Lists of plants that are fun to grow outdoors are easy to find on the internet. But many of these lists focus on weird plants that hail from the tropics. I have nothing against these strange and amazing specimens (in fact, I include one of them in my top ten picks below), but those of us who garden in cold climates must either grow them exclusively as houseplants or worry about bringing them indoors when summer ends.
Happily, there are plenty of cold-hardy plants that are fun to grow outdoors, and those are the ones I focus on in this article. You will especially appreciate the choices I list below if you are the type of gardener who habitually observes your plants "up-close and personal." Indeed, to derive maximum satisfaction from these fascinating plants, you have to be at your most observant during their peak seasons. I have chosen them because their flower or foliage changes in a dramatic fashion, but you will miss out on the drama if you fail to show up in time for the performance.
01 of 11
Some gardeners say they object to the smell of crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). I do not mind admitting that I find this objection puzzling. I am more than willing to hold my nose as I lap up the dazzling color of this entertaining spring bulb plant.
Sow the bulbs in fall, then get ready to behold the show in spring. This tall plant is great fun to watch as the flower buds start to open. The flowers are big, so there is lots of drama.
02 of 11
Northern Pitcher Plant
Northern or "purple" pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea) is a fascinating specimen that I grow in my mini-pond. I list it as one of the best plants to grow in small water gardens because it packs a ton of fun into a small frame. Despite its name (which alludes to the pitcher-shaped leaf structures it produces), it is for its flowers that I include it in the present list. Click the picture to read the article to learn about the show put on by the pitcher plant's unusual bloom.
03 of 11
Alliums (AKA "Flowering Onions")
Alliums are better-known than some of the other entries on this list. Their secret is out: the alliums with big flower heads are fun plants to grow. The type in the picture, named 'Ambassador,' is an example. Another is Allium schubertii, which looks ever so much like fireworks shooting off. Even the dried seedheads of these bulb plants are cool.
04 of 11
Snake lily (Amorphophallus konjac) was the one concession to the tropics that I made in my top ten list. It was just too much fun to grow to pass up. In fact, it puts on not one, but two can't-miss shows annually:
- The dramatic development of its spathe and spadix (photo) during its blooming period in spring (when, by the way, it is incredibly stinky).
- And the equally weird and vigorous emergence of its foliage in summer.
And no, in case you're wondering, I did not get that backwards: this weirdo flowers in spring, then dies back for a while, then shoots up a solitary, enormous leaf for the summer.
This is not the only species in the Amorphophallus genus. An even bigger member is the titan arum (A. titanum). A strange plant of a different genus but in the same family (namely, the arum family) is Dracunculus vulgaris, which shares not only the common name of "snake lily" with A. konjac but also various other names, including "voodoo lily." All three represent the ultimate in fun if what you're most interested in is unusual specimens.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Mayapple, or "American Mandrake"
An unusual plant native to my own neck of the woods (New England, U.S.) is Mayapple. It is not nearly as bizarre as snake lily, but apparently others have also noticed its odd qualities, because an alternate common name for it is "American mandrake." What is the significance of that name? It echoes "European mandrake," a peculiar plant whose freaky roots sometimes take on a human form.
Mayapple is primarily fun to grow not because of the "apple" it eventually produces, but on account of the show it puts on when it first pushes up through the ground in spring. If I had to give the performance a name, I would dub it "The Opening of the Umbrellas" (read my article to find out what I mean by that). This play is performed at breakneck speed, so do not be caught off-guard. It's definitely a case of, "If you snooze, you lose."
06 of 11
Bleeding hearts, especially the classic type (Dicentra spectabilis), are a fun plant to grow because of their unusually-shaped flowers. They are well-suited to gardeners who are admirers of the whimsical. Another selling point for them is that they bloom for a reasonably long time, so you do not have to worry about "missing the show" due to your absence from the yard for a few days (as with Mayapple).
07 of 11
The only vine on my list, what makes 'Arctic Beauty' kiwi special is the transformation of its foliage in spring from something ordinary to something so extraordinary that you will have neighbors stopping by to ask, "Is that color real?" Need I say more?
08 of 11
Secret Lust Coneflower
'Secret Lust' is a cultivar of Echinacea. It undergoes a color transformation of its own, but here, unlike with kiwi vine, it is the flower color that transforms, and the change takes place in summer. This perennial is a fun plant to grow not only to observe the color change from orange to pink, but also to admire its wacky hairdo, as shown in my picture.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
Italian bugloss (Anchusa azurea) is another perennial with an evolving flower color. Pink and blue coloration can appear on the flowers at the same time. Other plants are bicolored in this way (for example, Pulmonaria and Virginia bluebells), but Italian bugloss puts on a better show because it is a taller plant (one of the tallest perennials).
10 of 11
Like snake lily (see above), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is in the arum family and bears a spathe and spadix in spring. But this is a much smaller plant than its stinky arum relative. Moreover, it is not tropical, being native to eastern North America. It also offers something that snake lily does not: the bright red berries shown in my image.
11 of 11
In the picture I show the pod of the Chinese lantern plant. You can dry these pods and use them in crafts (for instance, insert them in fall wreaths for instant color). Why does such a whimsical wonder not make my top ten list? Because these are invasive plants in North America. I advise growing them in containers, to restrict their spread.
Here are some other honorable mentions. Included in my list are some of those tropical plants I mentioned that can be used outdoors in the North only during the summertime (some are more typically grown as houseplants):