Sunday, July 24, 2011

Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, CA

Mention Annie’s Annuals to any garden enthusiast in the Bay Area or Sacramento, and they get a dreamy look on their face. I had never been there before, but I’d been drooling over their catalog and web site for years. Located in Richmond in the East Bay, Annie’s Annuals is less than an hour from my house, but it took a visit from my plant-loving mother to get off my duff and go.

Davis was basking under a perfect blue sky when we left, but when we got to Richmond, the area was shrouded in high fog and temperatures were in the low 60s, 20 degrees lower than at home. Richmond gets this kind of fog quite frequently in the summer, and it contributes to what is one of the best growing climates in the entire state. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing and rarely go above 90. No wonder the plants at Annie’s Annuals looked perfect. They truly are in paradise there.

Virtually all plants Annie’s Annuals are in 4-inch containers and were grown at the nursery, typically from seed. Prices at the nursery range from $4.50 to $10.50 and are appreciably lower than on their web site (which is understandable, considering how labor-intensive picking, packaging and shipping is). The nursery is in a less-than-picturesque part of town, but considering how expensive land is in the Bay Area, I didn’t expect it to be any different. Having been to many nurseries over the years, including many who seem to care little for plants or for customers, I would give Annie’s Annuals a full 10 out of 10 as far as cleanliness, health of the plants, display, and especially labeling is concerned. It is very obvious that the nursery is run by people who love plants and who want to make sure their customers know what they’re getting. I wouldn’t be able to name a nursery that is better organized than Annie’s Annuals. For plant lovers, it doesn’t get better than this!

Looking toward the parking lot from right inside the entrance
I love the lavishly landscaped garden rooms…
…and the whimsical garden art
Teetering on the edge of tacky, but still this side of cool
I never used to be a dahlia fan, but seeing this type of dahlias with lots of smaller flowers could make a convert, especially after reading a recent post on Alternative Eden
Every nursery needs a cow!

Annie’s Annuals has a large selection of smaller succulents, with a heavy focus on aeoniums—Canary Island natives that thrive in the mild Bay Area climate. While our aeoniums at home are in their summer dormancy and look a bit ratty, the ones at Annie’s Annuals were picture perfect.

Aeonium ‘Sunburst’
Fantastic succulent combination featuring purple dyckia, aeonium and a mat-forming ice plant (Delosperma nubigenum)
Aeonium species and Delosperma nubigenum
A rare crested form of Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)
Pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata var. orbiculata)

To my delight, I found a handful of different Puya species. Puyas are terrestrial bromeliads, just like the pineapple whose fruit we all love. They are native to South and Central America—many of them from Chile—and produce remarkable flowers once mature. Today I bought a Puya mirabilis, the smallest puya and the quickest to bloom, to go with the Puya coerulea I’d bought earlier this year at a UC Davis Arboretum plant sale.

Sapphire tower (Puya alpestris). The flowers on this puya are a bluish turquoise color with a metallic sheen that looks unreal. Like all puyas, this species forms a dense mound of overlapping rosettes with spiny leaves.
Close-up of Puya alpestris flowers. The silvery leaves in the background belong to a Puya laxa.

Annie’s Annuals also carries a large selection of exotic plants that aren’t succulents, especially from South Africa. Since our climate is very similar to that of South Africa, many South African natives do really well here. Before my next trip, I will do more research in advance and come prepared with a wish list!


Berkheya cirsiifolia.
This stunning flower grows on top of a wickedly spiny stem. Not a user-friendly plant, but beautiful and exotic and hence very desirable to me.
Senecio cristobalensis.
I almost bought this Mexican native but couldn’t think of a space in our garden that would be big enough to accommodate its mature size (8 ft. tall x 6 ft. wide). But what a statement it makes! Fuzzy leaves, too. Hardy into the high teens.

An entire section of the nursery is dedicated to California natives. It was astounding to see the selection they carry, ranging from large shrubs like flannel bush and ceanothus to small succulents like Dudleya and Lewisia.

