Old-Fashioned Annuals

No matter what your design scheme, these colorful, time-tested favorites will add a touch of nostalgia to your garden.


One of my early memories of visiting my grandmother was filling my pockets with the large black seeds of the old-fashioned four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) by her kitchen door. They were the perfect food for dolls or could function alternatively as small missiles if a battle ensued with my younger brothers. I do not remember being interested in the fact that these colorful, tubular-shaped flowers opened, as if on cue, at about the same time every afternoon. That fact fascinates me now. When I mention to fellow gardeners the asso­ciation of four o’clocks with my grandmother, I receive many nods of agreement. It would seem that four o’clocks were the quintessential grandmother’s plant of the 1950s.

For centuries, gardeners have grown brightly hued annuals from seed, since seed is reliable, easy to transport, and relatively inexpensive. These plants provide season-long color (and often an intoxicating fragrance), which can be used in masses or as fillers in an herbaceous flower border as well as in containers. Some so-called annuals—for instance, four o’clocks or heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)—are actually tender perennials that function as annuals in colder zones. Each of the following annuals has pleased gardeners, both in the United States and abroad, for hundreds of years. In many instances, heirloom cultivars are still available to strengthen our roots and solidify our connection with those gardeners who have gone before us.

Cosmos is perfect for the back of the border

BOTANICAL NAME: Cosmos bipinnatus cvs.
PLANT SIZE: Up to 5 feet tall and 18 inches wide
CULTURE: Prefers full sun and doesn’t mind dry soils. Highly fertile soils, however, produce lots of foliage but few flowers.

Although introduced in 1799, cosmos did not become popular for the garden or as the subject of breeding efforts until the early 1900s. The rest is now history. The variety ‘Sensation’ won the All-American Selection Award of Merit in 1936 for its clear colors of pink and white, on early-blooming, 3-foot- to 4-foot-tall plants. ‘Purity’ is the glistening white form of cosmos in the ‘Sensation’ series.

The garden writer Louise Shelton urged her readers in the early 1930s to forgo the more intense purplish shades of cosmos because they approached the then-despised color of magenta. She suggested using only white or pink cosmos in the border. Cosmos’s height makes it perfect for the back of the border. Historically, it was also used for massing, where its delicate foliage enhanced an ethereal effect.

Pot marigold works well in a sunny

BOTANICAL NAME: Calendula officinalis and cvs.
BLOOM TIME: Summer to fall
PLANT SIZE: Up to 30 inches tall and 18 inches wide
CULTURE: Flourishes in full sun and during the cooler seasons. It doesn’t like hot temperatures but will grow in most well-drained soils. Deadhead for abundant, season-long blooms.

Pot marigolds average 12 inches in height, with flower colors ranging from whitish yellow and bright yellow to deep orange. Both single and double flowers are available. Gardeners of the early 1900s considered the orange shade to be gaudy, and they tended to avoid it except when combining orange pot marigolds with yellow-flowered plants, like the “true” marigold (Tagetes spp. and cvs.).

Pot marigold occupied the vegetable garden in early Ameri­can homesteads and decorated ornamental beds and borders. The horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey considered them to be “one of the most universal garden flowers.” It’s best cultivated in a sunny site and will self-sow for many years after its initiation into a garden. I like to use pot marigolds along the edge of a warm-colored border or in the herb garden, where it provides a lovely contrast to purple-foliaged shiso (Perilla frutescens ‘Atropurpurea’).


Joseph’s coat features vibrant ornamental foliage

BOTANICAL NAME: Amaranthus tricolor and cvs.
BLOOM TIME: Irrelevant
PLANT SIZE: Up to 48 inches tall and 18 inches wide
CULTURE: Does well in full sun and all but soggy soils. It can be short-lived in years with excessive rain and humidity.

Thomas Jefferson grew this colorful foliage plant at Monti­cello. A hardy annual, Joseph’s coat has ornamental red, yellow, and green foliage on a plant that varies in height from 18 inches to 48 inches tall. The small flowers are inconspicuous in comparison to the effect of the foliage.

