi White cucumber, Squash ‘Ronde de Nice’ and Eggplant ‘Ping Tung.’ Many are available to purchase online or wherever our plants are sold, while some of the rarer plants are only found at our Richmond nursery. These are noted below by *** next to their title.

Veggies to Savor

Our group of perennial veggies is highlighted by two multi-use plants – ‘Richmond’s Pride Kale and ‘Glaskin’s Perpetual’ Rhubarb. Our Richmond kale, known as Purple Tree Collard, is a resilient, nutritious and delicious perennial veggie. This purple form was chosen for its sweet & tender leaves as well as its eye-catching color. A very long-lived kale, it grows to an amazing 6-10’ tall and 3’ wide. Its purple tones are enhanced by the cold and the sweetest leaves can be harvested during this time. Easily propagated by cuttings.

Our Glaskin’s rhubarb is tangy and just bursting with flavor. Growing 2-3’ tall, with big tropicalesque leaves, it is an early and heavy producer and is also reputed to be the sweetest variety. Plant it in a permanent bed or large container in full sun and let it grow for a season (clip off flowers if they appear).   You can pick some stems the second year but the big harvest is in year 3 and beyond (make sure to leave 4 stems per plant each year).

Want a great pepper for salsa? ‘Early Jalapeno’ has thick, juicy flesh and hot (but not too hot) flavor. It’s great for coastal CA gardens as it sets fruit under cooler conditions than other jalapenos. Vigorous 2’ tall plants produce an abundance of 2-3” long fruits. Pick them when green for a mild taste or let the color mature to red for muy caliente! Give this pepper lots of sun and heat and it will reward you all summer long.

Five veggies that are only available at the nursery in Richmond are tempting enough to have you come on out. That includes the always popular Lemon cucumber (***), as well as the rare but oh so delectable ‘Itachi’ white cucumber (***). The former variety produces lots & lots of always-fun-to-see yellow baseball-sized cukes.

Great for cool or short summer season areas, it doesn’t need a lot of heat to produce. And no need to peel the crisp, sweet, delicately-flavored fruit; just rinse them off, rub off the prickly bits on the skin & slice them up! ‘Itachi’ cuke may look odd, with its 10” long white fruit, but it is great tasting and highly productive. A sweet, crispy, bitter-free cucumber, Itachi holds up well to cooking and makes an excellent addition to any stir-fry. Trellising produces straighter fruit.

 ‘Ronde de Nice’ summer squash (***) is an attractive French heirloom squash, with its oval shape and speckled light green form. It’s the perfect squash for people who like a tender fruit but one that still has excellent taste. Pick at tennis ball size for steaming and sauteing. Larger squashes are excellent for stuffing.

And if you want to dazzle your dinner guests, show them the fruits from your ‘Ping Tung’ eggplant (***). A wonderful eggplant from Ping Tung, Taiwan, fruits are a vivid purple and up to 18” long but ONLY 2” in diameter! So sweet and tender and superbly delicious, it is one of the best Chinese eggplants on the market.

Lastly, how about a great conversation piece and useful veggie? Egyptian Walking onion (***) creates bulbils that eventually bow the stalk to the ground, whereupon the bulbils root, thus making it seem as if this onion has gone on a ‘walkabout.’ It possesses a strong and spicy flavor and the bulbils can be used just as you would any other onion. Bulbs are usually harvested in late summer, while the greens can be used year round.


Annie’s offers a diverse collection of unique fruiting berries and melons. Our favorite strawberry, Fresca ‘Elan’, is a vigorous Dutch hybrid with 2” fruits that are extra sweet due to a high sugar content. They also contain 30-50% more vitamin C than other everbearing strawberries.  Fruiting from Spring to Fall with many runners, you can even grow it in a hanging basket.

For something unusual, try the Ground Cherry (***). A delectable berry, the flavor is characteristically sweet/tart and very intense. Eat berries when they are golden and falling off the plant. The fruits can also be frozen for sorbet, cooked into jam or dried. If kept dry and cool and inside the calyx, the berries can be stored for months.

Two unusual melons are standouts. Melon ‘Ha’ogen’ (***) is an intoxicatingly fragrant green-fleshed muskmelon that ripens early in the season. This heirloom variety, also known as “Israel Melon”, was named for the kibbutz it was popularized at. It produces 2-4 lb. honey-flavored green-fleshed fruits on vigorous, productive vines. Well adapted to cooler climates. Meanwhile, Watermelon ‘Sweet Siberian’ (***) is a golden-flesh variety hailing from Russia and brought to Canada by immigrants. Juicy and delicious.

Lastly, we offer for you a local eating grape – Vitis ‘Emeryville Pink.’ Thanks to California Rare Fruit Growers and our own Anni Jensen, we present to you the best grape for coastal gardening. Sweetening right up here in our fog zone, this hardy variety bears an abundance of flavorful mid-size pink fruit with seeds so tiny, there’s no need to spit them out.


Basil is so popular, we have to grow lots of varieties at Annie’s. One of our favorites is Basil ‘Emerald Towers.’ This robust Genovese basil is noted for its striking columnar habit, its lush dark green foliage and naturally, its great taste. Plants are taller (2-3′) than wider (1′), perfect for a container or squeezing in beside your tomatoes. Bred for resistance to downy mildew and fusarium. Fast growing and tidy, you’ll be harvesting leaves for yummy caprese salads, flavoring soups and of course for the best pesto ever! Basil ‘Thai Siam Queen’ (***) is the perfect choice for authentic Thai cooking. This basil has the anise undertones necessary to evoke authentic flavor in a variety of Thai dishes. And fresh picking your own leaves is the best way to ensure that the essential oils are at their most potent!

