The multicolored leaves of Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Bettzichiana’ in the center of the pot are surrounded by, clockwise from top, 'Light Lavender' petunia, 'Microphylla' licorice plant, 'Deep Rose' geranium, and 'Molten Lava' coleus.
Photo/Illustration: Scott Phillips
Here’s some exciting news for gardeners: Alternantheras (Alternanthera spp. and cvs.), a group of colorful and fast-growing tropical plants, are gradually making their way into nurseries. Like coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides cvs.), Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus), and other popular tender foliage plants used as warm-season annuals, alternantheras contribute tantalizing foliage colors—shades of yellow, white, red, pink, and even orange—from the moment they’re planted in late spring until fall frost finishes their season. I’ve been quick to embrace their colorful presence, because their laid-back lifestyle meets the demands of my long gardening season.
Besides being beautiful, alternantheras are easy to grow. Average garden soil of moderate fertility produces excellent results. Though they don’t tolerate extreme drought very well, alternantheras require no more water than do most hardy perennials. They suffer no pest or disease problems that I’ve seen, except for the occasional case of leaf rot when too crowded or leaf spot while overwintering in a cool, damp greenhouse. They make spectacular container specimens but are also at home in the most stylish of mixed borders. Best of all, alternantheras thrive in full sun without needing SPF 50 sunscreen, while also adapting to half-day light. Typically, brighter light equals brighter tones in plants, but long periods of triple-digit temperatures may actually dull alternanthera’s colors for a time, so consider a little mid-day shade for gardens in the Deep South. The only thing an alternanthera won’t do is prosper in dense shade—fair enough, I suppose, for an otherwise agreeable garden guest. Five selections in particular have proven to be reliable growers through my hot, humid summers and long, glorious falls.