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Star Annuals for the Central Great Plains

What are star annuals? Many years ago, Kansas State University developed their Prairie Star List, a list of Annuals for the state of Kansas. However, this list is no longer being presented, as the main testing location for annual flowers has been shut down due to lack of funding. Several years ago, I started evaluating annual flowers for the clients whose landscapes I maintain. This list comes from those evaluations.

Star Annuals include flowers which grow best in the Central Great Plains, but which also have the best disease and insect resistance. Many are also great for pollinators. There a 4 main types of annuals which I have tried and evaluated. Those are:

  • Sun container
  • Shade container
  • Sun bedding (in ground)
  • Shade bedding

The criteria for testing those star annuals includes the following:

  • Bloom time length
  • Size of blooms
  • Spread of the plant
  • Disease resistance
  • Insect resistance or tolerance
  • Drought tolerance
  • Heat tolerance
  • Pollinator friendliness

My testing is not formal, I rarely write reviews. But I have a photographic memory and can remember how specific plants did in certain years. I also take a lot of photos to help decide which plants are star annuals and which are not.

Star Annuals for Sun Containers

There will be quite a bit of overlap between containers and bedding plants, within the light requirement’s sections (sun vs. shade). Container plants are further evaluated between thriller, filler, and spiller roles within the container.

Thriller Annuals

Banana plant thrillers
Banana plants as thrillers

Thrillers are container plants that are the main centerpiece of the container. This plant either goes in the center or the back of a container display and is usually showier than other plants.

  • Banana plants – these tropical bananas probably would produce fruit in a year or two, if they could survive winter. However, they are very showy, heat and drought tolerant, and pest and disease free. They grow 3 to 5 feet tall in one season.
  • Cyperus ‘Prince Tut’ – grows 3 feet tall and wide with green, graceful plumes.
  • Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ & ‘Truffala Pink’ – perhaps my favorite thriller, its grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, very drought tolerant, and blooms all season long.
  • Fountain grass ‘Fireworks’ – striped with pink, burgundy, and green, this grass grows 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It has good heat and drought tolerance and has feathery plumes late in the season.
  • Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ – a great salvia with deep blue flowers surrounded by black calyxes. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, is drought and heat tolerant, and attracts hummingbirds.
  • Salvia ‘Rockin Fuschia’ & ‘Rockin Deep Purple’ – the rockin series of salvia are heat and drought tolerant, grow 3 feet tall and wide, and attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Verbena ‘Meteor Shower’ – a great plant with large, 1 inch diameter purple flowers on a compact plant. It is very heat and drought tolerant, and grows 2 feet tall by 16 inches wide. Attracts pollinators.
  • Rudbeckia ‘Chim Chiminee’, ‘Cherry Brandy’, & ‘Denver Daisy’ – these annual black eyed Susans are lively thrillers. They are heat and drought tolerant, and grow 2 feet tall and wide. They attract many pollinators.

Filler Annuals

Filler are container plants which are used to fill space between the edge of the container and the thriller. Star annuals in this group are not as tall, but more rounded in shape, and upright, not trailing.

  • Fan flower ‘Whirlwind Series’ – grow 12 to 18 inches tall and wide, and have delicate, fan-shaped flowers. The series includes pink, blue, and lavender colored flowers. Other fan flowers can be red, white, blue, pink, or purple. Heat tolerant.
  • Ruby grass – grows 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide with pale, blue-green leaves and 2 inch long pink plumes which are produced from summer on. Very heat and drought tolerant.
  • Helenium ‘Dakota Gold’ – this North American native annual grows 1 foot tall and wide, with small, daisy-like yellow flowers. It is very heat and drought tolerant and attracts many pollinators.
  • Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ – a great filler, this airy plant is delicate, but a great bloomer. It grows 12 to 18 inches tall and wide with delicate white flowers on a heat and drought tolerant plant.
  • Marigolds – these old-fashioned flowers are still a great filler in containers. Growing 1 foot tall and wide with good heat and drought tolerance, they add brightness and pest resistance.
  • Dusty miller – this silvery foliaged plant grows 8 to 16 inches tall and wide. It is drought, heat, and frost tolerant.
fan flower star annuals
Fan flower (blue) is a great star annual filler for containers

Spiller Annuals

Spillers are container plants which spill or cascade over the side of the container. Some vining plants may be used as spillers, but they often try to climb up instead of flowing down. Sizes are not given on these star annuals because they are meant to spill over and get large.

