By: Sandy Feather ©2013
Penn State Extension
Q. I plant flowers at cemetery sites, and it seems some annuals do well and some do not. Can you recommend some tough annuals? Most of my sites are in sunny areas and I am concerned about animals eating the plants, in addition to long periods of hot sun and lack of water.
A. Few annuals – or plants of any kind, really – truly thrive if the only attention they ever receive is planting. At the very least, weekly watering during very hot, dry weather keeps them from dying and may keep them flowering. In addition to choosing annuals that are heat and drought tolerant, incorporating organic matter into the soil prior to planting increases the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients.
You can use homemade compost, municipal leaf compost, or mushroom compost – whatever organic matter source you have easy access to. Be sure water them in well after planting, and then mulch with a two-inch layer of shredded leaves to help maintain soil moisture and moderate soil temperatures.
While the following plants are generally resistant to damage from wildlife, there are no guarantees – deer, rabbits and groundhogs are unpredictable at best. A number of the plants listed below are tender perennials rather than true annuals – we grow them as annuals because they will not overwinter in our climate. They are propagated from cuttings, rather than grown from seed. Consequently, they are typically sold in four-inch or larger pots, making them more expensive than cell packs of annuals you may be used to purchasing. However, their performance in hot, dry weather makes them well worth the extra expense.
This is not an exhaustive list of drought tolerant annuals, but it represents those that seem most likely to succeed and be most appropriate for your cemetery plantings:
Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia) – Native to Mexico and Central America, angelonia is a tough, durable performer with an upright growth habit. Depending on the cultivar, it grows 18-36 inches tall with a similar spread. The foliage is a lush, glossy green and the orchid-like flowers bloom until frost. Available in purple, white, pink and a purple-and-white bicolor.
Bidens (Bidens ferulifolia) – Native to Arizona and Mexico, Bidens blooms from planting until frost with star-shaped gold flowers. The fine-textured, delicate foliage remains fresh and attractive in heat and drought, when other plants look worse for wear. It has a mounding growth habit, 10-15 inches tall with a greater spread.
Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum) – Native to eastern Australia, strawflowers are popular garden flowers grown for use in dried arrangements. Strawflowers have an upright to mounding growth habit, depending on the cultivar. The can grow 18-24 inches tall with a similar spread, although some varieties get larger. Available in shades of red, yellow, orange, white, purple, pink and bronze.
Ornamental Pepper (Capsicum annuum) – Grown for their colorful fruits and foliage, ornamental peppers are very heat and drought tolerant. Plants range in size from eight to thirty-six inches. The fact that the fruits are often very hot can discourage wildlife from browsing the plants.
Annual Vinca (Catharanthus roseus) – Native to Madagascar, annual vinca has handsome glossy green foliage that looks as fresh and lush in heat and drought as it does in better growing conditions. It grows 6-15 inches tall with a comparable spread and has a neat mounding habit. Annual vinca blooms until frost, and is available in white, pink, red, purple, and salmon.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella) – Native to much of the United States, blanket flower blooms in cheerful shades of red, yellow, orange, and copper. It has a mounding growth habit, reaching 14-24 inches tall and 12-14 inches wide. Long blooming and heat and drought tolerant.
Lantana (Lantana camara) – Lantana grows as a shrub in its native Caribbean, and has become an invasive weed in the southern United States. Fortunately for us, it is very frost sensitive and does not produce viable seed. Depending on the cultivar, lantana has an upright or mounding growth habit, reaching 6-36 inches tall. The foliage has a spicy fragrance, which often deters wildlife browsing. Flower colors include white, yellow, orange, red and pink, and most varieties are bicolored, ranging from the softest pastels to the shockingly vibrant.
Gold Medallion Flower (Melampodium paludosum) – Melampodium is native from the southwestern United States to Mexico and Central America. It has a neat, mounding habit, growing 24-36 inches tall with a similar spread. Melampodium blooms until frost with gold or yellow flowers, depending on the cultivar, and is very heat and drought tolerant.
Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) – Pennisetum setaceum is native to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. ‘Rubrum’ has burgundy-red leaves and an upright, arching growth habit. The soft spikes of the purplish-pink flower heads add another foot the 36-inch tall foliage. ‘Rubrum’ is very heat and drought tolerant, and ornamental grasses are very rarely damaged by wildlife.
Mealy-cup Sage (Salvia farinacea) – Native to the southwestern United States, mealycup sage grows 12-40 inches tall with a slightly smaller spread, depending on the cultivar. Flower color ranges from white to soft blue to bright blue, and the foliage is gray-green. Most varieties of Salvia exhibit resistance to wildlife browsing because the foliage is scented and sometimes hairy.
Verbena (Verbena spp.) – there are many species and garden hybrids of verbena, with growth habits that range from ground hugging to very upright. As a result, height ranges from several inches to four feet. Flower colors include red, blue, pink, white, purple, peach and many bicolor combinations.
Zinnia (Zinnia spp.) – Zinnia angustifolia, also known as creeping zinnia, is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. It grows 9-15 inches tall with a similar spread. Creeping zinnia is very heat and drought tolerant, as well as disease resistant. It comes in white, yellow and orange. Zinnia elegans is the familiar, showy garden zinnia. There are many cultivars that range in size from 8-48 inches tall, and come a wide range of colors – lime green, white, yellow, red, pink, orange, lavender and rose. Garden zinnias are susceptible to powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases that can detract from the their appearance. A cross between Zinnia elegans and Z. angustifolia resulted in the Profusion Series zinnias. These hybrids are very disease resistant and have a wider range of colors and larger flowers than the creeping zinnia parent. Colors include white, orange, cherry, apricot and fire.