Awesome Annuals in the Smithsonian Gardens


Everyone loves the Smithsonian museums on D.C.’s National Mall, but gardener-tourists also love their gardens.  Here’s a sampling from mid-October, when I particularly admired (and will copy!) their use of annuals.

Along Constitution Avenue, in front of the Museum of Natural History.

By email, the Smithsonian’s supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavelier told me that “These plantings also include Amaranthus and Cuphea, as well as many other annuals and tropicals. The cycad is Zamia furfuraceae.”

And here’s a close-up of the cynad seen upper right in that first photo.  Very bizarre tropical plant, the eating of which has been shown to cause something like ALS – in both humans and cattle.


Museum of Natural History.

Next, the Butterfly Habitat Garden, which has evolved since its creation in 1995 into a spectacular spot in a uniquely unpromising site – along a freeway underpass.  I remember during my first tour of the garden hearing the gardener lament that butterflies may never actually land here – a result that fortunately didn’t come to pass.

Lantana mixes well with perennials in the Butterfly Garden.
A longer view of the Butterfly Garden, with Canna.


James Gagliardi with the Harry Balls plant.

James Gagliardi is the horticulturist in charge of this garden, and here he shows off a plant he gets asked about routinely by passing tourists and government workers walking through this high-traffic spot.  He uses the more family-friendly name Milkweed Balloon Plant, or Gomphocarpus physocarpus.

In the Ripley Garden.

In the Ripley Garden, Pentas, Calibrachoasls and Canna mix with perennials.

Above, more Pentas and high-drama elephant ears.

Above, a variegated Tapioca Plant on the left, and the even taller red plant is an annual hibiscus.

Find out more about the Ripley Garden here,  including horticulturist Janet Draper’s favorite plants.

Mandeville vines adorn the facade of the Sculpture Garden cafe.

Lastly, I stopped at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden Cafe for lunch.

 Grounded Designer Loves Annuals, Too

Thomas Rainer, everyone’s favorite blogging landscape architect, recently confessed his love for annuals, calling it his Turn to the Darker Side.   I’ll be following through on his suggestions for my new own garden (new gardens especially need help from annuals), buying lots of salvias, coleus, sweet potato vine,  and maybe a hardy hibiscus like the 6-foot one above.  I already have a hardy banana (Musa basjoo), that a friend gave me that’s now ready for winter under a mound of mulch.

Your Favorite Annuals, Please?

I seriously want to know.


  1. Salvias, salvias, salvias. Elephant ears of all types. Sweet potato vine — I really like the “bronze” colored ones, but variety is good. If you have the room though, castor bean is my absolute favorite. A very close second is papyrus.

    Annual vines are essential: hyacinth bean, cypress vine, cardinal climber, butterfly pea, corkscrew flower, spanish flag, scarlet runner bean, malabar spinach. So many great ones!

  2. Although known as an edible, I grow Cardoon as an annual ornamental in my garden. Its vase-like habit and large hairy blue leaves rival those of acanthus in my opinion. I grow it easily from seed and it rapidly grows into a stately accent plant.

    And I second the motion on Castor Bean. Another knockout accent plant.

  3. I have to admit that I am enamored with sunflowers, every color, shape or size (except the poor little Teddy Bear form that to me misses the point of Helianthus). I like them so much that I do hit and run plantings of them around Berkeley’s mixed-use/industrial neighborhood in any sad little wasteland that needs cheering up…. In my own garden, tiny as it is, any bare spots that need something get either Cymbopogon citratus (Lemon Grass) or Papaver somniferum (Bread Seed Poppies). This year I did stick a few tiny starts of Alternathera “Burgundy Threads” in a couple of spots and I am amazed how well it did, I have taken plenty of cuts for next year but I am hoping it makes through the winter.

  4. Annual favorites in my gardens and containers include:

    1. Ornamental Sweet Potato Vines (unmentioned, but pictured above)
    2. Ornamental Millets (Pennisetum – Jade Princess, Vertigo and Purple Majesty)
    3. Castor Bean Plant  (introduced to me by Wicked Plants)
    4. Four O’clocks – Mirabilis jalapa
    5. Red and Blue Salvias
    6. Japanese Ornamental Corn
    7. New this year – Salpiglossis
    8. Will try next year – Strike series of New Guinea Impatiens

    University of Georgia Annual Trials.  Penn State Extension Annual Trials. 2009. 2010.

