Amazing annuals: verbena

These tender perennials, are usually treated as annuals and add colour and fragrance to sunny borders everywhere

I creep into the world of verbenas with great trepidation. I try to clear up confusion in any plant I post about but I have some pressing work that needs doing and I think I would need to spend a lot of research time getting to the bottom of the verbena naming mess.

So, with apologies, this might be confusing! There are lots of verbenas (250 species), largely native to the Americas and some to Asia but, with the Europe-centric classical history I have grown up with, the most famous is V. officinalis, commonly known as vervain.

After that, things get messy. The most popular perennial, at present, is V. bonariensis, the tall, see-through, seemingly leafless plant with dense clusters of tiny lilac flowers. It is native to Buenos Aires – hence the botanical name. I am also very fond of V. hastata, which is a shortlived perennial about 60cm high which I have grown in both pink and purple and which flowers the first year from seed. Then there is V. rigida, which is usually grown as an annual, with an upright habit and lots of tiny purple flowers – very popular in bedding. Verbena tenuisecta has finely divided leaves and is usually purple but can be other colours and then there is V. officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’, a strange plant with small, purple leaves and microscopic purple flowers, grown primarily for its tousled foliage.

All have long-tubed flowers in clusters, with five, spreading petals and often a contrasting colour at the mouth of the bloom. The flowers are either held in domed clusters with the outer, lower flowers opening first, or in long spikes. The calyx is often ribbed and covered in rough, glandular hairs.

I am not sure what to call the bedding verbenas. I thought they were derived from V. peruviana. I am sure we planted something called V. phlogopappa when I was a student. Perhaps these should be called V. x hybrida. I am at a loss. And then there are glandularias. These look just like verbenas to me, I have seen them growing wild in the S.W. USA and I really don’t know what makes a glandularia and what makes a verbena!

To make things worse, most of the verbena plants you buy in spring are vegetatively propagated and not raised from seed. And they have trademarked names like Superbenas. Each breeding house has introduced its own series with varying traits such as improved resistance to disease, creeping or trailing habit and unique colours.

Most verbenas, either from cuttings or seed, are trailing plants, wider than high, and  flower for months, especially if deadheaded. Many, especially those with pink, purple and white flowers, are fragrant. The flowers are very attractive to butterflies and moths as well as bees. Seed-raised kinds tend to get exhausted if allowed to set seeds and frequently get powdery mildew. Keeping plants moist and well fed will help to avoid this but, because drying out is so common in hanging baskets I think they are better suited to containers rather than baskets.

If growing from seed, add some extra drainage to the compost – verbenas hate wet compost when small. Water them very carefully at first but once they have several stems and a dozen leaves they are much easier to look after. You can pinch out the growing tips if you like, which will delay flowering but encourage bushiness. Flowering will be best in full sun but a few hours of shade is tolerated.


6 Comments on “Amazing annuals: verbena”

  1. Mitzy Bricker
    January 29, 2021 at 11:42 am #

    So many varieties! I enjoy verbena!

    Blue Rock Horses Frederick County, Virginia

  2. tonytomeo
    January 29, 2021 at 8:59 pm #

    Are you familiar with sand verbena, Abronia villosa? I suspect not. No one here seems to be familiar with it either, and it is native to the beach. It is not really a verbena, but the flowers seem to be. Nurseries that grow natives do not grow it, supposedly because it is difficult to grow in confinement.

    • thebikinggardener
      January 30, 2021 at 8:54 am #

      I am sure I have seen this or another abronia on the beach over there. Some seaside plants are tricky to tame but then Ajania, which I saw popping up in the sand dunes there is a commercially successful plant here.

      • tonytomeo
        January 31, 2021 at 12:34 am #

        Ajania is Asian, but may be naturalized is a few spots here. I am not familiar with the various species. It is rare in nurseries here. I see it only around old coastal landscapes, mainly in the region of Monterey. It is as if it had been planted a long time ago, sort of naturalized, but has not been planted in a long time. I really do not know because I do not even know of the plants I noticed were actually Ajania. There is a native species that looks like it, but I can not remember the name. It is not for refined landscapes, but somehow does well in harshly exposed coastal spots.

        • thebikinggardener
          January 31, 2021 at 9:02 am #

          Well I have the memory like a sieve. Yes, Ajania is Asian even though I remember seeing it growing on the Oregon coast. i even posted about it here

          • tonytomeo
            January 31, 2021 at 9:51 pm #

            I was not aware that it was in Long Beach too. It makes sense of course. Many of those coastal species, even without venturing far from the coast, extend their ranges extensively to the north and south along the coast. Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) for example, has naturalized into a range that may be only a few miles wide, but hundreds or more than a thousand miles long! (I do not know how far south into Mexico their range extends now.) Incidentally, one of the few places that I might have seen Ajania happens to be Long Beach, but in Southern California. (I really do not know what it was.) Now, I am sort of wondering about the other native species that resemble it. I had always ignored them because they are not grown in refined landscapes. They just appear unexpectedly. I am wondering how much of what I think of as the native species was actually the Ajania.

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