Hybridizers have brought great joy to gardeners over the years, with such ubiquitous delights as 'Stella D'Oro' daylilies, 'Big Boy' tomatoes, pink daffodils and many kinds of hosta.
The marvelous thing is that they keep on working. Every winter, mailboxes fill with gardening catalogs promoting the charms of new, improved plants. Here are a few to watch for this year.
* Zinnias are so colorful that it's hard to get excited about new color schemes, but the 'Swizzle' hybrids are worth a look. The petals begin a deeper color, then change to a starkly different color toward the ends. One, called 'Swizzle Cherry and Ivory,' is reminiscent of a cactus dahlia, with petals starting deep red, turning to pure white at the ends. It's a more subtle zinnia that would look great as a bedding plant. It grows just 10 to 12 inches high and can be grown from seed.
* Two Celosia plumosa hybrids won 2004 All-America Selection honors. 'Fresh Look Red' and 'Fresh Look Yellow' feature huge plumes complemented by upward-reaching, dark-green leaves. It sends up new plumes to hide fading older blooms, a good low-maintenance feature. It also can be grown from seed.
* Another winner this year is a short annual hollyhock, 'Queeny Purple.' The size is one attraction, as it grows just 20 to 30 inches tall, making it easier to fit into smaller gardens. Its flower is the other. It's called the first purple hollyhock, but from my view the color seems more like cerise. The flowers are frilly, 3 to 4 inches wide, and have a central peony-like crest that's different from most hollyhocks. It should be available as seed or plants.
* Verbascum 'Banana Custard' grows to 4 feet tall and sends up a broad spike bearing hundreds of bright, clear-yellow flowers. It's a biennial, so you'll have to wait a year for results, but it could be a great plant in cottage garden designs.
* Daylily breeders are busy as usual. One introduction that caught my eye was 'Garden Symphony,' which is exclusive to Roy G. Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm of Avalon, Wis. Where so much of daylily breeding is leaning toward the brash or bizarre, 'Garden Symphony' is an elegant tapestry of peach, yellow and lavender with strongly frilled margins. Exclusivity has its price, however: 'Garden Symphony' will cost $150 for one bare root plant. (Song Sparrow Perennial Farm, www.songsparrow.com or 800-553-3715)
* Gardeners might take note of a new magnolia, 'Sunsation.' The selling point here is an unusually late bloom period, meaning there is less chance that frost will brown the creamy yellow flowers, which are tinted light rose toward the base. The tree grows to about 25 feet, and is purportedly hardy to USDA Zone 4.
The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.