The Top 5 plants for New Orleans summers: Dan Gill picks his favorites
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The Top 5 plants for New Orleans summers: Dan Gill picks his favorites

Summertime and the livin’ is sweaty. For the next four months, the heat and humidity will be uncomfortable to say the least. It’s enough to make you wonder how the plants in our landscapes survive.

Fortunately, plenty of colorful plants flourish in whatever summer throws at them. You have to admire plants that will happily tolerate days in the 90s and nights in the mid to upper 70s from June to September and still look great. Here are some reliable choices for summer color.

A side view offers a look at the size and depth of hibiscus flowers.  Rusty Costanza, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive

HIBISCUS

PROFILE: There is no denying that south Louisiana gardeners are big fans of the tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis). No other summer-flowering shrub surpasses this plant for glossy, dark-green foliage and nonstop flowers in amazing patterns and combinations of red, pink, yellow, orange, white, lavender or even brown and gray. And the blooming season here is very long — running from late spring through early winter.

THREATS: Tropical hibiscus shrubs are prone to cold damage in winter. But they are sufficiently hardy for them to survive most winters.

 H. moscheutos hibiscus variety. GETTY IMAGES

VARIATIONS: Cold is not an issue for hardy hibiscuses, or rose mallows (hybrids involving H. moscheutos and other species), and they are becoming increasingly popular. They go dormant in the fall and survive winter no matter how cold it gets.

Their enormous 10- to 12-inch flowers come in shades of red, rose, pink and white. The foliage may be green, burgundy or purple. Plants may be compact, growing to about 2 feet (like the Luna series, a Louisiana Super Plants selection) with taller varieties reaching 5 feet. They thrive in a sunny location and may be planted by ponds, in rain gardens or other poorly drained, damp/wet areas as well as garden beds.

Aphrodite althea is a Louisiana Super Plant and a member of the hibiscus family.   LSU AgCenter file photo by Allen Owings

AN OLD FAVORITE: And don’t overlook althea or rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). This hardy large, deciduous, upright shrub produces abundant flowers in May, June and July. Sometimes considered old-fashioned (we’ve been growing them in our gardens for generations), they are enjoying more popularity these days with numerous beautiful varieties available in shades of white, white with a red eye, pink and lavender, many with double flowers (Aphrodite is a single pink variety that is a Louisiana Super Plants selection).

Warm-season bedding plants like these periwinkles are available in local garden centers now. file photo

PERIWINKLE

PROFILE: There are numerous bedding plants that thrive in summer and brighten our flower beds. But it’s hard to beat the color punch from periwinkles (Catharanthus roseus). They cover themselves with a profusion of colorful flowers from late spring until the first freeze. Periwinkles (or vinca) love hot, sunny, well-drained beds and are quite drought tolerant.

THREATS: Most problems with periwinkles arise when they are watered too often and kept too wet. This encourages root rot and aerial blight. Don’t pamper them.

Periwinkle PROVIDED PHOTO

VARIATIONS: The color range is impressive, and plants may grow upright and bushy or have a low spreading habit, depending on the variety.

MORE: In addition to periwinkles, nurseries have a wide variety of heat-tolerant bedding plants available now. These plants can be used in flower beds, mixed borders, containers and hanging baskets to provide the color you crave wherever you want it. Really, we can have all the color we want despite our sizzling summers if the proper bedding plants are used.

Vitex blooms next to a picket fence. By JILL PICKETT | Staff photographer

VITEX

PROFILE: Lavender-blue is a welcome color in the summer landscape. Since many of the summer-flowering trees and shrubs tend to have flowers in shades of red, pink or white, the cool-colored lavender-blue spikes of vitex (Vitex agnus-castus) provide a pleasing contrast.

THREATS: Despite their graceful, almost delicate appearance, vitexes are tough as nails and remarkably drought tolerant.

LAGNIAPPE FOR POLLINATORS: This deciduous large shrub or small tree produces showy 5- to 7-inch spikes of small lavender-blue flowers from late May through June.

Oleander (Nerium oleander) are large shrubs that begin blooming in May and continue through the summer.  Provided Photo by LSU AgCenter

A second flush of flowers appears in July or early August. Blooming vitex trees are excellent nectar sources and are a wonderful addition to landscapes planted to feed and support pollinators.

MORE: Don’t overlook other woody plants that provide abundant summer flowers. Crape myrtles, oleanders and roses are also outstanding colorful plants with long blooming seasons during the summer months.

 Caladiums come in many color combinations. ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

CALADIUMS

PROFILE: Some ornamentals are grown for their colorful foliage rather than flowers. One of the most popular and reliable is the caladium. Caladiums love the intense heat of summer. The foliage is patterned in shades of white, green, red and pink.

PLANT: You can buy caladium bulbs or plants available at many local nurseries now and plant them directly into the garden. Caladium foliage is present from April through October.

MIXING IT UP: Caladiums combine beautifully with impatiens, achimenes, begonia, torenia, ferns, hosta, and gingers.

Prized for its colorful foliage, coleus is easily rooted from cuttings. FILE PHOTO

COLEUS

PROFILE: Coleus is another outstanding heat-tolerant plant grown for its colorful foliage.

GROWS ANYWHERE: Most coleus varieties available at nurseries today will grow equally well in sunny or shady areas.

VARIATIONS ON THE THEME: Depending on the variety, coleuses come in a mind-boggling variety of leaf colors and shapes, from low-growing, trailing plants with small leaves to upright types 4 feet tall or more with large, broad leaves. The colors may include shades of green, chartreuse, purple, burgundy, black, red, rose, pink, gold, yellow, orange and white. The leaf edges may be slightly toothed, lobed or frilly. The variations of colorful patterns in the leaves are seemingly endless.