Not into cooking but still love the look of basil? Check out our new ornamental Basil herbalea ‘Wild Magic’ (***). Its purple-black foliage adds wonderful color to the edge of a garden. And its dense 18”x24” habit always seems to be in bloom and buzzing with bees. And unlike many edible basils, it holds its good looks, compact form and multitude of blooms all summer and into the fall.

Shiso ‘Britton’ (***) offers vibrant, yet refreshing. aromatic leaves that reward the senses with a complex fusion of basil, mint and cinnamon, with notes of cumin and cloves. Fast growing, it reaches 30” tall in a hurry. There are many ways to add shiso to your recipe collection. A few ideas include: using it to make delicious Japanese-style Shiso pesto; employing it as a wrap for tuna sandwiches; adding chopped shiso to fresh fruit (esp. plums); adding leaves to green tea for a little extra zest; frying the leaves in a tempura batter or even using shiso oil to drizzle over gazpacho.

Growing Veggies

To paraphrase that famous real estate maxim (location, location, location), when growing veggies it’s all about the soil, soil, soil. Whether in the ground or in a pot, give your veggies loose and good draining soil. Clayish & compacted soil is usually hard on vegetables so avoid that environment.  Many veggies are also heavy feeders. They need more nutrients in order to grow and produce crops quickly, so you will likely need to fertilize several times throughout the season. Although most veggies will want sun, check each veggie’s recommended sun and watering conditions. Most veggies will want a bit of regular water to get their roots established. After that, one can usually water more deeply but less often. 


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annuals plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. In the case of veggies in particular, many of the more unusual varieties discussed are only available in our retail nursery in Richmond CA.  This is generally due to us only being able to grow small crops or the fact that the particular veggie does not ship well.  A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

Best Plants for Cut Flowers

19 May

Earl Nickel,
Curious Plantsman

Although we love our flower gardens and take pride in their fullness and beauty, sometimes you want to ‘steal’ some of that splendor to bring indoors. Nearly every flower could make a welcome addition to a bowl or vase but here I want to highlight those flowers whose stems have some height to them. These are blooms ideal for fashioning fantastic mixed flower vase arrangements. You don’t need to be Martha Stewart to make wondrous bouquets but some advance planning is in order. Step one is planting a selection of these taller flowers, be they annuals or perennials. Here then are nine flowers that we have out on our tables, ready to find a home in your corner of paradise.

Cosmos & Bachelor’s Buttons

I think of these two colorful annuals together because they feature tall stately flowering stems, they both offer a range of colors and they both bloom so prolifically that bringing in a few cut flowers will barely make a dint in their outside floral show. Common Cosmos (C. bipinnatus) produce 3′ tall stems of daisy-like flowers in a variety of pleasing colors. There’s the delicious variety simply called ‘Apricot’; the hot pink of ‘Dazzler’; the saturated cherry hue of ‘Versailles Red’; the semi-double pinks of ‘Fizzy Pink’ and the rich coral-pink ‘Xsenia’ as well as two white-flowering varieties, the single ‘Versailles White’ and the fully double ‘Fizzy White.’ Each variety features an endless parade of 3” wide flowers and complementary ferny foliage.

Centaurea cyanus (Bachelor’s Buttons) meanwhile offers 3 varieties – the dazzling Blue Diadem, the rich burgundy Black Gem and the royal red of Red Boy. One feel of the ‘live’ flowers, where their papery texture is apparent, and you just know that the cut flowers will last forever. They do. They too sit atop 30-36” tall stems.

Corncockle & German Catchfly

Two other tall, wave-in-the-breeze annuals make excellent cut flowers. Corncockle (Agrostemma) produces masses of open-faced, 3” pink or white flowers, each with spotted lines radiating out from the center. ‘Milas offers the richest pink, offset by a white center, while ‘Ocean Pearls’ showcases pure white flowers and those hypnotic dotted lines that seem to disappear into the center as if into a black hole. A classic English garden flower, it brings a touch of class to any floral arrangement.

German Catchfly (Viscaria) offers up delicate five-petaled, inch and a half flowers in a lavender blue (‘Blue Pearl’) or vibrant red (‘Tall Red’). Swaying in the breeze on delicate 2′ high stems, it too produces an endless parade of whimsical blooms over a two month period.

Snapdragons & Sneezeweed

Like many plants that have been hybridized, the much smaller-sized snapdragons found in garden shops are a pale imitation of the original tall and vigorous species. Annie’s has introduced two wonderful snapdragon series – Chantilly and Double Azalea. The former sports 3′ tall stems of varieties with descriptive names – ‘Bronze’, ‘Peach’, ‘Pink’ and ‘Purple.’ The Double Azalea group includes Bronze and Red selections. Larger flowers, sturdier stems plus a much longer bloom season all make these time-tested flowers the far superior choice.

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale ‘Red Shades’) may have a funny name but this cousin to Echinacea and Rudbeckia makes a sturdy clump of foliage in early spring. It then sends up a never ending collection of 3′ tall stems, each laden with many-petaled flowers in hues of red and/or gold. Like their cousins, they possess centers dense in pollen and thus attract endless bees and butterflies. As a cut flower, they add a blaze of color that lasts a surprisingly long time.