Early gardeners cultivated Joseph’s coat in the flower garden or in the conservatory. Modern cultivars feature yellow (A. tricolor ‘Aurora’) as well as maroon-shaded (A. tricolor ‘Molten Fire’) leaves, but the species still offers the showiest foliage. Its brightly colored leaves made it a useful plant for a tropical effect. New York nurseryman Peter Henderson wrote in 1890 that Joseph’s coat was “one of the most beautiful of ornamental-leaved plants.” Today it can be massed in a bed or combined with cannas (Canna cvs.), dahlias (Dahlia cvs.), castor beans (Ricinus communis and cvs.), and other bold and brilliant, warm-colored heirloom annuals.

Four o’clock has fragrant, ephemeral blooms for the border

BOTANICAL NAME: Mirabilis jalapa and cvs.
BLOOM TIME: Early to late summer
PLANT SIZE: Up to 24 inches tall and 24 inches wide
CULTURE: Can take just about anything you can dish out. It can tolerate any soil, a high temperature, and pollution. All it asks for is full sun.

The 1876 St. Louis seed catalog of Henry Michel describes Mirabilis jalapa as a “great favorite, combining beauty of foliage, profuseness of bloom, of rich and varied colors, and delicious fragrance.” In the 19th century, this 2-foot- to 3-foot-tall, tubular-blossomed beauty was available in crimson, red striped with white, lilac striped with white, chamois, yellow, yellow and red, violet, and white.

The four o’clock was useful as a bedding plant or filler for the herbaceous border. Another use was to make a hedge of Mirabilis jalapa for the rear of the garden or bed, spacing the plants 12 inches apart. In 1838, an observer reported that the “hawkmoths love this plant,” which helped pollinate its sweetly scented blooms.

Petunia is an ideal edging plant

BOTANICAL NAME: Petunia spp. and cvs.
PLANT SIZE: Up to 18 inches tall and 36 inches wide 
CULTURE: Likes full sun and a lean, well-drained soil. Avoid planting in wet areas. Deadhead plants for the best display of blooms.

The species petunias, including the cur­rently available Petunia integrifolia, were introduced from South America in the first half of the 19th century. By the 1870s, there were several hybrid types, including large-flowered singles and doubles, some fringed and some striped. One early writer wrote in 1879 that the petunia was too coarse to be viewed close up and was best placed in beds with “distance lending enchantment.” Petunias were also prized for massing in front of shrubbery.

A number of early petunias are still available in current catalogs. ‘How­ard’s Star’ is distinguished by a central star shape on mixed-color backgrounds. ‘Giants of California’ were available in this country by 1907; a large, single-flowered strain, they were also available in several different colors. ‘Balcony’ was introduced by the Joseph Harris Co. and was described in 1934 as: “The most showy of all petunias … especially desirable for window boxes, vases, hanging baskets, etc., as well as for beds and borders. Plants are larger than bedding type and … of a rich velvety texture in clear bright colors, borne in unusual profusion all summer.”


Zinnia offers a wide range of flower colors

BOTANICAL NAME: Zinnia elegans cvs.
PLANT SIZE: Up to 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide
CULTURE: Loves full sun and hot, dry weather. It does well in most soils. Give adequate space for air circulation as these plants are susceptible to mildew. Deadhead to encourage blooms.

Over 15 flower colors were offered in 19th-century catalogs for zinnias, including white, sulfur yellow, golden yellow, orange, scarlet-orange, scarlet, light tan, lilac, rose, magenta, crimson, violet, purple, and dark purple. The double-flowered forms were the most popular. This annual can range in height from the dwarfs, at 3 inches to 12 inches, to the tall zinnias, at 20 inches to 30 inches. For 150 years, American gardeners have prized zinnias in the garden and also grew them as cut flowers.

Early designers suggested that zinnias did not appear to their best advantage in masses but looked well in mixed borders, and could be effectively grown as single plants in the lawn—which would create a maintenance nightmare for today’s lawn mower. Zinnias could also be used to make a low hedge, due to their dense branching habit and medium height. It has been a common sight throughout the 20th century to see a zinnia hedge or border outlining a vegetable garden. One garden writer recommended that giant rose-colored zinnias be combined in the herbaceous border with dwarf white cosmos.

Several heirloom varieties of zinnias are still in the seed trade including ‘Cactus’, named for its resemblance to the cactus-flowered dahlias, and ‘California Giants’, another cactus-flowered variety. ‘Lilliput’, known in the United States by 1910, carries button-size flowers on 2-foot-tall stems, while ‘Scarlet Flame’ is a lovely dahlia-flowered cultivar with bright red blooms.

