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Gardening 101: Verbena

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Gardening 101: Verbena

September 11, 2018

Verbena, Verbena: “Butterfly Magnet”

One of my earliest gardening blunders was a six-pack of tiny verbena seedlings I bought because the tag promised they could grow in partial shade. The poor little plants never bloomed and were quickly covered in mildew because, of course, they are well-known sun lovers. Like mint juleps and verandas, verbenas are well suited to the blistering heat and unrelenting sunshine of the Deep South and were certainly not good candidates for my humid New York City backyard shaded by a leafy stand of 50-year-old London plane trees.

In defense of the grower who chose to label my verbena plants as suitable for partial shade, experts do recommend dappled afternoon shade in extremely hot climates. However, this is really a plant that belongs where it will get from eight to 10 hours a day of bright sun. If you can provide that location, verbena will happily reward you with nonstop flowers from late spring through fall while requiring surprisingly little attention.

Is verbena the right plant for your garden? Read on to find out.

Yellow and purple: a happy combination. Here black-eyed Susans mingle with Verbena bonariensis against a backdrop of stipa grasses. See more in Gardening data-src=
Above: Yellow and purple: a happy combination. Here black-eyed Susans mingle with Verbena bonariensis against a backdrop of stipa grasses. See more in Gardening 101: Black-Eyed Susans. Photograph by Amanda Slater via Flickr.

Before getting into the details of how to grow verbena, one point bears clearing up. The verbena I am talking about, a genus of about 250 species of ornamental annuals and perennials, is not the same thing as lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). They are related, distant cousins that are both members of the Verbenaceae family, but they are totally different plants. Lemon verbena is useful—but not known for its beauty, being rather scrawny and producing small, unexceptional flowers. Its claim to fame is that it has traditionally been widely used in natural remedies, cosmetics, teas, and cooking.

See more of this verbena in In the Garden with Philippa: Brit Style with a Black Backdrop. Photograph by Jim Powell.
Above: See more of this verbena in In the Garden with Philippa: Brit Style with a Black Backdrop. Photograph by Jim Powell.

Ornamental verbena plants, on the other hand, are prized for their long-lasting, brilliantly colored blooms and attractive foliage. Many hybrids have been developed and these plants come in a range of sizes and colors, with vigorous clusters of tiny, five-petaled flowers in red, pink, white, mauve, lavender, blue, purple, and apricot. Verbenas are native to a number of regions around the world. Those from North America and Europe tend to be perennial in our climate, while the varieties from South and Central America are usually cultivated here as annuals. Both types will bloom reliably from late spring to fall.

Verbena &#8
Above: Verbena ‘Annie’. Photograph by Patrick Standish via Flickr.

Cheat Sheet

  • Short varieties such as Verbena canadensis ‘Homestead Purple’, V. ambrosifolia (now known as Glandularia bipinnatifida) and moss verbena (V. tenuisecta) make excellent decorative ground covers.
  • Tender perennial verbenas (V. hortensis) tend to be somewhat taller (up to 18 inches) and are upright or bushy and work well in containers, twining around their companions and spilling over the sides of hanging baskets and window boxes.
  • Verbena attracts butterflies, bumblebees, and hummingbirds but is resistant to deer and rabbits.
  • This plant works well combined with other sun lovers such as marigolds, petunias, calibrachoas, angelonias, geraniums, and snapdragons.
Photograph by Gareth Williams via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Gareth Williams via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • Verbena is best planted in bright sun in USDA zones 7 to 10.
  • Soil can be poor but must be well-draining.
  • Be careful not to crowd plants; verbena requires good air circulation to prevent the buildup of excess humidity.
  • Water requirements are moderate (about an inch per week) and established plants are somewhat drought tolerant—but shouldn’t be allowed to dry out completely.
  • Pinch back verbenas to encourage continual bloom.
See more of this garden in Design Sleuth: Town Garden in Stoke Newington, London. Photograph courtesy of Anna Wardrop Garden Design.
Above: See more of this garden in Design Sleuth: Town Garden in Stoke Newington, London. Photograph courtesy of Anna Wardrop Garden Design.

One popular tall variety is Verbena bonariensis, a tender perennial that is native to Brazil and can grow as high as 4.5 feet. It self-seeds and goes well with prairie-style plantings, particularly grasses. Pairing it with bronze fennel will increase this verbena’s allure for butterflies and other pollinators. It is frequently recommended for the back of the border but doesn’t really have to reside there because, although it is tall, its form is so delicate that it does not block shorter plants behind it.

My friend Katherine Powis grows her Verbena bonariensis in pots near the back porch of her upstate home. She says she has chosen that location close to the house so she can watch these dainty, lanky specimens dance in the breeze. Her plants bear small pink flowers, but lavender blooms are also common. Verbena bonariensis can be prone to flopping over, especially if it doesn’t get enough sun. A possible solution is to use one of the shorter, sturdier hybrids such as ‘Lollipop’ or ‘Meteor Shower’.

In the northeast, most verbenas cannot survive the cold winters outside. Grow them as annuals, taking stem cuttings for next spring’s plants, or overwinter them inside if you have a sunny cool spot that can be kept to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Verbena is such a vigorous, cheery plant—who wouldn’t want it close by when the weather turns gray and cold?

See more growing tips in Verbenas: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated Garden Design 101 guides to Perennials and Annuals. Read more:

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