Delphiniums & Marigolds

What was true for Snapdragons is also true for the Delphinium elatum hybrids. They are much taller, more vigorous and longer blooming than their garden center cousins. We love ’em so much, we grow a bunch of them. There are the vivid blues of ‘Blue Lace’, ‘Sunny Skies’ and ‘Cobalt Dreams.’ If purple pleases you, we have you covered, with the mauve ‘Morning Lights’ and the saturated deep purple ‘Purple Passion.’ Add in the rose pink ‘Dusky Maidens’ and the white with dark eye ‘Black-Eyed Angels’ and you have a dazzling array of choices. All bloom profusely, with sturdy stems covered in 3” flowers.

Not to repeat myself but the tall Marigolds that we sell seem like they’ve arrived from the land of giants! Whether it’s the two M. ‘Day of the Dead’ varieties – choose between ‘Golden Yellow’ or ‘Orange’ – or the dazzling bi-colored Harlequin or the burnt orange

‘Villandry’, these are tall and vigorous plants that produce dozens upon dozens of large colorful flowers. The ‘Dead’ flowers bear fully double 4” flowers while the other two selections have slightly smaller but especially vivid flowers. They all dry very nicely.

Butterfly Bush

Finally, I step outside my stated criteria to recommend one of the very best cut flowers for your kitchen or living room. Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii) produces 8” long cones of sweetly fragrant flowers that only seem to get more intense when you bring them indoors. These blooms are comprised of hundreds of tiny fragrant flowers, magnets not only to butterflies but to bees and hummingbirds as well. Though they don’t possess long stems, the bulk of their cones easily stay aloft in a mixed flower bouquet. Whether it’s the vivid purple of ‘Ellen’s Blue’ or the pure white bliss of ‘White Profusion’, these blooms fill the whole room with their delicious scent.

Fashioning a Bouquet

Once you have harvested your favorite cut flowers, you might want to add a bit of texture or greenery to your vase. Ferns add a frothy and verdant green complement. For a companion with a silvery hue, use Eucalyptus or Olive branches. The herb Bay offers a sturdy, darker green backdrop. And don’t forget to add a tablespoon of sugar to your vase water. That will extend the life of your cut flowers.


Just so everyone knows, some of the Annie’s Annual plants mentioned here might not be available on the week that you’re reading this blog article. A quick look at that plant’s page will let you know if it’s available. If not, just click the Add to Wishlist button and we’ll notify you when that plant is ready to take home.

We’re Crazy for Clematis

12 Sep

Earl Nickel
Curious Plantsman

No shrinking violets, Clematis are some of the most beautiful, hardy and heart-stoppingly gorgeous perennial vines in the world. Boasting a wide range of flower colors and shapes, they come in 10 different forms – everything from the large, four-petaled montana hybrids and showy large-flowered peony-type double forms, to those with narrower saucer or star-shaped petals and delicate nodding tubular flowers. Throw in colors that range from pure white to shades of pink, red and purple – even yellow – and you get an idea of how there can be over 250 species or varieties found nearly worldwide.

Many of us enthusiastic gardeners tend to think of Clematis as Spring blooming plants and indeed, there are many varieties that do bloom in Spring. But some species and their hybrids bloom as early as March and as late as December in mild climates, giving us Bay Area gardeners plenty of choices for our trellises, arbors and fences. The wide-ranging bloom times are also a boon to our fine feathered and winged friends, as Clematis make an excellent nectar-source for hummingbirds and all manner of bees and other pollinators.

Now is an especially good time to get Spring blooming varieties in the ground, giving their roots a head start and resulting in a more robust plant come April. If you plant Fall blooming Clematis now, you’ll be giving them nearly a full year to establish, virtually guaranteeing an excellent bloom show next Autumn.

Fall Bloomers

With extravagant wine-red flowers, Clematis ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ blooms over a long period in Summer and Fall, with large (3”) single flowers. This heirloom selection boasts quite possibly the richest red flowers of any Clematis, putting on a spectacular show in Fall. Reaching 8’ tall and 5’ wide, the fast-growing, lacy foliage looks especially nice twining up a trellis or scrambling over a fence. This beauty performs wonderfully in warm Winter areas where many large-flowered varieties refuse to grow. A pruning Group 3 variety, it blooms on new growth, so prune to about 1’ tall in early Spring for a bigger and better display every year! 

Speaking of show stoppers, Clematis texensis ‘Duchess of Albany’ offers up the loveliest pink flowers from mid-Summer to early frost. Featuring equally large (3”) five-petaled flowers that are cotton candy pink with deeper rose-pink ribs, this hardy selection dazzles in the Fall. Adding to its charm, flowers have tapered petals, giving the impression of five hearts bound together. An heirloom from 1890, this selection reaches a modest 10-12′ in height, making it perfect for a trellis or arch. No worries this climber will take over an area! Another bonus is that this Clematis can take more sun than many varieties. 

For those “Prince-ly” lovers of purple, there’s nothing more beautiful than the velvety purple tones of Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’. This C. viticella hybrid is a later blooming variety with saucer-shaped, luminescent violet-purple petals. During Summer and early Fall these large (3-4”) blooms nearly smother the mid-green leaves, making for a spectacular show. It fills out to a nice compact 10′ x 10′ size, usually in one season and year by year it adds more flowers, especially if it’s pruned to 1-2′ in Winter. This variety is ideally suited to mild climates, where some other species may not thrive. It’s also disease resistant and one of the easiest Clematis to grow.