     Kathy Engle’s Garden.

  5. My absolute favorite annual is sweet peas; I won’t be without them, at least a dozen different varieties each year. Also high on my hit parade are salvias, angelonias, cobalt-blue lobelia and one particular petunia. I can never remember the name of it, but it’s a double, and it shades from carnation pink to a butter yellow – sunset colors. Beautiful – and that from someone who never really liked petunias!

  6. 1. Nigella hispanica. It’s a darker blue than Nigella damascena and has a cool black stigma that looks like some sort of sea creature.

    2. Salpiglossis. They do well in the Pacific Northwest and their colors are wonderfully sumptuous.

    3. Phacelias. Beautiful western wildflowers in an assortment of blues and purples. Bees love them.

    4. California poppies–both the regular orange and cream-colored forms.

    • I grew Phacelia tanacetiflia (seed from Uprising seeds in Bellingham,WA) and found they did not make good plants to grow in small pots for sale–they grow leggy with curved stems in a greenhouse. I think gardeners could just throw the seed out, maybe even in fall, and they would be great. I love the flowers and yes, so do the bees.

  7. Zinnias. Lots and lots of ’em. A container full of cut zinnias brightens up a room like nothing else.

    Also, as mentioned above, sunflowers are a must. This year I had better luck with the volunteers under the bird feeders than the ones planted on purpose.

  8. I love them all, but in my garden it just isn’t summer without sunflowers and zinnias. I like them big and bold preferably in neon colors.

    I can always find room for coleus and ‘Fishnet stockings’ in your third photo is one of the best.

    I believe all cycads are deadly to dogs and they like to chew the leaves so they’re a no no if you have canine pets.

  9. Nostalgia – four O’Clocks were the first seeds I picked out and bought with my own money. Snap dragons because they pop up everywhere in a good way. Every year I come up with a grand annual plan and every year I blow it because something different catches my eye at the nursery.

  10. Aside from vegetables, usually the only annuals I grow are the ones that reseed: native wildflowers (California poppies and globe gilia are the most reliable), borage, violas (edible!). This year I grew some sunflowers and the squirrels, who usually plant sunflowers in my garden, went ahead and ate the ones I planted, too.

  11. My favorites depend on whether they are for a cutting garden or for a container or flower bed.

    For cutting, I like bright colors. Cosmos, dahlias (okay, not really an annual), sunflowers, zinnias, and nasturtiums are tops.

    For pots and borders–the list is endless!

  12. Diamond Frost Euphorbia! Sparkly white flowers from May through September. Goes with EVERYTHING.
    Dorotheanthus Mezoo Red is a funny little trailing thing that kind of looks like a succulent and grows in full sun or total shade. Great in containers.

  13. It’s fun to read about everybodies’ favorites. My own? Sunflowers, marigolds (either over-the-top giants or multi-colored heirlooms), and pansies. I have also vowed to myself that I will be planting zinnias. I’m so glad that they are regaining their popularity. All those crayola colors are so joyful.

  14. My favorite annuals? The list shifts every year, but currently: Lantana, Pentas, Zinnia, Orange Cosmos, Sweet Allysum.

    Not on my list, but very impressed by the Tapioca Plant!

  15. I grow many annuals, but I guess my favorites are also the ones I grow every year.
    – Zinnias, but only the Profusion or Zahara series
    – Coleus, I can’t get enough of them
    – Marguerite Sweet Potato Vine
    – Angelonia
    – Portulaca, I prefer the singles
    – Lantana
    All of these give me color from May until the first frost.

  16. How about Nasturtiums – ‘Empress of India’ (still growing strong); Thunbergia vine ‘Blushing Susie’; and Coleus ‘Sedona’ and “Religious Radish’!

  17. Have visited the Smithsonian gardens many times. Always discover something new in them.
    I agree with Molly that Euphorbia Diamond Frost is one of my favorites, but the coleus called Gillian Blade looks fabulous in a mass.


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