A selection of interesting and beautiful plants to grow in Arkansas

Story and Photos by Garry V. McDonald

The horticulture office crew recently elevated me to the status of “Plant Geek Extraordinaire”: not just your everyday plant geek, mind you. A common symptom of plant geekiness is seeking out new and interesting plants to learn and grow. I’ve known gardeners to plant the exact same planting scheme for years and be perfectly happy. There is a lot to be said for the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of gardening, but the true plant geek is always searching for the equivalent of plant nirvana. The fun is in the seeking, not the attainment. Below are plants that actually will grow in Arkansas. Some are woody plants, some perennial, and some best considered as summer annuals, but all interesting and beautiful to behold.

Let’s start off with woody plants. Eastern redbud (Cercis canandensis) is certainly not a new plant and is commonly planted in the landscape, but recent efforts by nurserymen have resulted in jazzy cultivars such as ‘Hearts of Gold’, which has foliage that emerges red but turns a bright gold upon maturity that is retained through most of the growing season. I wasn’t sure about this cultivar when I first saw it under lock and key at a plant development nursery, since most plants with golden leaves look chlorotic, but after observing it in the landscape for a couple of years, it does add interest and lightens up dark spots. The flowers are more lavender purple than the usual hot pink, but rings in a nice change.

Recent breeding efforts have expanded the range of flower and leaf colors available in our native redbuds.

One plant that never fails to attract attention from those unfamiliar with it is the Asian cousin of our spring-flowering native fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). Chinese fringe tree (C. retusus) was unknown in the nursery trade for a long time because propagation methods were uncertain, but now all is good. Being dioecious, both male and female plants are equally attractive. The males tend to flower more heavily, but the females have small attractive blue drupes in the fall. The bark is light tan and exfoliating at maturity. The habit is broadly umbrella shaped with glossy leaves. Its good yellow fall color most years is an added bonus.

Chinese fringe tree blooms later than our native fringe tree, but is just as spectacular.

Despite, or probably because of, many years working in rose research, roses hold little attraction for me the older I get. However, there is one rose that I heartily recommend and one of only two in my garden. Having the dreadful cultivar name of Rosa ‘KORvioros’ it is sold in the trade as Savannah. Classified as a hybrid tea, it resembles a shrub rose. I came across her when I walked into a rose nursery and announced I wanted the most fragrant rose they grew and did not care about rosarian classifications. A beautiful shell pink with tones of apricot with quartered petals and an intense old rose aroma characterize this rose. Savannah (so far) seems to be tolerant if not downright resistant to black spot.

Savannah rose has an intense fragrance and has proven to have some resistance to black spot.

For those gardeners looking for that mythical perfect plant that flowers throughout the summer with whopping great blue flowers, is robust and classy looking, the new remontant (re-blooming) hydrangeas come close. While there are several new cultivars on the market, the original and still one of the best is H. macrophylla ‘Bailmer’, sold as Endless Summer. For the hydrangeaphiles among us, it is a hortensia type with large blue or pink mophead flowers: blue on acid soils, pink on alkaline soils. It is cold hardy to USDA Zone 4, which is a plus when many H. macrophylla cultivars will lose flower buds in northwest Arkansas during a severe winter.

Everblooming hydrangeas will rebloom throughout the summer if old flower heads are removed.


Two other plants of interest are winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and fothergilla (F. major), both native to the Southeast. Winterberry, aptly named, is a showstopper on campus in the wintertime when the foliage falls and the berries ripen. Fothergilla is a small to medium refined shrub with blue green foliage and bottlebrush-shaped flowers in spring followed by good fall color. It is a good foundation or massing plant.

Winterberry is a native holly with dense bunches of red berries throughout the winter. A male pollinator will be needed to ensure heavy fruit set.
Fothergilla is a native with a refined growth habit and showy flowers in the early spring.

Moving on to herbaceous perennials, the yearly flood of garden catalogs provide a whole smorgasbord of tempting new plants to add to the garden. Too many: I get “wrapped around the axle,” as we say back home, trying to decide and end up not ordering any. I admit I’m still sorting out what works and doesn’t work for me. Some perennials turn out to be prima donnas just looking for a reason to sulk and not perform while others become the plant equivalent of neighborhood gangs. The following few perennials have so far made the cut in my garden. 

For the most intense orange red (described as scarlet, but to me more orangey red) flowers that vaguely resemble Gladiolus try ‘Lucifer’ montbretia (Crocosmia x Curtonus ‘Lucifer’). This is one of those perennials I read about in English gardening books and drooled over. Having finally procured corms of this plant, it’s earned a place in the garden. My only knock on the plant is that I want it to flower longer than the two weeks I get. That and the foliage is susceptible to grasshopper gnawing in late summer, but that’s hardly the plant’s fault.

‘Lucifer’ montbretia has stunning, intense flowers in June and is a favorite of the hummingbirds in my garden.

Giant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia maxima) is a native wildflower and an excellent candidate for a damp spot. This rudbeckia is unrefined in character, but, just as friends with that trait, are usually the most interesting.

A native to wet soils, this black-eyed Susan has large bold flowers and foliage.

A surprise in the horticulture garden is discovering that our hardy ginger has been winter hardy in Fayetteville. Hedychium coccineum ‘Tara’ is listed hardy to USDA Zone 7b, but has been a champ here in Zone 6b/7a. We do dig it up each fall, but it should be reliable in the southern two-thirds of the state. The orange red flowers lend a tropical look to the landscape.

Lantana is another plant that is classified as a half-hardy perennial. While it may survive in the southern parts of the state with winter protection, it is treated as a summer annual in the northern part of the state, although it is easy to back them up and overwinter with minimum heat. The non-fruiting dwarf yellow cultivars are workhorses in my garden. 

Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) is a subtropical native with blazing red and yellow flowers, but I’ve had luck in USDA Zone 8 with it re-sprouting from the ground. In colder areas, container-grown plants allowed to go dormant and kept from freezing can be successfully overwintered in an unheated garage or storage room. Set outside right after the last frost in the spring. Pride of Barbados is tough plant for a blazing hot location.

Easily grown from seed, pride of Barbados can be kept in a container to bloom during the hot summer but easily overwintered in an unheated room or garage.

Summer annuals that I can’t live without are those that don’t even get going until the dog days of fall. Four of my favorites include Angelonia angustifolia, firebush (Hamelia patens), Mexican flame vine (Pseudogynoxys chenopodioides), and coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) … sorry for the impossible scientific names on these last two.

Angelonia thrives in the heat. Occasional deadheading will ensure flowering all summer.
Firebush is a summer annual that really gets going when the weather gets hot.
A fast-growing vine used as an annual in Arkansas, Mexican flame vine has intensely colored, daisy-like flowers all summer long.
‘Big Red Judy’ coleus tolerates full sun and has bright bold foliage that makes a real statement.

All are easily rooted from cuttings taken in the early fall, so I take a few from the garden to use as stock plants for the following season. All are low-maintenance plants that thrive in heat and sun, especially the newer coleus developed for full sun. A particular favorite coleus is ‘Big Red Judy’. Mexican flame vine can cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time, but since it is an annual, will not take over the landscape.

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