Blessed with a deliciously heady vanilla fragrance, the aptly named “Sweet Autumn Clematis” (C. paniculata) bursts into a cascade of starry creamy-white 1” blooms in late Summer, practically smothering the foliage thru Fall and prompting curious friends to ask “Wow, what is that?” The cornucopia of flowers are followed by silky seedheads, prolonging its appeal. Vigorous and tough as nails, it can reach 20′ by its second year. Kept in a pot, it may top out at 8-10′. This herbaceous Clematis is perfect for covering an unsightly fence, trained up the side of a house or even climbing up into a tree. You’ll want to prune it hard, back to 1′ in late Winter, so any Fall foliage obscuring taller plants will be removed. You can even prune it mid-season before the flowers arrive to keep it smaller.

Spring & Summer bloomers

Some Clematis like to get a head start on the year and that’s particularly true with eye-catching Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’. This selection carries the distinction of being one of the few evergreen species in this genus, with large leathery leaves that can reach a foot long and 4” wide. Leaves begin soft and bronze on color before maturing to a deep green. Climbing quickly via twining tendrils, this sweetly fragrant bloomer can shoot up almost overnight in Spring. Volumes of rose-colored buds soon open to pink-blushed 2” white flowers, attracting a vast contingent of bees and hummers. Given its rapid growth to 15′, its dramatic floral show and sweet vanilla fragrance, this is the perfect candidate for growing along a walkway, be it over an arch or up the side of the house. No problem pruning this vine to shape; it simply grows back right away!

Charm-incarnate is one way to describe the lovely and easy-going Clematis macropetala ‘Blue Bird’. Lime-green foliage in Spring soon gives way to an abundance of nodding periwinkle-blue flowers over a long period in late Spring and Summer. These open 3” bell-shaped flowers feature contrasting cream-colored stamens, making it a one-of-a-kind beauty. Its delicate semi-double flowers belie its toughness, as ‘Blue Bird’ isn’t fazed by extreme heat, cold, humidity or seaside conditions. Once the flowers are done, large silky seedheads (great in dried arrangements!) prolong the plant’s attractiveness. Though it can take a lot of sun, this species also tolerates shade. Throw in the fact it blooms on old wood (no pruning necessary) and stays a modest 12’ tall and you pretty much have the perfect vine.

Don’t let the funny name stop you – Clematis ‘Rooguchi’ is one of the longest blooming varieties, pumping out cute nodding purple bells from late Spring well into Fall. What the flowers lack in size (1.5”), this vigorous climber makes up for in volume. Each flared bell has a stiff, almost, waxy feel and the flowers are presented facing outward, adding to its charm. Though it possesses no tendrils, once you start it on a trellis or netting, it’s off and running. One plant can easily cover a 15′ x 15′ area in record time. Prune to the ground in late Winter and keep an eye out for new stems emerging in the early Spring.

Growing Clematis

All Clematis are cold hardy, with all of the above selections classified as USDA zones 4-10, with the exception of C. armandii, which is still a champ in USDA zones 6-10. In cooler climates you can plant these Clematis in nearly full sun or, if appropriate, part sun. In hotter areas, they’ll prosper best in morning sun and afternoon shade. The two exceptions are the sun-loving Clematis ‘Blue Bird’ and C. armandii ‘Apple Blossom’. Whether planted in the ground or in a large container, it’s advisable to cover the top of the soil with bark mulch to keep the roots cool. Choose a quality soil amendment to both add nutrition and to ensure good drainage. Root rot is an occasional issue with Clematis, so drainage is vital. Follow pruning guidelines as listed for the particular variety you’re growing and top dress with a nutritional compost in late Winter. 

True Blue – The eternal search for our favorite color

21 Mar

By Earl Nickel
Curious Plantsman

Why do we love the color blue? Certainly blue skies above mean sunshine and warming rays on our faces. Blue can also mean the ‘ocean blue’, evoking great mysteries and a sense of tranquility. Pablo Picasso called blue “the color of all colors”.

We gardeners have our own love affair with the color in a way that is both similar and different. The difference is that while blue skies abound, truly blue flowers do not. They are something special in the plant world and nowhere can that be seen in full force than in the pursuit of the “blue rose”. Plant breeders have tried for centuries to achieve this goal. The quest has proven elusive because roses lack the corresponding pigment genes but it’s indicative of the power of this color that horticulturists have pursued such a dream.

Cool and bubbly “Baby Blue Eyes” combines perfectly with Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’, Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Electra’, and Eschscholzia californica ‘Alba’, for a sweet Spring garden.

Today the power of blue is seen in the myriad ways that those naming new varieties of plants sneak the word “blue” into those names, with little visual evidence to support the claims.  Even with those flowers that are “consensus blue” there is an impressive range, from the pale blues of Cynoglossum amabile to the gentian blue of Phacelia viscida. So, in wanting to write about flowers that I consider “true blue” I decided to pick my “signature blue” and circle out from there like ripples in a stream. For me that plant is “Baby Blue Eyes” (Nemophila menziesii). Somehow this CA native annual has captured the very essence of blue, both physically and poetically. What follows is a Spring list of some of my favorite “true blue” flowers.

