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A Profusion of Possibilities
A little sorting can satisfy our annual and perennial urges
Aquilegia vulgaris 'Lime Sorbet'
Bidens 'Madame Ganna Walska'
Mirabilis jalapa 'Custard and Cream'
Amaranthus cruentus 'Velvet Curtain'
Echinacea 'Orange Meadowbrite'
NEW ANNUALS and perennials are exploding onto the scene this spring, which is both trying and exciting. Trying because there's no way to squeeze them all in, no matter how seductive the description, and exciting because these plants are fairly inexpensive and take so little commitment and room (at first, anyway) that we can indulge a bit. Here's a sort-through in the hopes I can calm your plant frenzy down to the point that cravings, budget and available garden space all come together in a relationship that works.

Coneflowers are tough, long-blooming, drought-tolerant perennials from the American plains, and this year there's a host of new ones to choose from. I can just picture the first-ever orange coneflower, Echinacea 'Orange Meadowbrite,' mingling with ornamental grasses for a blast of mid-to-late-summer glory. Attractive to butterflies, it grows quickly to 2 or 3 feet high, and the rich orange of its petals is a standout with the flower's characteristic dark cone. If you want a sweep of varied coneflowers, there's the new E. 'Paranoia,' a dwarf yellow that grows less than a foot tall, and E. purpurea 'Fragrant Angel,' with overlapping white petals that draw butterflies like magnets.

Introductions from Oregon's Log House Plants (a wholesaler, you'll find their plants in many area nurseries) always have the most evocative names. For summer foliage, no plant could be more plushly dramatic in name and looks than Amaranthus cruentus 'Velvet Curtain,' with matching flowers and foliage in rich burgundy. A striking backdrop to pastel flowers, this annual needs full sun to grow to its full 4-foot height, topped with strong, upright flower spikes. And if the amaranth gets a little leggy, a showy skirt would be the new Coleus 'Swallowtail,' a foliage annual with bright-yellow ruffled leaves trimmed with red and green. The coleus would also be a lovely foil for the darkest-ever Phormium tenax, 'Platt's Black,' which has spiky, twisted blades in deepest bronze. Another fine companion for dark foliages is the new Hosta 'Brother Stephan,' from Plant Delights Nursery. Its heavily ribbed golden leaves are trimmed with a ribbon of blue-green.

Sweet-pea lovers will welcome the new 'Chiffon Elegance,' which is as sophisticatedly ruffly as its name. This sweet pea is tall and blooms several weeks earlier than most, in washy shades of white, pink, magenta and lavender. Diascia are workhorses that flower all summer if fed and watered, and often winter over in warmer gardens. D. 'Flying Colors Trailing Red' is shorter than its name, growing only 6 inches high with plentiful deep-red flowers that come on early and tolerate heat well.

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Lime Sorbet' is a columbine with pale-green, ruffled double flowers set off against lacy, dark-green leaves. Then there's Bidens 'Madame Ganna Walska,' newly rediscovered in the opera singer's Santa Barbara garden. It's a flamboyant perennial with narrow, dark-green, straplike leaves and violet flowers. It has the look of a cosmos, grows to 4 feet tall, and has long-lasting flowers beloved by butterflies and bees. To attract hummingbirds, try the fast-growing new annual vine Ipomoea luteola 'Sunspots,' the earliest-blooming morning-glory vine. It needs full sun, grows 8 feet in a single season, has heart-shaped leaves and sports little red cups of orange-centered flowers.

I'm always searching out new plants for flower arranging, and this spring brings a couple of candidates. The pale-lavender elongated flowers of Scabiosa rotata 'Geometry' are a curiosity, for their slightly scaly, reptilian look is more likely topping an ornamental grass. An annual that grows 30 inches tall in the sun, the intricate little flowers last a long time in the vase, drying to pale buff. The unusually colored Scabiosa atropurpurea 'Fata Morgana' has a daisy-like flower ideal for cutting in a sweet butter-tinted-with-salmon hue. A powerhouse of a flower producer, this annual blooms all summer and grows 4 to 5 feet tall in well-drained soil, or even gravel.

And for fragrance? Tuck in a few Mirabilis jalapa 'Custard and Cream,' the new annual four o'clock with sweet-smelling, yellow and ivory flowers, or the coconut-scented Nemesia cheiranthus 'Shooting Stars,' to be sure your garden smells as delicious as it looks planted up in all the newest of the new.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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