  • Angel wing begonias – able to handle sun and shade makes these begonias a treat for the container. They are heat and drought tolerant, though they prefer even watering. Leaves can be green, dark green, or chartreuse, depending on cultivar and series.
  • Dorotheanthus ‘Mezoo Trailing Red’ – with no better common name, this succulent star annual is very heat and drought tolerant. It has white and green variegated leaves and small, bright red flowers.
  • Purslane – might be more of a filler, but is does spread outward, rather than being upright. They come in a variety of flower colors and the leaves are succulent. Also edible, this flower is heat and drought tolerant and is a host plant for some moths.
  • Sweet potato vine – use only in large containers, as the plants are quite aggressive. Leaves can be variegated, green, chartreuse, burgundy, or purple. Very heat and drought tolerant.
  • Petunia ‘Wave’ and ‘Vista’ series – are very drought and heat resistant, fill in quickly, and bloom all summer long and even past light frosts. There are several great varieties available through these series.
Spiller dorotheanthus
Dorotheanthus (white and green variegation) is a spiller

Star Annuals for Shady Containers

Finding plants for the shade is almost more difficult than finding the shade. At least in the Central Great Plains, we have oak-hickory remnant forests and plenty of trees in our landscapes to create shady spots for star annuals. Most of these are not

caladiums
Caladiums are good thrillers for shade

Thriller Annuals

  • Caladiums – perhaps one of the most underused shade annuals, these shine in a container. There are many varieties available, with variegated leaves of green, white, pink, red, and yellow. They grow 2 to 4 feet tall depending on variety.
  • Coleus – there are many different cultivars of this shade loving annual. They are heat and drought tolerant and grow 1 to 4 feet tall and wide. While not grown for flowers, but rather foliage, the flowers are quite pretty and attract bees and other pollinators.
  • Ostrich Fern – not an annual, but I treat it as one in a container for shade. They like it more moist, and are only slightly heat tolerant, but are showy in spring and fall, growing 3 feet tall.
  • Hostas – I also use hostas in my annual shade containers as the thriller. They are heat and somewhat drought tolerant, and the large ones like ‘Empress Wu’ and ‘Humpback Whale’ make excellent thrillers.

Filler Annuals

  • Coleus – again, coleus can also be a filler plant. There are many dwarf cultivars which grow 1 foot tall and wide.
  • Impatiens – these stout star annuals are great fillers for containers. They are heat tolerant, but need constant moisture, or even moisture to thrive. The grow 6 to 10 inches tall and wide.
  • Coral bells – not an annual, but can be used as such in a shady container. Heat and drought tolerant, and grows 6 to 10 inches tall and up to 16 inches wide. Many leaf colors to choose from.
  • Hostas – again, using hostas in shade containers as annuals works when there are few other choices. Smaller varieties work best here.
coleus is a star annual
Coleus (red edged with green) can be fillers and spillers, depending on variety
angel wing begonia
Angel wing begonia

Spiller Annuals

  • Coleus ‘Great Falls Iguazu’ – there is a coleus for every shade situation. This trailing variety has variegated red and green leaves and flows downward.
  • Angel wing begonia – able to handle sun and shade makes these begonias a treat for the container. They are heat and drought tolerant, though they prefer even watering. Leaves can be green, dark green, or chartreuse, depending on cultivar and series.
  • Spider plant – also called airplane plant, this airy houseplant sends out babies on long stems which cascade from the original plant. Heat and drought tolerant.

Star Annuals for Sun Bedding

Annuals planted in ground beds, also called bedding plants, can steal the show if planted in large masses or groupings. Or you can mix and match star annuals and perennials in a sunny cottage garden.

Thriller Annuals

In this case, thriller refers to annuals which form the backdrop of a planting, or the center if it is a 360 degree bed. They are taller than everything else in the bed.