CA natives Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes” and “California Poppy” (Eschscholzia californica) ‘Red Chief’ contrast brilliantly!


“Baby Blue Eyes” isn’t the only great blue found in California meadows in Spring. Two Phacelias lead the way. The aforementioned P. viscida grows as a 30” tall multi-branching plant and in Spring sprouts dramatic 1″ royal blue flowers. This saturated color is offset wonderfully by a highly decorative nectary. P. campanularia dials back the intensity a bit but still produces rich blue tones. This low growing, scrambling “California Bluebell” adds lovely dark-blushed scalloped foliage to the mix, making it ideal for cascading over a low wall or out of a hanging basket. Both attract bees, butterflies and the occasional hummer.

Radiantly royal blue CA native Phacelia viscida.
Vivid Phacelia campanularia “Desert Canterbury Bells” brings brilliant blue to the low-water garden alongside fragrant Freesia alba and flanked by Agaves.

Want to add a vertical element to a sunny garden plot? Consider the robin’s egg blue tones of “Chinese Forget-Me-Nots” (Cynoglossum amabile) or the gentian blue hues of “Bachelor Buttons” (Centaurea ‘Blue Diadem’). Both are 30-36” tall, multi-branching and produce an endless stream of flowers in late Spring and Summer. If you’ve only grown the small common “Forget-Me-Nots”, this Cynoglossum will be an eye-opener. It yields 100s of little star-shaped flowers, goes to seed. Then the self-seeded plants grow and flower in the same season. Give a bit of space to this charmer as it likes to spread out.

Self-sowing annuals Cynoglossum amabile ‘Blue Showers’ and Cosmos ‘Lemonade’ form a sweet, pastel-hued combo that should return reliably year after year!
Brilliant blue annual Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Diadem’ blooms endlessly (with deadheading) from Spring well into Fall providing hundreds of blooms perfect for long-lasting bouquets.

Also called “Blue Cornflower” (owing to them self-sowing in corn fields), this blue Centaurea will self-sow, though not till next season. Papery heads filled with cobalt-blue florets rise on single stalks and wave in the Summer breeze. Deadheading will prolong the show, also making for excellent cut flowers. Drought tolerant for an annual, it combines well with other low water plants. Bees adore both these flowers and hummingbirds love the Cornflowers.

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Much bee-loved Borago officinalis is the perfect addition to an edible or pollinator garden. Self-sows reliably!

Speaking of bees, planting the herb “Borage” (Borago officinalis) is a great way to attract an endless parade of these hard-working pollen collectors. They offer the prettiest nodding blue flowers, very similar to those of “Baby Blue Eyes”. Self-sows prolifically, so you normally just need to plant once. Edible leaves can be used like salad greens and the flowers make pretty edible garnishes.

Two gentian blue annuals that get an ‘A’ for effort are Anagallis monellii and Anchusa capensis ‘Blue Angel’. The former, curiously known as “Blue Pimpernell”, forms a low mat of green foliage smothered in 1” royal blue flowers, each with a pink eye and yellow anthers. This native of the Mediterranean is ideal for flower baskets, cascading over a low wall or for lining a walkway. Contrast with the yellow flowers of Coreopsis, orange Ursinia or such CA natives as “Tidytips” and “Meadow Foam”.

Royal blue Anagallis monellii is its own perfect color combo with purpley-pink centers and brilliant yellow anthers.
The brilliant blooms of Anagallis monellii, Ursinia anthemoides ‘Solar Fire’, and Geum magellanicum bring bold jewel tones to this low-water garden.

Anchusa ‘Blue Angel’ offers masses of half inch cobalt blue flowers in late Spring, on plants that top out at 15” high and wide. Looking like a deeper-hued “Forget-Me-Not”, this annual blooms for 6 weeks then, if you pinch back, may bloom again later in the Summer. With or without the second bloom it is likely to self-sow. Like the Anagallis, it likes sun, rich soil and regular water to bloom its best.

Low-growing annual Anchusa capensis ‘Blue Angel’ is perfect for bringing a bajillion blue blooms to the front of a bed. Reliably self sows!


There are no shortage of true blue perennials to be found this time of year. Count among those the lovely CA native Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs.’ Although it has pinkish tubes, the flowers themselves are a lovely mid-blue. This smaller-sized “Beardstongue” (to 15”) is a prolific bloomer for a sun/part sun location and the 1” tubular flowers are a favorite destination for hummingbirds.

Georgeous jewel-toned Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’ combines beautifully with rosey-hued California poppies ‘Apricot Chiffon’ and ‘Rose Chiffon’

Do you fancy little flags that wave in the breeze? “Blue Flax” (Linum lewisii) looks delicate, its 1″ sky-blue flowers appearing at the tips of wiry 3’ tall stems, but this California native is a tough and resilient plant. A Spring bloomer that likes sun and just a little moisture, it’s the perfect plant to add height without the volume of substantial foliage. With its distinctive radiating lines against an azure blue background, it’s the perfect addition to any dry garden bed.

Airy CA native Linum lewisii adds a froth of sky blue.

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Also on the smaller size is a dwarf form of “Blue Marguerite Daisy”, Felicia aethiopica ‘Tight & Tidy’. Topping out at 16” tall and wide rather than the normal 3′, this is one tough ever-blooming evergreen. This charmer is aptly named. Featuring mid-blue petals and contrasting yellow centers, there is no doubt this belongs to the daisy family. Like other daisies, it is drought tolerant and long blooming. Perfect for a low border.

