Top 12 Waterwise and Colorful Annuals

By Debi Borden-Miller, CNGA

With climate change happening, do we need a marketing change? After experiencing the driest April on record and years of various stages of drought, and as we head into the hottest part of our season, we need to consider more targeted marketing and promotion of waterwise annuals. Most consumers think that all annuals need a lot of water, but annuals can have colorful displays and still be waterwise if the right annuals are chosen. Research was done on annuals during the big drought years of 2002-2004 by CSU, Welby Gardens at their former Denver location, and other locations around the state. Interestingly, many of the annuals that did well in those earlier studies garnered top accolades at the CSU and Welby Flower trials last year.

Here are the top 12 waterwise annuals for our region. The first seven also won awards from CSU, Welby or All-American Selections (AAS) for 2021.

Photo Credit: CSU

Lantana – Bold, colorful flower clusters, heat and drought tolerant, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, deer and Japanese beetle resistant. Lantana is a perfect plant for the Rocky Mountain region! CSU “Best Of,” Lantana ‘Hot Blooded Red’ is easy to promote.

Portulaca or Purslane (Moss Rose) – Drought tolerant, Japanese beetle resistant, great for rock gardens, edging or containers. Market these CSU 2021 “Best Of” winners to those succulent lovers: Portulaca ‘Sundial Pink,’ or ‘Mega Pazzaz Purple’ in containers.

‘Crazytunia Mayan Sunset’
Photo Credit: Welby Gardens

Petunia – A local favorite and bestseller. They only need ½” of water per week to bloom and grow all summer. There are multiple choices of colors and patterns, shapes and sizes including: ‘Bee’s Knees’ (2021 CSU “Best Of” containers, vegetative category); or ‘E3 Easy Wave Blue,’ (2021 CSU “Best Of” ground, seed category); “Supertunia Vista Bubblegum” (2021 CSU “Best Of” ground, vegetative category); ‘Splash Dance Poppin Pink,’ #4 at Welby Gardens or ‘Crazytunia Mayan Sunset,’ #5 at Welby Gardens. All are worth showcasing for waterwise beds or containers.

Rudbeckia/Gloriosa Daisy (annual type) – A late summer must-have in our region. Daisy-like flowers bloom until hard frosts in the fall. Easy to grow, deer and rabbit resistant, good cut flower, attracts birds and butterflies. Try CSU’s “Best Of Show” 2021 Rudbeckia ‘Sunbeckia Ophelia,’ or ‘Denver Daisy.’

Rudbeckia ‘Sunbeckia Ophelia’
Photo Credit: Welby Gardens

Verbena – Long-blooming, waterwise, heat tolerant and good groundcovers, as borders or edging, or a trailer in containers. These CSU “Best Of” 2021 varieties, ‘Lanai Upright Twister Watercolor’ or ‘EnduraScape Pink Bicolor’ will make your customers very happy and save water.

Vinca (Madagascar or Cape periwinkle) – Also found along the south coast and desert ranges of California (think dry!). Sun and heat loving, they can also take part shade. Used in mass plantings and on edges. Deer resistant too. The CSU “Best Of” 2021 variety; ‘Soiree Kawaii Coral Reef’ is gorgeous and easy on the water bill.

Zinnia – ‘Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor’ is a CSU “Best Of” 2021, and an All-America Selections (AAS) Gold medal winner. It’s a popular series with other AAS winners in its bloodlines, and its heat and drought tolerant, a prolific bloomer, pollinator friendly and shows fantastic garden performance. These zinnias did very well with less water in trials.

Five more waterwise annuals worth talking about:

Dusty Miller – This very tough and versatile, long-lasting plant can really take the heat, cold and drought. It’s Japanese beetle resistant too. Promote it as a silvery accent plant or to provide texture and color to any combination. The foliage can be lacy or broad.

Dahlberg Daisy – Grow and promote this fragrant annual as a groundcover, between paving stones, in a rock garden or dry containers. The needle-like foliage and yellow daisy flowers add a delicate, fine texture to any garden space.

Gazania (Treasure flower or African Daisy) – Low growing, easy to grow, large, daisy-like flowers in bright colors. Great for borders, edges, pots. These remain bright and beautiful even in dry gardens.

Gomphrena globosa – (Globe Amaranth). Full sun, drought and heat tolerant. Use in the edge or middle of the garden. The long blooming, round, clover-like flowers are dry and stiff to the touch. Can be used for cut flowers/dried crafts. ‘Fireworks,’ ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ‘Truffula,’ ‘Ping Pong’ or ‘Pinball’ series are all popular and waterwise.

Salvia – Salvia greggii, Salvia guarantica, Salvia coccinea – All three types of Salvia are waterwise and beautiful. They are all heat and drought tolerant and are fantastic for pollinators—bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Use these instead of S. splendens for waterwise gardens.
S. guaranitica BODACIOUS ‘Hummingbird Falls’ – this is a “First-of-its-kind,” trailing, S. guarantica.
S. coccinea ‘Summer Jewels’ series (All-America Selections winner) has more open flower spikes than standard S. splendens, but this takes less water and more sun, making it a great sub for S. splendens.
S. greggii (Autumn Sage) is a hummingbird magnet! Drought tolerant and tough. It grows well in ground, or in containers and bears minty leaves. Furman’s Red and Wild Thing Rose are two that are perennial, and in the Plant Select program. S. greggii comes in many flower colors.

Remember to tell your customers that all annuals will need a week or two of establishment including regular watering every day or every other day. Then watering can be cut back to ½” of water per week. Amending the soil, using a complete time release fertilizer, and mulching will help these annuals grow and bloom at optimum performance even in dry times. A good practice is to plant the plants close enough so the canopy will grow together and help shade the soil and help with moisture retention. Drip irrigation is an excellent way to efficiently deliver the water where the plants need it—the root zone—and keep diseases to a minimum.