Annuals have to act fast to flower and reproduce in one season which is why they offer such a blazing summer show from mere seeds
Calendula ‘Indian Prince’
‘Love-in-the-mist’, or Nigella damascena
The deep purple flower bracts of Salvia viridis ‘Blue Clary’
Annuals grown by Fionnuala including scarlet snapdragons, larkspur, cosmos, mallow and clary sage
I’ve always thought that one of the most enduringly fascinating things about plants is their great variety of life-cycles. Take the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), a plant which flowers only a few times during its decades-long life with the result that when one of its giant, putrid-smelling blossoms appeared last month on a specimen growing in the glasshouses of the US Botanic Garden, it made world headlines.
What made the event all the more noteworthy is the fact that the flower of this native of the Sumatran rain forests is so short-lived. Within just a couple of days, that single, giant, metres-tall inflorescence (whose Latin name roughly translates as “giant shapeless penis” and gives a good clue as to its appearance) had unfurled and then . . . collapsed. Which makes the titan arum not only a botanical oddity but also lacking in those qualities – floriferousness, a reliably regular and long flowering period – that most gardeners value in a plant.
Annuals, by comparison, are stalwarts, providing months of colourful blooms of such generous abundance that most can be regularly picked as cut flowers without leaving unsightly gaps in the garden.
The reason for their floriferousness is their short-lives: true annuals are the ephemerals of the summer garden, completing their life cycle within a year. The multitude of blooms produced within that brief period of time is the plant’s way of compensating; more flowers equals more seeds, more seeds equals a far greater chance of successful reproduction.
This summer I’m growing a wide variety of these plants both outdoors and in the polytunnel, both as cut-flower crops as well as for the pleasure that it gives me to see their vivid blooms light up the garden.
Another great boon is the sight of the many insects and butterflies that flock to feed from their nectar-rich flowers.
Among my favourites is the ever-reliable Cosmos bipinnatus, a fast-growing, graceful, sun-loving half-hardy annual with tall, finely divided, feathery foliage and large daisy-like flowers held on wiry stems.
Sown under cover in late March and transplanted out in early June into a sunny, fertile spot, the first blooms appeared in July and the plants have been flowering their hearts out ever since. Kept dead-headed and well-fed, they should continue to do so until the first frosts, giving me four months of non-stop blossoms.
A particular favourite is C ‘Tetra Versailles’ whose luminously beautiful rose-pink petals are flushed with carmine and arranged around a central golden ‘button’, but there are plenty of other lovely varieties worth growing including the white-flowering C ‘Purity’ and the bi-coloured C ‘Rose Picotee’.
Just next to the cosmos I’ve planted a block of Ammi visnaga, the lesser-known (and I think, prettier) cousin of the popular Ammi majus. Beloved of flower arrangers who prize this plant for its sculptural, umbelliferous white flowers, it resembles a very posh cow-parsley. Sown under cover back in March and transplanted out in early June, its large, domed pale flowers are only now just unfolding, making it a very useful addition to the August garden. Flowers aside, its finely-cut foliage and decorative seedheads are equally attractive.