Year-round bloom and a fantastic compact habit make Felicia aethiopica ‘Tight & Tidy’ a perfect dense groundcover in hot and dry gardens. Planted here with Layia gaillardiodes “Woodland Tidytips” and Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’.

Delphiniums are a great way to add verticality to the garden and there are a host of blues to choose from. D. elatum ‘Sunny Skies’ offers scintillating sky-blue flowers on massive 6’ high stalks! They take the command “reach for the sky pardner” seriously! A repeat bloomer if cut back, this Dowdswell variety is long-lived and built for the long haul. Bees and butterflies love the nectar these long blooming beauties provide.

Sky blue blooms on MASSIVE spikes to 6′ tall are enough to melt your heart! We planted Delphinium elatum ‘Sunny Skies’ with Orlaya grandiflora and Papaver sp. “Greek Poppy”. Deer resistant, hardy USDA zone 3!

Four shrubs pack a punch in the true blue department. “Pride of Madeira” (Echium fastuosum) normally has purplish flowers but a sport called ‘Eddie’s Blue’ has vivid cerulean-blue flowers covering the familiar upward-facing flower cones. These 20” long cones smother mature plants, inviting a literal colony of bees over to collect nectar.

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The 20″ clearest sky blue spikes of Echium ‘Eddie’s Blue’ are like nectar-filled beacons for all the neighborhood hummingbirds, butterflies and bees! Tough as nails, deer resistant, and drought tolerant once established.

Another popular Echium, E. gentianoides ‘Tajinaste’, offers what can only be described as electric blue flowers. As with all Echiums, the individual flowers are small but plants make up for that in volume. Hailing from the Canary Islands (off the coast of Spain), this modest-sized (to 4’ tall and wide) evergreen shrub throws in vivid red stems and pink stamens to offset that intoxicating shade of blue. Both Echiums are drought and heat tolerant, tough as nails, need virtually no care and in the case of “Eddie’s Blue” will likely self-sow.

Rare and endangered on its home island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, Echium ‘Tajinaste’ is relatively carefree in the home garden with good drainage. Dry garden drama planted with Lampranthus ‘Pink Kaboom’ and Beschorneria yuccoides ‘Flamingo Glow’!

I mentioned an Anchusa above but there is a perennial species, A. azurea “Alkanet”, that forms a 4’ multi-branching shrub. Same forget-me-not flowers, only here a deeper and more vivid blue, dark stems and with more of an upright habit. Tough as nails, cutting it back in late Summer may spur a second bloom. Provides a good contrast when planted among roses and fits well into an herb garden.

We joke that you can drive a truck over Anchusa capensis and not kill it – it’s that tough! Pair it with sweet yellow Aquilegia chrysantha ‘Yellow Queen’ and Verbascum nigrum “Dark Mullein” for a pollinator smorgasbord!

Lastly, many people are familiar with “California Lilac” (Ceanothus). The flowers on most species are purple but there are a couple of true blue selections. One is the incredibly lovely C. ‘Joyce Coulter’. Cones of lilac-blue flowers smother the 2’ tall shrubs in late Summer and last well into Fall. Spreading out to as much as 8’ wide, although it can be pruned to shape, the fragrant flowers soon attract pollinators of every kind – bees, butterflies and hummingbirds for the nectar and later small birds for the seeds. Very drought tolerant and disease-resistant and ignored by deer. Given its width, it’s a popular choice as a low hedge or to anchor a dry slope, but individual plants are showy enough to be used as a focal point in the garden.

A superb choice for dry hillsides and anywhere you need a tough, evergreen groundcover, Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’ is heat and drought tolerant, surviving upwards of 20 years so long as you don’t water!

There you have it. True blue. And isn’t it curious that if you look up the phrase in the dictionary, it yields definitions such as loyal and trustworthy. Proving you just can’t go wrong in adding these plants to your garden.

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Easy Pleasing Clarkias!

28 Feb
By Annie Hayes

One Fall a large pine tree fell over into my backyard, discouraging me from going out to weed and turn over my soil as I usually do at that time of year. The tree was finally removed in the Spring, and when I went out into my garden again I was tickled to see Clarkia seedlings carpeting almost half the garden. I find it pretty surprising how rarely I see our native Clarkias growing in the Bay Area, even in native gardens. With their showy blooms over such a long season, easy-going temperament, and willingness to forego Summer water, you’d think they’d be far more popular. And being deer resistant, tolerant of heat and seaside conditions—what more could you ask? Cut flowers? Clarkias are some of the prettiest and longest lasting cut flowers you can grow.

Annie amid a blaze of late-season Clarkia amoena at Blake Gardens in Kensington, CA.

Maybe folks are put off by the sad, dwarfed version of our lovely “Farewell-to-Spring” (Clarkia amoena) you sometimes find at garden centers and box stores. Sold as “Godetia” or Godetia grandiflora, bred to bloom at an unnatural height of 6″ tall—the better to fit between delivery truck shelves—and almost always sprayed with growth regulators, this makes a poor representative for the genus. Left alone, “Farewell-to-Spring” naturally grows to at least 30″ tall. How sad to see the crowded cluster of blooms bunched awkwardly on top of stiff 6″ stems, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Since the stems cannot grow upwards, these poor plants will soon deteriorate. But then again, maybe most gardeners don’t even realize that these Godetias are California natives; with their bizarre stunted form, they surely don’t look like wildflowers.

