Posted on May 15, 2019 | by Kerry Kelley
Above Photo Courtesy of Proven Winners, Inc., www.provenwinners.com
Cyperus papyrus: Some plants just naturally get noticed, and King Tut™ is one that tends to stop folks in their tracks. Tall stalks up to 6 feet look as though they're topped with fluffy, feathery green fireworks. Spectacular alone or in a combo, they are perfect architectural accents for modern designs. Prince Tut™ and Baby Tut™ are relatives of shorter stature--you won't have to crane your neck at these! Cyperus is actually a water plant in its native Africa, but it grows equally well in a container with typical annuals such as petunias. It can winter in a bright spot indoors in a pot with 1-2 inches of standing water.
Phormium: One of the first professional planters I ever did won a contest, and had a striking orangey phormium smack in the middle. It was so easy to play off all the colors in those spiky leaves that I still remember how easily that design came together. Phormium, or New Zealand flax, is just one of many fabulous foliage plants that hail from that region. As you might imagine, they are drought tolerant and most do well in full sun and heat, although some of the pink varieties may tend to sunburn a bit. Evergreen and hardy to about 15-20 degrees, they may overwinter in your containers with a little protection, depending on your climate. Spikey, upright, sword-like leaves may be solid or striped in shades of orange, pink, yellow, cream, purple, bronze, or green. Most grow to between 3 and 6 feet, but there are a few that will be 2 feet or less that would suit smaller containers. They are generally deer resistant, and the flowers, while not that attractive to you and me, do attract hummingbirds. Don't plant too deep or mulch closely, and make sure your soil is well-drained. The only drawback is that they're likely to be a lot more expensive than that spike. If you're in cold winter zone, place them in a sunny window indoors and keep them barely moist, and you'll have them for next year. And it will be worth it, I promise!
Lemon Grass: Why not add a thriller to your culinary creations as well? If you're into Thai, Vietnamese or Indonesian cuisine, or want a relaxing cup of tea, lemon grass is just the thing. Lemony with floral notes and a hint of ginger, add to your stir-fries, soups, marinades, or curries. The thickened stalk--the bottom 4 or 5 inches of the plant--is the most flavorful part, but the remainder can be used to impart a little extra flavor. Cut off only the stalks you need, and new stalks will appear. Growing vigorously to 3-6 feet, it should be kept moist when the weather turns hot. And guess what else? Like other citrus-scented plants, it repels mosquitoes! Deer don't like it either, so what more could you want? Perennial in zones 8 and warmer, this one's a real winner.
Schizachyrium: I'm not suggesting you pronounce it, just plant it! This native grass, also called little bluestem, is a heavenly blend of steely blue with green, pink, and purple tones that intensify in fall. The airy texture makes a great contrast with large-leaved plants like sweet potato vine and geraniums, and the gentle hues shine paired with silvers, pinks, blues, and purples. Most varieties will mature at 3-4 feet, but a container will restrict their size somewhat. Heat and drought tolerance and deer resistance add to their appeal.
Mahonia "Soft Caress": For those of you familiar with typical mahonia and its spiny, holly-like leaves, this will come as a big surprise. Looking more like a small palm, the only aesthetic feature "Soft Caress" shares with its shade-loving cousin is the lovely fragrant yellow flower spikes. This one tops out at about 3 feet, and is an elegant centerpiece in a shade container. Surround it with any flowering shade annual you like--impatiens, begonia, torenia, or make an impact with the colorful foliage of heuchera, hosta, and trailing coleus. If you're in zone 7 northward, this mahonia should be treated as temporary in a pot, but should overwinter inside just fine.
Ruellia "Purple Showers": This tropical plant is common in Florida*, but gardeners in colder climes may find this a new summer treat that can also be grown as a houseplant in a sunny window. Non-branching, bronzy-green stems with dark green, narrow foliage reach 3-4 feet. The common name, Mexican petunia, refers to the bluish-purple trumpet shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Each flower lasts only one day, but bloom in such profusion that you'll never notice. They require a regularly moist soil, so don't let them dry out. If they get leggy, just cut them back to encourage new stems. Self-cleaning with great heat tolerance, "Purple Showers" makes a bold statement partnered with chartreuse coleus, yellow hibiscus, red verbena, and sweet potato vines. *Note that this is considered invasive in Florida, as it may spread by rhizomes in moist areas and crowd out native plants. It does not seed, however.