I was poring over lists seeing what will be available in our market this spring when one group of plants, pentas, caught my eye. It wasn’t just pentas but the varieties that will be offered that caught my attention.
When it comes to pentas, your first thought is does the variety really make any difference? You might be right — having pentas of any variety is better than not having any. But let me tell you a little story about a trial in which I was a participant.
When you do a varietal trial of plants, you always plant in randomly replicated plots so that all selections have equal opportunity to shine. I was helping to evaluate pentas, which are known to be great hummingbird and butterfly plants.
What transpired in our trial, however, was most unusual. We were looking at about a dozen varieties, some old, some very new at the time. All the plants did fairly well because once temperatures start sending you indoors to the air conditioning, pentas become workhorses in the garden.
Once temperatures start sending you indoors to the air conditioning, pentas become workhorses in the garden.
We noticed butterflies covered one particular variety, while the other selections just had a few. All pentas were showing great flowers but what was special about the one that had all of the butterflies? We don’t know what was so special. Was it possible that butterflies could read? The plots that were loaded with butterflies were labeled with the varietal sign BUTTERFLY PENTAS.
Butterfly Pentas were new at the time, and though there have been countless new varieties, it is still at the top of the charts. I recently heard Dr. Allen Owings from Louisiana State University say the variety was a Louisiana Super Plant Award winner that should be tried by everyone. Oh yes and it was named Mississippi Medallion Award winner, too, after my trial was conducted. Butterfly Orchid is their hot new color bringing the total to seven colors and a mix.
Another of my favorite pentas is the Graffiti series, which is similar to the Butterfly series, being an F1 hybrid. The Butterfly series reaches 20 to 24 inches tall, while the Graffiti series is more compact, reaching 12 to 15 inches. The Graffiti Red Lace is stunning, producing deep red flowers positioned well above the foliage. The lace description comes from tiny white filaments protruding from each individual red floret.
No matter which pentas you choose, the flowers will be produced in abundance all season long if beds are prepared correctly. Choose a site in full sun for best flower production. Prepare the bed by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter, and till to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. While tilling, incorporate 2 pounds of a slow-release, 12-6-6 fertilizer.
I like pentas in a tropical setting in front of bananas and elephant ears orplanted in informal sweeps or drifts versus lined up like soldiers.
Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South.”