Ruby Chalice Clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda blasdalei) and Catananche caerulea in our low-maintenance (okay, ignored) parking lot garden – they bloomed for months with almost no care.

Natural Clarkias are highly rewarding in almost any garden. True to their common name of “Farewell-to-Spring”, Clarkias deliver a mass of blooms just as most other Spring-flowering native annuals are fading away. Because of this, they are valuable for filling in that flowering lull after the peak of Spring bloom, and, in decent soil with some Summer water, they’ll continue blooming until Fall. Super easy to grow and a nice solution for adding excitement to new gardens with lots of bare earth, Clarkias are one of those plants that make you feel ever so successful with very little effort. Plus, they attract bees and butterflies. Birds love the seeds, which freely self-sow for new showy patches next year.

About that volunteer overabundance? Not to worry, they are a cinch to remove if needed, sliding right out of the soil with the slightest tug. But crowded patches of seedlings are not a bad thing in the case of Clarkias—they don’t seem to mind being crowded, and if you leave one of these spots of dense seedlings alone, they’ll provide a wild patch of brilliant color without any thinning.

Pink Ribbons (Clarkia concinna) blooming its head off in a mixed dry bed at the nursery with Felicia aethiopica ‘Tight and Tidy’ and Sisyrinchium bellum ‘North Coast’.

Got clay? Most Clarkias thrive and reseed themselves in sandy, clayish, and infertile soils, happiest when there is some drainage. I’ve watched a patch of elegant Clarkia (C. unguiculata) self-sow and return for years on someone’s partly shady, untilled and untended clay hillside by their house in Kensington in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here at the nursery we don’t have a garden devoted to only native plants. Though Clarkias are beautiful planted in groups or even singly, free to stretch out and reach their natural form and glory, I mix our most popular species into my cottage-y gardens with great success. They make perfect long-blooming fillers that keep pumping out blooms as other nearby plants go in and out of flower. (Cut-and-bloom tip: Clarkias bloom from the bottom upward along the stem; when cutting stems for cut flowers, always cut below the lowest bloom to encourage the plant to send up a new shoot and bloom again.)

Ruby Chalice Clarkia mingling effortlessly with fellow CA natives Gilia capitata (blue) and Hemizonia congesta (yellow).

Our demonstration gardens have rich, loamy soil and are watered frequently when it’s not raining. Clarkias are so adaptable they don’t mind the luxurious soil and regular watering a bit, and they are probably more floriferous over a longer season for it. Almost all Clarkias prefer a sunny position with at least six hours of full sun along the coast and coexist happily in mixed plantings, native or otherwise. In my experience, they are most glorious when not overshadowed by taller plants. They are quite wonderful and easy in containers too, as long as the pot is large enough. I love seeing them in meadow-y situations popping their blooms up above shorter grasses as they will continue to bloom even after the grass turns golden.

Clarkia rubicunda ‘Shamini’ (a hybrid selection) blooms longer and later than the species – well into September.

We begin sowing our Clarkias in December and sow seeds every two weeks until April, but you can toss seeds out onto the ground in the Fall along the coast. Successive sowings from Winter through Spring would give you the longest season of good-looking plants and plentiful bloom. In colder zones and at high elevations, you should wait until April or May for sowing the seeds.

There are 40 species and many subspecies and varieties of Clarkia, all but one native to the western United States; nearly every species is found somewhere in California. Though we’ve offered many in the past, we usually offer about eight varieties each year. Here are some of our most popular ones:

Clarkia speciosa ssp. immaculata “Pismo Clarkia”

Absolutely stunning trailing over the edge of a raised bed. Rare, endangered, and endemic to California, “Pismo Clarkia” is native to the sandy hills east of Pismo Beach south to Santa Maria. I often plant this eye-catching Clarkia right near the entrance to the nursery to start visitors off with a thrill. Most folks have never seen it before and practically everyone asks, “What is that?” I usually plant it out in full sun from 4″ pots from February to April, grouped three together on twelve-inch centers, side dressing with an inch or less of compost after planting. By mid-May, I have a compact, bushy mound about 14″ tall and 3′ across, almost covered in beautiful 2″, sky-facing, silky magenta blooms held on short stems, each cup-shaped flower bearing a snowy white center. Full bloom lasts from mid-May through Summer and you can extend the bloom until September by deadheading. Since it’s native to sandy soils and our beds are so rich, I always plant these on the edge of a bed to ensure extra drainage and add lava rock before planting, as well. It’s also happy as a clam in a largish container, 15- to 20-gallon size, as the blooms spill beautifully over the edge and appreciate the drainage a container offers. Lovely with white California poppies and Lupinus arboreus.

