Search For The Answer
Click here to access our database of
Plant Answers
Search For The Picture
Click here to access the Google database of plants and insects

Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

Return to Gardening Columns Main Index

Questions for the Week

by Jerry Parsons, Ph.D.
Horticulture Specialist, Texas Agricultural Extension Service in San Antonio

How would you like to have a hot lover around this summer? Most of us are looking for that sort of excitement, especially when the sultry days of summer arrive. One of the most magnificent hot lover plants for this area of Texas was introduced by me in 1987 called Firebush (Hamelia patens). It's really nothing new; it was a favorite plant over 40 years ago and people just "forgot" about it.

The new plant named Firebush possesses the desirable characteristics which most modern-day folks want in a plant but which few plants can provide. First of all, it will grow in stone. The plant can thrive in the rocky, caliche, high pH soil, or more appropriately, rock with which Texas growers have to contend. The Firebush, because it is native to a dry climate, can withstand drought; once it is established, so it is a water-conserving plant as well. This plant can accomplish these feats of stone-survival and drought-tolerance while exposed to the hot summer sun. In fact, Firebush grows and blooms (That's right - - BLOOMS!) best when grown in a hot, full sun condition. The blooms of Firebush are red, which makes it a red, hot lover, and attracts hummingbirds from miles away -- you can throw the hummingbird feeder away.

People want an everlasting plant. Well, Firebush is everlasting or perennial, as we plant persons like to say. It is not like every other perennial - - it has a very beneficial characteristic which "makes you do right". Most growers of perennial plants cannot bring themselves to cut their darling plants back periodically to insure new growth and a more attractive specimen. The Firebush plant top is killed to the ground by the first hard freeze of winter. This phenomenon MAKES people do what they SHOULD do anyway - - cut the plant to the ground and let it regrow every year. However, some folks don't want to wait for the hotter days of summer to cause plants to resprout and for the impatient types, I recommended that Firebush be used as an annually planted plant. Firebush requires warm soil in which to sprout so sprouting may not occur until May or June. A new planting of Firebush will be as spectacular as most beds of annuals. The foliage of Firebush will turn red in the fall so now you have a plant which will give the reddish colors of a copper plant yet will produce hummingbird-attracting blooms all summer.

Firebush IS NOT deer resistant! Some folks need a beautiful blooming plant that the deer won't eat. This is a major problem because during drought deer eat everything that even resembles green and living. One lady even indicated that the deer eat her yucca plants!

Another tough, somewhat deer-resistant hot lover is lantana. Lantana, of the vervain family Verbenaceae, consists of more than 150 species of shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Lantanas are hairy and often prickly-stemmed. If rubbed and bruised their leaves usually have a disagreeable odor. Verbena-like flowers are formed in stalked clusters or spikes from the leaf axils or at the ends of branches. The juicy, berry-like fruits contain two nutlets, often called seeds. In some regions, Texas included, lantanas are troublesome weeds, chiefly spread by birds that are very fond of their juicy fruits. The species name, horrida, refers to the pungent, unpleasant odor of the crushed leaves and the "out-of-control" weed potential of the plant.

In recent years, strains of dwarf varieties have become popular as border plants. Lantana has been improved in its usefulness as a bedding-plant largely through the efforts of French hybridizers. The older varieties are tall and lanky, later in coming into bloom, and drop their flowers after rains but are showy in hot, dry weather. The new varieties are dwarf, spreading and bushy in habit, early blooming and free-flowering with blooms which are much larger and do not drop from the plants as did the old varieties in bad weather.

The ABSOLUTELY BEST improvement which has been made is sterilization. A variety named 'New Gold' blooms profusely but NEVER forms berries which have to be removed before more bloom will be produced. This revolutionary new development in lantanas insures that this plant will be a continuous beauty rather than a virulent pest with its pesky seedling offspring. But you MUST insist on the 'New Gold' variety; all other lantana varieties exhibit the characteristics which lead botanists to label them with the highly unfavorable specie name of horrida.

The lantana is a plant which is very adapted to this area provided they are grown in a sunny location. When well established the plants are very drought tolerant, and continue to produce bright and attractive blooms in the hottest of weather. Now that this variety named 'New Gold' is available and won't contaminate local landscapes, the lantana can take its place as a useful, colorful native plant which everyone will want to plant and enjoy.
So there are some hot lovers to try in your landscape this summer which will keep you panting with joy.


Flower borders should be located at the sides of the property in front of a fence or shrubbery which provides a suitable background. If your border is in front of shrubs, you will need to apply extra water during dry periods to replace the moisture used by the shrubs.

Tall flowers should be selected for the back part of the bed, with medium height species in the middle and dwarf varieties along the front as edging plants. This is very easily done because the height of all varieties is stated in the seed catalog or on labels which are in transplants.

The only other important principle of design to remember is to have your plants in groups large enough to form masses of color or texture. As a rule, it takes at least 5 to 7 plants of a variety to create the desired effect in small areas and greater numbers in larger areas (check with local nurserymen who sell transplants by the flat for a reduced cost). A random collection of individual, small to medium-sized plants will present a disorganized, checker board appearance.

Plant your flowers in groupings with irregular shapes. These masses of color and texture should blend into a pleasing pattern of color harmony. Dwarf flowers may be used as a continuous edging or border along the front of the bed to tie the entire planting together.

Flower beds and borders are intended to provide beauty as a part of the landscape design. The blooms are to be enjoyed where they are produced and should be cut only sparingly for arrangements in the home. Flowers for this purpose should be grown in a separate area, for instance as an attractive front portion of the vegetable garden. This way they won't detract from the landscape if you cut them frequently.