Datura metel ‘Belle Blanche’. Daturas are considered weeds by some and they can look gangly in their native desert environment, but with richer soil and regular water they are stunning.
Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Native to many parts of California, they are manna to Monarch butterflies. The flower heads are very showy and fragrant, too. Likes poor, dry soil. I’m thinking of creating an area just for milkweeds in our garden to attract more butterflies.
Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset’. A small succulent from California and the Pacific Northwest (the rosette is about 5 inches across), the flowers are truly spectacular.
Another lewisia with longer and more narrow petals (Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Plum’)
California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in a range of colors
Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief’, my favorite poppy color

The range of colors, shapes and textures was simply astounding. While I typically gravitate towards drought-tolerant perennials that are at home in xeric or Mediterranean gardens, I spent quite a bit of time looking at perennials and annuals more typically found in cottage gardens.

Variety of flowering perennials and annuals planted in larger pots so customers can see what the small 4-inch plants they buy will look like
Yellow fig-leaved hollyhock (Alcea rugosa). Unlike the common biennial hollyhock, this Russia native is perennial and blooms from summer through fall. Now I wish I had bought one…
Convolvulus tricolor ‘Royal Ensign’. These flowers are like a beacon that you can see from a hundred feet away!
Cosmidium x burridgeanum 'Brunette'. One of the showiest cosmos I’ve ever seen. An annual, but reseeds.

Considering the smorgasbord laid out in front of me this morning, I had a hard time reeling myself in. While in hindsight it’s clear that I shouldn’t have been quite as conservative, especially considering that Annie’s Annuals is almost an hour away, I only bought seven plants. They’re all very different, though, and fill niches in our garden—including some niches that were created by me buying them :-).


My haul this morning. It includes three succulents (Dudleya pulverulenta, Puya mirabilis, Aeonium hierrense), a native lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), a sweet black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), a coral-colored perennial from Uruguay (Dicipliptera suberecta), and a rare palm-leaved begonia from Brazil that will be confined to a pot because it needs protection in the winter (Begonia luxurians)


  1. OK, this is on my 'bucket list.' Don't normally make trips to Richmond, CA, but might have to make an exception here. If you are getting a Puya alpestris, let me know, I might be bold enough to ask you to buy one for me. Simply beautiful!


  2. Sean, they were out of Puya alpestris, but they did have Puya berteroniana, which is pretty darn stunning, too (albeit bigger). I'll definitely get a Puya alpestris once it's back in stock; I'll be happy to pick up one for you.

  3. I've seen a few segments with Annie on the now-gone "Gardening by the yard", but had never known anyone who actually visited before. Glad to have your account of it.

    Those Puya alpestris flowers are amazing. I don't think I could have limited myself to only 7 plants. Strange that you use availability of planting space as one of the criteria for purchasing plants. ;-)

  4. I was wondering why you wouldn't buy a plant with turquoise flowers until I read they were out of it! Just amazing. There is nothing quite like going to a special nursery.

  5. Alan, I used to watch Gardening by the Yard but I missed the segments with Annie Hayes. She wasn't there yesterday, otherwise I would have loved to say hi.

    Lilafee, Annie's Annuals' web site says that Puya alpestris isn't in production at the moment. I think I'll e-mail them to see when they might have more. The flowers are unlike anything I've ever seen.

  6. Annie's rocks! They've got such a great eye for unusual plants, and are wizards at growing. Their free classes are always fun, too!

  7. Someday I will make my way there. What a wonderful place. I actually just received a plant from them that I ordered. I would like to see all those awesome aeoniums and that sapphire puya is such an amazing color. Great photos Gerhard!

  8. What an interesting place Gerhard! I quite like the mannequin, very quirky! And lovely selection of succulents too, including the purple Dyckia (Morris Hobbs perhaps?).

    Well selected seven plants btw, and you'll definitely love the Begonia luxurians once it starts to get going, huge beautiful leaves :)

  9. Candy, Annie's is less than 10 minutes from the freeway, so the next time you drive into SF on I-80, stop by. Don't wait as long as I did :-)

    Mark and Gaz, I loved that purple dyckia but it wasn't labeled. Oddly, Annie's doesn't have any dyckias in their current inventory. What is your experience with Begonia luxurians? Any growing tips? How does it handle life in a container? It's too cold here in the winter to have it planted out.

  10. Update from Annie's about Puya alpestris: "[It] has proven to be tricky coming true from seed and since it takes a good long while to bloom, we didn't want to take the risk of having plants bloom green instead of turquoise (gah!). So, for now, we've taken it out of production until we can agree on a way to propagate it otherwise."