Most garden perennials flower in spring after the low light season. However, garden annuals bloom during the summer, which is not typical of native plants in North America. Mainly tropical in origin, bedding plants have been the focus of breeding since the residential boom of the 1950s. Annual cultivars descend from plants found near the equator, the only frost-free part of the world. These heat and light lovers thrive in our tropic-like summers. Their long-lasting flowering habits weirdly emulate the vegetative growth stage. There’s nothing delicate about these flowers, such as the Kalanchoe, one of my favorites, with its intense neon, rubbery blooms, so different from silken dogwood petals and pale hellebore blossoms. Petunias are lurid and arousing. In general, annuals are brash, energetic and outspoken. Some are almost monstrous.
The seasonal rhythm of the North American garden—flower, vegetation, seed and dormancy—has been altered by the popularity of annuals, including the tender perennials or, as they’re sometimes called, “tropicals”. It is peculiar that the public associates a flowering plant more with summer than with spring. I’ve always considered the mania for annuals a bit strange. However, as my mentor Claude Hope used to say, “People like ‘em”, and he was generally correct. Sometimes April showers bring May flowers, but more often they fall on mulch beds prepared for annuals, which rely on huge amounts of summer water. Perennials and bulbs are the proverbial May flowers. Perhaps the new xeriscaping trend will become the summer annual craze of the future, and we’ll save a lot of hose water. However, here in the humid and tropical mid-Atlantic, watering is often unnecessary.
The only summer colors I noticed growing up in Illinois were from the dazzling petunias, pelargonium and impatiens my parents cultivated. The meadows, fields and swamps were shades of vibrant green, perked up by an occasional berry. On the other hand, spring colors appeared only in the local woods and the Sonoran Desert where I attended school.