Balsam shines in partial shade

BOTANICAL NAME: Impatiens balsamina and cvs.
BLOOM TIME: Summer to early fall
PLANT SIZE: Up to 30 inches tall and 18 inches wide
CULTURE: Does best in partial shade and moist, well-draining loam. Add composted organic matter to the soil for optimal performance.

Balsam flowers were initially single and rose-red, but under 19th-century cultivation, double blossoms developed on 1-foot to 2-foot stems. The fully double flowers of the camellia-flowered series compared favorably with roses, and as one 1863 article described, “no wax work nor any other imitation of man can compare with it in rich appearance and dazzling beauty.” The 19th-century seed purveyors offered the tender balsams in variegated, rose, “fire-colored,” purple, white, and crimson.

Although eclipsed in modern times by their cousins, the bedding impatiens (Impa­tiens walleriana cvs.), the camellia-flowered balsams are worth growing to convey a sense of romantic gardens to the present. A variety of colors are still available, including rose, lilac, and creamy yellow.

Mignonette thrives in poor soil

BOTANICAL NAME: Reseda odorata and cvs.
BLOOM TIME: Summer to early fall
PLANT SIZE: Up to 24 inches tall and 9 inches wide
CULTURE: Another cool-season annual for full sun to partial shade. It’s tolerant of poor soil conditions, especially rocky or sandy terrain.

The oldest varieties of mignonette had small spikes of inconspicuous flowers with delightful fragrances—“perfuming the whole region about the premises.” The early catalogs all praised its heady aroma, but that attribute seems to have been lost in modern seed strains. The pale peach–colored blossoms of the cultivar ‘Machet’ are known for their fruity scent. Gardeners should compare different seed strains to confirm the strong sweet fragrance. A garden writer in 1886 observed that one reason for a lack of scent was because the soil “is too rich.” Similar to the nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp. and cvs.), mignonette does best in soils of lower fertility.

One recommended 19th-century companion for migno­nette was clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata and cvs.), another annual that reputedly thrived in a similar poor-soil situation. A pleasing combination from my own garden pairs migno­nette with bright red species snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.). The red of the snapdragon highlights the faint red in the (otherwise) modestly hued mignonette flowers.


Heliotrope perfumes the air with the scent of vanilla

BOTANICAL NAME: Heliotropium arborescens cvs.
PLANT SIZE: Up to 4 feet tall and 18 inches wide
CULTURE: Plant in full sun to partial shade and provide extra water during dry spells. It likes fertile soil but doesn’t like to have wet feet.

Heliotrope is a tender 1-foot- to 2-foot-tall subshrub with coarse foliage, which was available in earlier times with flowers in white and shades of lavender, purple, and blue—some with white eyes. Gardeners valued the fragrant heliotrope as a bedding plant for full sun or as a border edger in combination with sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima cvs.) or white petunias (Petunia cvs.). One turn-of-the-century gardener recom­mended using blue ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum cvs.) and purple heliotrope together for a “fine effect,” although a modern contemporary might consider this too much of a good thing. In my garden, I enjoy combining heliotrope in a bed with old roses (Rosa spp. and cvs.) and lavender (Lavadula spp. and cvs.).

Some early gardeners thought the heliotrope’s fragrance resembled that of a cherry pie, although most would agree that the fragrance actually combines hints of vanilla and almond flavoring. Unfortunately, late-20th-century breeding efforts have reduced the fragrance of this old-fashioned plant, and it is worthwhile to search out the old forms to enjoy the legendary sweet scent. Early white varieties with names like ‘Snow Wreath’ and ‘The Queen’ have been replaced by the cultivar ‘Alba’, and the white heliotrope is consistently quite fragrant. Among the purple heliotropes, ‘Fragrant Delight’ and ‘Iowa’ are rated for high perfume.

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  1. User avater
    simplesue 07/06/2019

    Love the old fashioned flowers. Nostalgic and tried and true. Nice article.

  2. HaydenFlack 10/29/2021

    Our favorite pastime indeed is gardening. Keeping in touch with mother nature is the only way to cope with our busy and concrete lifestyles. The joy of gardening is seeing the flowers and the shrubs grow from their tender stage until they are fully mature and green. Well, I will visit website to read feedback of the people about online writers before getting assistance in my essay about gardening.

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