And last, but certainly not least, choose the right plant for the right place -- pay close attention to ultimate size and light requirements. DO NOT try to "make" a plant function in an area to which it is unadapted, i.e., a shade-loving plant in sun or vice versa. Here are some to try:

Begonia - Height 12-18 inches; bronze or green foliage; red, pink or white flowers; shade or partial shade (morning sun only); 12- to 18-inch spacing. Choose one of the Cocktail series.

Celosia (cockscomb) - Height 10-40 inches; red or yellow flowers; sun; 12- to 24-inch spacing.

Coleus - Height 10-20 inches; green-red-orange-blue-yellow foliage; partial shade or full sun if the Sun-Coleus such as Burgundy Sun, Eclipse or Plum Parfait are used; 12-inch spacing.

Copper plants - Height 12-48 inches; green-red-orange foliage; sun; 12- to 24-inch spacing. Plants will survive in partial shade but will not develop intense color.

Marigold - Height 8-26 inches; orange or yellow flowers; sun; 12- to 18-inch spacing. It is best to plant the large-flowered, Mari-Mum types (Antigua is an American-type, large flowered marigold ) in early August for maximum bloom and minimum spider mite problem.

Petunia - Height 8-18 inches; many colors; sun or partial shade; 8- to 12-inch spacing. The Carpet series and 'Laura Bush' are by far the best heat tolerant petunias. The Carpet series is more compact and requires less frequent cutting back.

Periwinkle (vinca) - Height 12-18 inches; white or pink flowers; sun; 12-inch spacing. These need to be planted in a well-drained planting bed and watered infrequently. DO NOT plant where automatic watering systems are used.

If you've had a hard time trying to find an annual flower that can tolerate our hot Texas sun AND THE DEER HERD, you might want to try Vinca rosea or periwinkle.

This is one of the most colorful and reliable summer flowering plants for Texas conditions. This shrubby plant produces an abundance of 1 - to 1 ½-inch phlox-like flowers that seem to cover the glossy, deep green leaves. The flowers can vary in color from pure white to pink or lavender rose. The newer dwarfs or spreading varieties grow from 8 to 10 inches high and may spread as much as 2 feet. Some of the best varieties of the dwarf, compact types include Coquette (Little Pinkie) having rosy pink flowers, Bright-Eyes having lustrous white flowers with a red center, Little Blanche which is an all white flower, Little Delicata (pink with a rose center) or Little Mixture which is a mixture of all colors and combinations mentioned. These varieties make excellent edging for flower and shrub borders. If you want a trailing or ground cover type vinca try Carpet vinca. Dawn (white trailing vinca with a red eye), Carpet Vinca Pink (pink flower), Carpet Snow White (white flower) and Carpet Vinca Mix, which is a mixture of all colors and combinations mentioned, are the color choices available for the trailing types.

Plant periwinkle in full sun or partial shade. They thrive in well-drained soils where liberal amounts of organic material have been added. DO NOT plant where automatic watering systems are used and mulch IMMEDIATELY after planting to prevent soil splashing during watering or rainfall. The plants will bloom continuously if the soil is not allowed to get too dry. An application of a slow-release fertilizer (three pounds per 100 square feet) should be made as the bed is prepared for planting and additional applications should be made every four weeks throughout the growing season. If the foliage turns yellow, reduce the watering interval and treat plants and soil with iron chelate or iron sulfate.

There are few pests that will attack periwinkle, and, once established, it will be a delight throughout the summer. The bright flowers and attractive foliage provide color during a period when few other plans will bloom.

Portulaca (rose moss) - Height 6-18 inches; many colors; sun; 12-inch spacing. Try the Sundial series for larger blooms which are open longer.

Purslane - Height 6-18 inches; many colors; sun; 12-inch spacing. These only bloom from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will NEVER bloom profusely in a shaded area. The largest flowered series is named 'Yubi'.

Salvia - Height 12-30 inches; red spike flowers, sun or partial shade; 12-inch spacing. Spent or bloomed-out flower spikes must be removed to keep plants attractive and stimulate rebloom. Firebush might be a better choice for a sunny area.

Verbena - Height 8-15 inches; white, purple, or red; sun; 12- to 18-inch spacing. Use ONLY the 'Princess' varieties and trim periodically to insure continuous bloom.

Zinnia - Height 8-15 inches; white, purple, or red, sun; 12- to 18-inch spacing. Beware of the powdery white substance on leaves called powdery mildew fungus. It can be controlled with benomyl (Systemic Fungicide), Funginex, or bayleton (Greenlight Fung-Away) sprays every 10-14 days.

After selecting the best varieties for your location, give some attention to soil preparation, fertilizer and watering techniques.

Soil Preparation - Till the soil to a depth of 6-8 inches, working in large quantities of peat moss or other organic matter.

Fertilizer - When preparing the soil, incorporate 3 pounds of a slow-release fertilizer such as 19-5-9 per 100 square feet. Then, follow this with supplemental light (one pound per 100 square feet) applications every 3 to 4 weeks.

Watering - Young plants should be watered thoroughly at transplanting. Then, water thoroughly and regularly (except during rainy periods) throughout the summer (No more than once a week unless the bed dries quickly). Check for soil moisture EVERY time BEFORE watering. REMEMBER, far more plants are killed (ruined) by too much watering than by too little.

So dress up your landscape this year with some of these annual bloomers and come off a winner in the color parade!