How to Care for Verbena Plants

Verbena bonariensis, Prague 2011.

 Karelj/Wikimedia Commons

Gardeners looking for a flowering annual with a long blooming time and an ability to attract butterflies should consider the reliable verbena. This versatile plant comes in varieties that range from vivid trailing plants to add copious blooms to hanging baskets, to six-foot tall cottage garden accent plants.

A Verbena for all Sites

Because there are so many types of plants in the Verbena genus, gardeners may be confused about which are perennial and which are annual. Common names that are bantered about include vervain, herb of the cross, and holywort. Size can vary greatly between varieties, ranging from six-inch groundcovers to six-foot plants.​

The perennial type, Verbena canadensis, tend to fade away after a few seasons. Brazilian verbena plants may self-sow freely, fooling the gardener into thinking that the plant has returned as a perennial. And then there is the ‘Superbina’ series, which may be a short-lived perennial in zones 7 or 8. If you live in a warm climate and want to try your luck at growing verbenas as a perennial, ask your local county extension agent for a variety recommendation.

Verbena Planting Tips

You can start verbena from seed and from cuttings, or for quicker results start with transplants. If growing from seed, keep seed covered and moist until germination occurs, which takes about three weeks. 

Verbenas demand a full sun location. Plants growing in low light areas will bloom poorly if at all and will be susceptible to powdery mildew and insect pests.

After choosing a sunny area of your landscape, make sure your soil has adequate drainage for your verbenas. Heavy clay will lead to root rot, so dig in several shovelfuls of compost or leaf mold to lighten your soil. Keep plants evenly moist until established, when they can tolerate some dry spells.

Verbena Care

Verbena is somewhat drought tolerant, and it certainly doesn’t like boggy conditions, but you must not under water it either. Soggy plants will succumb to botrytis blight, but drought-stressed plants will attract spider mites. Water verbena as you might your lawn, with an inch of rain or irrigation each week.

All verbenas benefit greatly from regular deadheading. This not only removes the seed heads that signal the plant to rest but also helps to keep sprawling plants in their place in your landscape. If you have a large planting of low-growing verbena, you can accomplish this quickly with a string trimmer.

Verbenas aren’t heavy feeders, but they do appreciate a monthly application of balanced flower fertilizer to help them keep up the flower show, which can last from spring until frost.

If your verbenas show signs of insect pest infestation, you will have to balance your desire to use an insecticide with your desire to nourish your butterfly population. If you do decide to spray, remember that plants grown in shade or heavy soil will continue to attract pests. Insecticide doesn’t fix poor gardening practices.

Verbena in the Garden

Use trailing varieties in hanging baskets, containers, and at the edge of flower borders. Plant trailing verbena with complementary flowers that appreciate the same growing conditions, like million bells, penta flowers, and marigolds. 

All types of verbena are welcome in the butterfly garden. Tall varieties belong in the cottage garden, naturalized meadow, or back of the border. A companion planting of bronze fennel with tall verbena is the perfect way to support a butterfly's life cycle, as swallowtail butterflies like to feed on the bronze fennel foliage, and the adults are nourished by the nectar-rich verbena flowers.

Verbena is both a deer and rabbit resistant plant, so take advantage of this by planting at the edge of your property where animals frequently browse. 

Verbena Types to Try

Verbena plants are available in a variety of heights and a range of colors that cover the pink, red, and purple spectrum. All of the plants bear clusters of shallow flowers that butterflies find irresistible. Many plants have lacy or needle-like foliage. Verbena plants have a rich history in herbal medicine and are still used as a remedy for digestive ills and insomnia.

  • Blue Vervain: The native Verbena hastata has a tall airy habit with bluish-purple flowers.
  • Bonariensis: The popular Brazilian species, growing up to six feet tall and self-seeding freely. Grow as a perennial in zones 7 and warmer; attracts butterflies in droves. Also, try the compact improvements on Bonariensis verbena, including 'Lollipop' and 'Meteor Shower.' 
  • Greystone Daphne: Fragrant lilac colored flowers on trailing plants.
  • Homestead Purple: Popular in trade, a purple flowering groundcover that performs throughout the growing season. A short-lived perennial in zones 6 and warmer.
  • Lanai Royal Purple with Eye: Bright purple with contrasting white eye.
  • Taipen series: A moss verbena type with fine, needle-like foliage
  • Texas Rose: A short-lived groundcover perennial with reddish-pink flowers