  • Fountain grass ‘Fireworks’ – striped with pink, burgundy, and green, this grass grows 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It has good heat and drought tolerance and has feathery plumes late in the season.
  • Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ – a great salvia with deep blue flowers surrounded by black calyxes. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, is drought and heat tolerant, and attracts hummingbirds.
  • Salvia ‘Rockin Fuschia’ & ‘Rockin Deep Purple’ – the rockin series of salvia are heat and drought tolerant, grow 3 feet tall and wide, and attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Mexican sunflower ‘Torch’ – looking like some sort of giant daisy-marigold cross, the Mexican sunflower loves heat and tolerates drought. It is a butterfly and bee magnet and grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide.
  • Zinnia – there are many different varieties of zinnias and the taller ones make excellent thrillers when planted in mass. They can grow 3 to 5 feet tall and are heat and drought tolerant. Attracts a wide range of pollinators.
  • Dahlias – not true annuals, as you have to dig and save the tubers each fall, they are heat and drought tolerant. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow dahlias. The come in a large variety of colors, petal types, and sizes.
  • Elephant ears – growing from large bulbs, the leaves of these are huge! They can be green or purple and are very heat and drought tolerant.
salvia rockin fuschia
Salvia is a great thriller for beds

Filler Annuals

  • Ruby grass – grows 1 to 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide with pale, blue-green leaves and 2 inch long pink plumes which are produced from summer on. Very heat and drought tolerant.
  • Helenium ‘Dakota Gold’ – this North American native annual grows 1 foot tall and wide, with small, daisy-like yellow flowers. It is very heat and drought tolerant and attracts many pollinators.
  • Celosia ‘New Look Red’ – a great filler with rosy red plumes on 16 inch plants that is heat and drought tolerant. Attracts some pollinators.
  • Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire’ – one of the most drought and heat hardy star annuals. It grows 1 to 2 feet tall and wide with orange-red tubular flowers that attract longhorned bees and hummingbirds.
  • Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ & ‘Truffala Pink’ – grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, very drought tolerant, and blooms all season long.
  • Rudbeckia ‘Chim Chiminee’, ‘Cherry Brandy’, & ‘Denver Daisy’ – these annual black eyed Susans are lively thrillers. They are heat and drought tolerant, and grow 2 feet tall and wide. They attract many pollinators.
  • Tropical milkweed – could be used as either a thriller or filler, it grows 2 to 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide. It is heat and drought tolerant and a host plant for Monarch butterflies. Attracts other pollinators as well.
  • Blanketflower – not a true perennial, I treat it as an annual. It reseeds easily, and is heat and drought tolerant. Grows 1 to 2 feet tall and wide, and attracts many pollinators.
  • Vinca – planted in large masses, these flowers grow 1 foot tall and wide in a range of colors. Mildly heat and drought tolerant.
  • Dusty miller – this silvery foliaged plant grows 8 to 16 inches tall and wide. It is drought, heat, and frost tolerant.
gomphrena truffala pink
Gomphrena ‘Truffala Pink’ (front) can be a filler or a thriller

Spiller Annuals (Spreaders)

These star annuals are more spreaders than spillers because they are used to cover the ground on the edge or front of the beds.

  • Petunia Vista series – are very drought and heat resistant, fill in quickly, and bloom all summer long and even past light frosts. There are several great varieties available through this series.
  • Sweet potato vine – the plants are quite aggressive. Leaves can be variegated, green, chartreuse, burgundy, or purple. Very heat and drought tolerant.
  • Black-eyed Susan Vine – usually used as a vine for covering fences, it can be grown in beds as a spreader. Smells like chopped green beans when trimmed, it is heat and drought tolerant and grows very quickly.
sweet potato vine
Sweet potato vine is a star annual spreader for beds

Star Annuals for Shady Bedding

Annuals in the shade. Hmm. We do not usually have large sweeps of annuals in shade gardens, but rely mostly on hostas, coral bells, ferns, hydrangeas, and other shade plants to handle the work. But there are places in the shade garden where a pop of annual color may be needed. You can plant them in masses or hide them among the hostas.

  • Impatiens – these stout star annuals are great fillers. They are heat tolerant, but need constant moisture, or even moisture to thrive. The grow 6 to 10 inches tall and wide.
  • Coleus – again, coleus can also be a filler plant. There are many dwarf cultivars which grow 1 foot tall and wide.
  • Caladiums – perhaps one of the most underused shade annuals, these shine wherever they are put. There are many varieties available, with variegated leaves of green, white, pink, red, and yellow. They grow 2 to 4 feet tall depending on variety.
  • Angel wing begonias – able to handle sun and shade, they are heat and drought tolerant, though they prefer even watering. Leaves can be green, dark green, or chartreuse, depending on cultivar and series.
Impatiens
Impatiens can rock the shade

Conclusion

Even though these star annuals are recommended, you can and should try other annuals in your own beds. Try what you like. These have just been evaluated for heat and drought tolerance, pest and disease tolerance, flower power, and pollinator attractiveness. Point: enjoy your garden!

Happy planting!

author of star annuals

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