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Originally published Friday, June 11, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Crazy tall! 10 flowers that reach for the stars

A flower bed of 4-, 5- or 6-foot plants can be functional and rewarding — and quite an attention-getter as well. Here's a list of tall flowers to try.

Chicago Tribune

For the longest time, tall plants have been relegated to the back of the garden, up against a fence or off to a corner, shunted aside like that 6-foot seventh-grader who was always in the last row for class photos.

But a flower bed of 4-, 5- or 6-foot plants can be functional and rewarding — and quite an attention-getter as well.

"One of my friends calls them 55-mile-an-hour plants," says Justin W. Hancock, a Better Homes and Gardens garden editor since 2003 and now the senior garden editor for the magazine's website (bhg.com). "They catch your attention even when you're flying down the highway at 55 miles an hour."

Hancock says that some gardeners can be intimidated by tall plants, assuming there's extra work involved because they all need to be staked. That may be true for some varieties, such as delphiniums, but not others, such as sunflowers and cannas.

"Another thing I like about them is privacy," Hancock says. "They're a great way to screen views, especially if you live in some of these suburban areas where your neighbors' deck is 10 feet from yours. You don't have room for a hedge. You don't want to put in a fence. But some of these taller perennials will give you nice coverage over the summer season and into the fall."

Even if a gardener does think big, finding the right tall plants can be a challenge. "I think (interest) is diminishing," Hancock says. "It's so much easier to ship compact plants. Put them on the truck, they're damaged less. So more and more plant breeders are trying to get their plants smaller and smaller."

Still, there are enough large flowers available to put on a flashy show (and many even grow better from seed, making them a great value too). Here are a few:

Boltonia: This underused North American native, a member of the aster family, looks a lot like an aster, with white or pink flowers. It can grow, shrublike, to 6 feet. "It puts on a huge show in the late summer, fall," Hancock says. "It's the aster on steroids." Full sun.

Butterfly bush: A butterfly bush can grow to 5 or 6 feet — 7 in a good season. They attract butterflies and other insects as well as hummingbirds, drawn to their pink, white, purple or blue flowers. Full sun.

Canna: Big leaves and boldly colored flowers (red, orange, yellow or pink) add drama to a garden. "It's not hard to get them to grow to 5, 6, 7 or 8 feet," Hancock says. "The tallest one is C. 'Musafolia,' and that can get to 12 feet in a season if it's happy, in a warm, moist spot." These are tropical plants, so gardeners here will have to dig and store the rhizomes in a cool, dry place, or simply treat them like annuals. Full sun.

Cleome: Also known as spider flowers, these annuals grow up to 6 feet tall and have distinctive pink, white or purple flowers. They're easy to grow from seed. "They look so much like fireworks to me," Hancock says. "Why wouldn't you want to grow it? They're wonderful in attracting hummingbird moths. And they give off a really nice fragrance at night." Full sun.

Cosmos: This delicate-looking flower with its fernlike leaves is tough as nails and easy to grow from seed. Their lacy look makes them great filler plants too. Cosmos need full sun, but will thrive in ordinary soil. Butterflies and bees love them. Sensation is just one of the taller varieties, topping out at 4 feet.

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Delphinium: A summer garden staple, they grow to 6 feet and have beautiful blooms that attract butterflies. Hancock calls them "probably the most majestic, eye-catching of the big perennials." He also says they're one of the fussiest. "Delphiniums like really rich soil to produce those good-size blooms, but the plants themselves are often short-lived." Full sun to partial shade.

Hollyhock: Tall, colorful and old-fashioned, they need sun and moisture and will grow to 6 feet or more. Many varieties die off after two years, "but happily they often self-seed, so you plant the seeds once and let the seeds on the plants drop, and you'll never have to plant them again. You see old farmsteads that have been abandoned for 20 years that still have stands of hollyhocks."

Joe-Pye weed: Another perennial, it does well (7 feet) in moist soil and has a flat top clustered with flowers. "It's an A-plus plant for attracting butterflies," says Hancock. Full sun but can tolerate some light shade.

Sunflower: If you want them really tall, buy one of the older varieties. "Breeders have really been working on compact varieties with all of those colors," Hancock says. "Some of the newer ones have great branching, so you can get a dozen flowers per plant instead of just the one big one on top." Still, what's more impressive than a 10- or 15-foot-tall plant with a basketball-size flower on top? Some of the taller varieties: American Giant Hybrid, Mammoth and Skyscraper. Full sun.

Zinnia: Keeping with recent trends, these popular annuals have been downsized in a search for compact, more disease-resistant varieties. But the 4-footers still have a lot to offer: They're easy to grow from seed, are colorful and keep producing till frost. Taller varieties include State Fair, California Giant, My Lucky Ladies and Big Red.

GROWING AND LEARNING

Many of these flowers are sold at garden centers and nurseries as seedlings and seeds. Web sites to visit include Burpee (burpee.com), Ferry-Morse Seed Co. (ferry-morse.com), Park Seed (parkseed.com), White Flower Farm (whiteflowerfarm.com) and Hirt's Gardens (hirts.com).

For additional gardening information, visit the Web sites of the National Gardening Association (garden.org) and The Gardener's Network (gardenersnet.com).

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