Clarkia amoena aka Godetia grandiflora “Farewell-to-Spring”

Like the others, C. amoena makes a terrific cut flower; this is the species you often see in florists’ bouquets. 1.25″, cup-shaped, sometimes wavy blooms are held singly or in clusters of up to 6″ across, depending on the variety. They are the latest to bloom in our gardens, beginning in late May to June here by the San Francisco Bay, and are usually considered the showiest of all Clarkias with their vivid colors and prolific bloom. There are lots of selections in the nursery trade with flower colors ranging from pink, red, magenta, and salmon to white, many offering vivid contrasting patterns, edging, or blotches. Generally growing from 30″ to 3′ tall and wide, some of the varieties bred especially for cut flowers can look a little awkward in the garden, particularly in rich soil, with their large clusters atop long, upright, stiff stems (great for cutting). They look best when massed or mixed with other plants of the same height. Container plants are nice for providing cut flowers, though I would probably tip-pinch the main stem while young to encourage side growth and keep them from bending over under the weight of their flower clusters. A cinch to grow in sandy to clayish or good compost-enhanced garden soil, “Farewell-to-Spring” is tolerant of part-day shade, but along the foggy coast I recommend you plant it in full sun, as it can get floppy. Shorter varieties growing to about 18″ tall can be obtained from seed catalogs, but I have yet to try them with my aversion to dwarfed anything!

‘Aurora’, our most popular variety of C. amoena, bears large, gorgeous clusters of wavy peach blossoms edged in white, fantastic in flower arrangements. Up to 3′ tall and multi-branched, it can be one of those “stiff leggers” in the garden. The large terminal clusters may cause the branches to bend over, especially when grown in less than 6 hours of sun. Tip-pinch when young for better form.

Clarkia rubicunda ssp. blasdalei “Ruby Chalice Clarkia”

For sheer exuberance of bloom and usefulness in the garden, I think this is currently my favorite Clarkia. Primarily native to the Bay Area counties, with smaller populations in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Humboldt counties, “Ruby Chalice” is another easy, beautiful, long-blooming showstopper for almost any garden. In our gardens, again with rich soil and Summer water, much-branched slender stems and linear leaves create an attractive bushy form 30″ to 3′ tall and 30″ across. From May thru Fall it’s quite a sight, brimming with countless 2″ lavender, cup-shaped, upright blooms ornamented with a central bright cherry-red blotch. I plant three or four seedlings about 15″ apart for a dazzling Mother’s Day display 4-5′ in diameter. Self-sown seedlings popping up the next season with little or no thinning produce the same effect. Adaptable to a wide range of soils and conditions including coastal salt spray, this is another Clarkia that can tolerate a bit of shade, especially further away from the coast.

Clarkia unguiculata “Elegant Clarkia”

An excellent, garden-worthy Clarkia endemic to California. It’s easy, fast-growing, and tolerant of infertile and clayish soils. If you have hardpan clay, add a bit of organic material for drainage and better performance. Although it’s available in colors from white to pink, salmon, and violet, we’ve been unable to source any colors other than salmon in the past few years. Spidery, pinwheel-shaped single blooms about two inches across are well displayed on upright branching wine-red stems from 30″ to 4′ tall. Beginning at the base, the flowers work their way up the stems, creating a mass of what looks like brightly colored orchids or butterflies that sway in the breeze. You can grow it in front or mid-bed, massed or singly—all ways are highly effective. It’s also a great choice for new gardeners as it fills in bare patches quickly, providing foliage, texture, and lots of color. “Elegant Clarkia” is possibly the most tolerant of partial shade, and some gardeners tip-pinch them while young to promote a shorter, bushier plant where there is less light. Like all Clarkias, it requires no summer water, but an occasional drink along with dead-heading certainly lengthens the bloom season. Easily grown in containers, 20-gallon size for best show, you can keep it coming at its peak with successive sowings.

In native gardens the salmon-flowered selection ‘Salmon Princess’ makes a winning partner for Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’ or Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’. In our mixed gardens, I love it combined with equally long-blooming Dahlia ‘Softie’, Petunia integrifolia, and Verbena bonariensis. Like all Clarkias, it’s incredibly long lasting as a cut flower, up to three weeks. It’s easy to find mixed color seeds, and, when sown all together, the plants make a lovely and cheery sight. Double forms are sometimes available from seed.

Clarkia concinna ‘Pink Ribbons’

‘Pink Ribbons’ is a named cultivar of “Red Ribbons”, the common name for C. concinna. Billowing over the edge of a bed or container, the flowers of ‘Pink Ribbons’ look like a mass of silky, brightest rose butterflies gathering over the bushy, slightly sprawling 12″ x 18″ mound of slender foliage and shiny red stems. Up close the 1.25″ flowers resemble flaring pinwheels or fans, with each of the four widely spaced petals trilobed in shape. Endemic almost entirely to Northern California, this delightful Clarkia is one of the earliest bloomers beginning in April and lasting thru July. I like to plant it near the front of a bed where you can enjoy the butterflies close up.

Contrasting beautifully against dark foliage like with Heuchera ‘Melting Fire’, the blooms add a bright and cheery highlight to ‘Apricot Chiffon’ “California Poppies” and “Baby Blue Eyes” (Nemophila menziesii). Tolerant of less than perfect soil, it will be showiest in loamy garden soil. I’ve used it in both part shade and full sun here in foggy Richmond, and it worked well in both situations with longer and more profuse bloom in full sun.

We have grown and offered quite a few more species that have been less popular with visitors, some with flowers too small to be loved and taken home, others, like the charming and deliciously fragrant Clarkia breweri, a bit too difficult for newer gardeners. I’m endlessly fascinated though and would love to access seed and grow so many more. The California Native Plant Society’s Calscape website has a good list of Clarkias with photos and distribution maps of each species listed. It’s a handy tool for guiding you to many species currently found only in the wild. With all the rain we’ve had here in the Bay Area, this year the show should be outstanding!