New plants bring a spark of pizazz to your garden

by Jan Spann

One of the advantages of being a Master Gardener is access to presentations on new plants for the coming garden cycle. While the plants may be ones you already know, growers continually find ways to enhance the species.

Some new cultivars offer additional colors, and others are hybridized for adaption for climate and other conditions such as drought. New plant offerings can often mean that a plant that has traditionally been unsuccessful in our growing zone can now join our garden favorites

To determine how plants perform in the Central Arkansas growing area, the best growers hold trials at university sites. Those that match well to Arkansas’ growing conditions can be found in Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. Agents at the University of Georgia site in Athens study plants for at least three years and compile data on heat tolerance, plant uniformity and flower production, to name a few characteristics. The Trial Gardens are open to visitors as well, and a website allows consumers to see the plants under review (

Jackson, Tenn., is home to University of Tennessee’s Research and Education Garden Center. UT Gardens-Jackson now includes a kitchen garden, a low-maintenance fruit demonstration orchard and annual and perennial displays. The center welcomes visitors during daylight hours all year long (

University of Arkansas researchers at Hope, Little Rock and Fayetteville trial and evaluate woody plants, while these other sites focus on bedding annuals and perennials. Dr. James Robbins, horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, notes that the woody plant category, which includes shrubs and trees, can be long term investments for a homeowner or business, underscoring the importance of multi-year testing.

You can find Dr. Robbins’ research in online articles at Two publications to look at are “Evergreen Hedge or Screen Plants for Arkansas” and “Landscape Trees for Specific Uses.” You can also search at for your own specific interests.

Bedding plants that debuted last year will be more available this spring at our local nurseries. Many offer familiar favorites with exciting new traits. Because of their tolerance to heat and drought, coreopsis, rudbeckia and echinacea have been favorites for hybridization. You’ll find bright new colors for these sun lovers and also new leaf patterns and colors for shade perennials like dicentra, heuchera and tiarella. Other outstanding annuals to consider are the Zahara zinnias and SunPatiens impatiens for sun and torenia “Grapelicious” for a vibrant shade constant bloomer.

You may consider begonias as your grandmother’s plant, but check these out for stunning beauty. Cool Breeze Glacier brings a bright spot to dark shade with a deep vein in green against a white leaf top. Garden Angel Plum brings a purple leaf with an even darker vein and a small but bright red bloom. Echinacea “Big Kahuna” perform well in Arkansas’ hot and dry summers, and this one packs a burnished orange cone with creamy yellow petals. Heuchera is one of my shade favorites, especially the lime variety that offers a nice contrast to darker leafed ferns. This year, I’ll be looking for “Cajun Fire,” which changes colors with the seasons: red in spring, black in summer and maroon in fall. Learn more about these plants and where to buy them locally at

Also from Terra Nova Nurseries is a perennial originally from Africa, which fares well in our summer heat. Kniphofia is also known as “red-hot poker,” which describes the spikes of red that attract hummingbirds. Now you can add additional colors with “Lemon Popsicle” and “Orange Vanilla Popsicle.”

“Wave” petunias set a new direction for this summer superstar in Zone 7 (Central Arkansas). Most of the new petunias fall under the “Supertunia” moniker, meaning they are incredible performers. What these lack in a smaller flower, they make up for a vigorous growth pattern and reblooms without deadheading. Look for Supertunias under the Proven Winner brand at local nurseries. New varieties include “Vista Bubblegum,” “Pink Charm,” “Sangria Charm” and “Orchid Charm.” The Petunia Shock Wave “Coral Crush” can be ordered online at Pan American Seeds.

“Sunny Anniversary” abelia offers a large and fragrant flower that appears in mid-summer and continues into fall. This deciduous shrub from Proven Winners takes sun to part sun and is deer resistant. Other options for this shrub include “Confetti,” “Mardi Gras” and “Raspberry Profusion.” Other shrubs include cleyera japonica “Bronze Beauty.”

According to Janet Carson, first lady of Arkansas horticulture, a new trend brings fastigiate trees, columnar forms that give more height without taking width. The columnar English oak grows fast for an oak, producing a tree of significant landscape size in 10 years. The European Hornbeam “Fastigiata” is a narrow column the first decade of its life but afterwards takes on a more egg-shaped habit of growth reaching 35 feet tall with a spread of 15 feet. The columnar Sweetgum “Slender Silhouette” grows to 40 feet tall with a 4-foot spread. It has a good burgundy fall color and relatively few sweetgum balls. 

So while we anticipate those early spring days when we can look for new plants to include in our landscape, know that university researchers are hard at work on plants that bloom longer, have a stronger fragrance and are more tolerant of our crazy summer weather.